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sprawl suburbs
April 30, 2004 11:42 PM   Subscribe

Boom! A master planned community. Boom! A big-box mall! Our Sprawling, Supersize Utopia. This article, by New York Times columnist David Brooks, takes a look at exploding suburbs and exurban migration. This migration is nothing new, author Joel Garreau wrote extensively about it in his 1991 book Edge Cities. The phenomonon really took off after World War II, during the period of post war prosperity, and is best represented by this famous postwar American suburb. A veritable army of "suburban sprawl critics" has emerged over the years including Jane Jacobs and James Howard Knunstler plus many others including some who are predicting the immenent demise of suburbs because of oil depletion. For Brooks the critics of suburbs "just regurgitate the same critiques decade after decade, regardless of the suburban reality flowering around them" but you can't dismiss what the architect Paolo Soleri says about American society that "we have a society that is moving very rapidly to the super-, super-, super-consumptive."
posted by thedailygrowl (28 comments total)

 
To be fair and balanced, there are real people who actually prefer the suburban lifestyle, and they aren't all right wing kooks. Randal O'Toole for one.
posted by calwatch at 12:30 AM on May 1, 2004


I like how it's "super-, super-, super-consumptive". Of course there's those poor people who can get by on "super-, super-consumptive", but we really need that third super. You just don't feel right without it.
posted by fvw at 12:49 AM on May 1, 2004


But what are the alternatives? Maybe its time to start populating those secret underground cities? Or maybe expand beyond the Earth. A new life awaits us in the off world colonies.
posted by Meridian at 2:03 AM on May 1, 2004


Ok, all of us who ever thought the suburbs were dull should apologize. The suburban life is pretty exciting with all those conversations "on the merits and demerits of Corian countertops" and all that "ample parking" with which "you can drive diagonally across acres of empty parking spaces on your way from Bed, Bath & Beyond to Linens 'n Things."
posted by gregb1007 at 4:53 AM on May 1, 2004


> you can't dismiss what the architect Paolo Soleri says about American society

Those things Soleri designed are the ultimate megamalls. You even live there, you never have to leave.


> immenent demise of suburbs because of oil depletion.

We can hope. But I'm afraid it's just wishful thinking.
posted by jfuller at 6:04 AM on May 1, 2004


> (because people with progressive politics have a strange penchant for toe exhibitionism).

From the first link in the post. My favorite quote of the week.
posted by jfuller at 6:20 AM on May 1, 2004


This article is really nothing more than a valentine to people who already live in suburbia, an attempt to help them feel like they and their lifestyles are not as insipid as the cool kids would have you think. But whether suburbs are bleak or dull and geared toward hyperconsumerism, or whether some people really prefer to live there is pretty irrelevant. Not to be too much of an alarmist, but I tend to think that all it would take is a slightly prolonged interruption in the oil supply to make us profoundly regret the way we've built up our suburbs and exurbs. Visit most of America's suburbs and you'll quickly notice that the prospect of walking or biking somewhere is kind of a sick joke.

Sometimes when duty prevails upon me to participate in the big-box stampede at one of Denver's many suburban retail gulags, I like to thwart the overwhelmingly car-centric design and walk from one store to the other. To walk from, say, a BestBuy to an OfficeMax, two stores that are nominally "next to each other," is often a 15-minute gauntlet through ocean-sized parking lots, dodging Hummers and Dodge Tritons. My favorite part of the exercise is that "who is this fucking derelict?" look on their faces that people in cars get when they see someone attempting to walk in an area that is built up entirely in the service of driving.

Anyway, when global oil production inevitably declines, it's gonna suck to fill up the tank at 3-4-5 bucks a gallon to drive 40 miles to work each day or 5 miles to the "corner store."
posted by yalestar at 6:26 AM on May 1, 2004


There was a time when any number of authors (fiction) would badmouth the suburbs--a fine example, Richard Yates, Revoluitionary Road...I had pointed out that in just about every case, the writers were single, or separated, and living in a city. Too much? easy: Malthus plus fair economy=huge move to suburbs, search for good schools, land of one's own.

Friend always annoyed by pop growth. I pointed out that he had two kids and his two had 2 and three each. He did not complain about s-reading his genes but only when others did so.
posted by Postroad at 7:16 AM on May 1, 2004


> My favorite part of the exercise is that "who is this fucking derelict?" look on
> their faces that people in cars get when they see someone attempting to
> walk in an area that is built up entirely in the service of driving.

You can usually get away with it by putting on short shorts and expensive-looking running shoes and running, or helmet and spandex bike pants and riding with your butt in the air. You then become a known, non-threatening sort of suburban weirdo and not just some carless (hence probably homeless) person.


> when global oil production inevitably declines,

the ecofreaks and fitness buffs of that era will thank us for disposing of all this nasty petro-goo and tilting the game in their favor.
posted by jfuller at 7:49 AM on May 1, 2004


I find it interesting that Brooks wants to try to link the phenomenon of low density exurban sprawl to some innately American culture, when Canada and Australia have exactly the same phenomenon with very different political cultures.

Last night I was able to describe the suburbs of Willmington, North Carolina to someone from there, despite the fact I have never been there. I just said - "Let me guess, huge houses of tacky pink or grey brick, spread out on flat lawns browning in the sun?" What I was describing were new subdivisions in the Greater Toronto Area.

So Brooks' explanations of why were unconvincing, to say the least. The question is - what is driving these moves? Lower housing prices, beliefs that these communities are safer or have better schools - but these could all be achieved in medium density but still middle class suburbs. They would be safer, in fact, since there would be more people on the street to watch out for each other's kids. And who would prefer shopping somewhere where you have to cross the baked, dirty football field of a parking lot just to go to more than one store in one trip? Because parking is still hard enough to find that I can't imagine anyone would get back in their car just to go across the parking lot.

So who are the brains behind the mega-sprawl? Are there any? Or is this the result of our just not thinking about how we make our built spaces work?
posted by jb at 8:43 AM on May 1, 2004


Nowhere in that article did I see even the faintest treatment of the idea that some people live in the suburbs because they want to get out of the city. He conveniently doesn't talk about cities much...nor does he talk about the clean air, safety, and low cost of living you can find in many suburbs. Is there something inherently shallow about wanting to be away from a city? Is a "Rainforest Cafe" somehow more hypocritical, more of a sick idealogical illusion, when the cafe is in a suburb of Phoenix than when it's in the middle of Manhattan?

I'm sure that to someone who has spent their whole life in a big city, the idea of a parking lot big enough to have a parade in, or drive diagonally across without fear of collision, probably seems wasteful. But that land is cheap, and it's not likely that any homes or businesses were displaced in order to build it.

An examination of why this guy has such a mental block against understanding why people want to escape danger, grime, crowds, and a high cost of living would have been more interesting than this article.

caveat: I'm from the midwest, and I live in New York.

on preview: jb, your blind description, applied to where I'm from, would be wrong. And while, as I said above, there are certainly a lot of large parking lots, your suggestion that having to cross one every time you want to go to a new store is not really reflective of reality (although it is reflective of the author of the article's lack of reflection of reality). There are enclaves of shops. Not just indoor malls, not just strip malls, but cute little shopping neighborhoods that you can park close to and walk around in. They are not exciting, but they are nice. And they are most likely to be found in the sort of "exburbs" that the author talks about. This fantasy about a family piling into an SUV and then trekking across the entire suburb, maybe more than one, to go shopping, or to do anything, really, is not accurate either. Suburbs are not just rows of identical houses and parking lots bigger than football fields. And just because you don't have a grocery store right down the street doesn't mean that there isn't one within a reasonable driving distance (like, say, five minutes...you can ride your bike if you really want to, no one will shoot you).
posted by bingo at 9:57 AM on May 1, 2004 [1 favorite]


A couple of points, and answers to questions:

1. Who are the brains behind the mega-sprawl? Well, I don't have a full answer to that, but I can tell you that the brains behind the box-mall belong to Victor Gruen.

2. All this is quite good, but I'm becoming convinced that if you want to understand the suburbs, you'll need to read Cheever, Updike, and Ford.

3. To see a related conversation we've already had about Paolo Soleri, see here.
posted by .kobayashi. at 10:16 AM on May 1, 2004


> Who are the brains behind the mega-sprawl?

What a question. Drop a drop of oil on the surface of a bowl of water and see if it spreads out or clumps together. It's central tendency that needs explanation, not the tendency to spread out. Without particular countervailing forces, things tend to spread out until they're evenly distributed.

The centralizing pressure that created cities was economic, and was simply that there was no way to make a living in the country unless you were a farmer. That centralizing pressure having been removed, spread happens. It will happen in Mongolia, trust me.
posted by jfuller at 10:53 AM on May 1, 2004


bingo -- it would be more productive to try to improve livability in cities than abandon them. Exurbia is immensely, unbelievably expensive, but much of the cost is indirectly subsidised (interstate highway system, govt. help for oil companies) or paid in other ways (4-hour-a-day commutes). There should be economic incentives that reflect the real economic (and social, which is economic in the end) costs, as there are in other countries. Drops of oil aren't people, jfuller, and that example is hardly universal even for inanimate matter (the solar system isn't exactly evenly filled with stuff).

And residents of suburbia are more unhappy, statistically, than similar-income city-dwellers; moving from hermatically sealed box to hermatically sealed box isn't particularly fulfilling; it's much better to step outside and see people you know, to be able to read or talk throughout your commute, to be part of the environment. Stuff like this gets dismissed as academic blathering but I think it's important.

For a country that prides itself (fairly or not) on reflecting
posted by Tlogmer at 11:06 AM on May 1, 2004


Oops. Well, I think I said everything important.
posted by Tlogmer at 11:07 AM on May 1, 2004


I was not speaking from the position of someone who has always lived in a dense urban area. I grew up in the sprawling suburbs. I have had to live with crossing those huge parking lots just to buy some groceries or go to the local Goodwill. My description was based on the memory - dust from the highway, cigarette butts, litter, the sun beating down with no hope of shade. I am very glad that your area did not suffer from this. Even in Toronto proper, box stores surrounded by huge parking lots are chasing away the malls and strip malls, which look Rockwellian in comparison - anyone who would like to tour the dirtier, dustier side of Toronto (I have never found suburbs to be cleaner or have better air - usually worse, from the large roads and highways) could begin at the corner of Weston and the 401. One can walk between some of the stores there, albeit on a two foot wide sidewalk clinging to the side of the building that also has no pedestrian connections to the street (where the bus stop is) or to the other collection of stores. Instead, you dash through the unregulated parking lot traffic, horns blaring at you for not being on the sidewalk that doesn't exist.

Perhaps my perspective is different because my family could not afford a car - it is not a choice to walk for 40 minutes to the grocery store. I have walked those long blocks, waited for buses on the sides of roads without sidewalks at the border of Vaughan (which has the honour of having been rated one of North America's least well-planned cities) in snowstorms, and on summer afternoons with the temperature at 35 C (95 F). I am very aware of the social and human costs of living this way - as well as the ecological.

Cars do make living more convenient - it is my hope that in the future I might be able to own one, though I hope I will also be responsible about the way I use it. But cities should not be built for them. Looking aside from the fact that they are terribly expensive and gas worse - even if we pretended we lived in some Star Trek future where cars (even flying ones) are cheap and ran on water, there would still be people who could not use them - elderly people, children and teenagers, the blind, the epileptic. But more than that - I don't think it's even healthy for the rest of us. I'm not saying that we should all live in high density settlements - many, especially people without children, prefer that, but it is not for everyone. Instead I would suggest that we think as Jane Jacobs has suggested, of diversity - mixing small commercial in with our residential, medium and low density, to create neighbourhoods, rather than suburbs. Maybe if I had lived on a cul de sac, I would feel differently - instead I lived on one of those huge arterial road leading to those cul de sacs. But I don't see urban sprawl leading to areas that are cleaner and safer - but rather developments which are, outside of upper and middle class enclaves, actually extremely dirty and dangerous, though cheap.

jfuller - I guess my question was a bit rhetorical - I was wondering who was making the decision to build this way because I had not met anyone who said they preferred it to more nucleated living. Most who have moved to very low density suburban neighbourhoods outside Toronto (since we actually have excellent schools etc, downtown, better than the suburbs) cite cost as the primary reason - it is the only place they can afford a house. Maybe they would have liked a smaller house, or a house on a smaller lot, with more amenities nearby. But the consumer choice just isn't there - you take a pale pink brick house off a highway here, or a pale pink brick house off a highway there. (Sorry - I just really hate that colour.)

tlogmer - those are good points about the levels of happiness - I was wondering whether research had also been done on community involvement and cohesion when related to design and density, but didn't know where to begin.
posted by jb at 11:21 AM on May 1, 2004


Pro or con on suburbs, the last time David Brooks wrote something the least bit original or worth reading, I was in high school. And my 25th reunion is coming this August.
posted by billsaysthis at 12:08 PM on May 1, 2004


He conveniently doesn't talk about cities much...nor does he talk about the clean air, safety, and low cost of living you can find in many suburbs.

Suburban developers do a good marketing job with those ideas, but they seem like illusions to me. I live pretty much the opposite of the suburban lifestyle: right smack downtown, no car, walk everywhere or take the bus. If I moved out to the suburbs, neither rent, groceries, nor utilities would be substantially cheaper, but I'd have to spend hundreds of dollars a month on transportation. And so much for clean air and better quality of life - if I lived in the suburbs, I'd have to spend all kinds of time sitting on freeways soaking up automobile fumes, and I'd waste hours every week just getting around that I can currently spend doing things that are actually fun and interesting.

I'm sure that to someone who has spent their whole life in a big city, the idea of a parking lot big enough to have a parade in, or drive diagonally across without fear of collision, probably seems wasteful. But that land is cheap, and it's not likely that any homes or businesses were displaced in order to build it.

It's only cheap because the U.S. government subsidizes the highways that make it practical to live and work there, and because the ecological cost of habitat destruction and farmland conversion doesn't (yet) factor into our economics. Suburbs are only possible because city dwellers like me pay for them.

I am a fan of big cities precisely because I spent so much of my life living in suburbs. Cities are a relief by comparison.
posted by Mars Saxman at 1:20 PM on May 1, 2004 [1 favorite]


You can't overlook the central role of profiteering developers and greedy local governments. Sprawl happens because it's allowed to be easy and highly profitable. People move there simply because they want the most house for their money and don't think they're giving anything up...

EXCEPT THEIR SOULS!

heh.
posted by ulotrichous at 1:29 PM on May 1, 2004


Tlogmer: bingo -- it would be more productive to try to improve livability in cities than abandon them.

Productive for who? And who said anything about abandonment? A lot of people (an increasing number, in fact) aren't born or raised in cities to begin with.

Exurbia is immensely, unbelievably expensive, but much of the cost is indirectly subsidised (interstate highway system, govt. help for oil companies) or paid in other ways (4-hour-a-day commutes).
Expensive to who? And where are these 4-hour-a-day commutes? I have heard of some people making such a commute between Philadelphia and New York...

And residents of suburbia are more unhappy, statistically, than similar-income city-dwellers...

I'd like to see those stats on how happy people are. On what basis is that determination made?

moving from hermatically sealed box to hermatically sealed box isn't particularly fulfilling; it's much better to step outside and see people you know, to be able to read or talk throughout your commute...

I have lived both lifestyles, and in my case at least, this is flatly not true. Setting aside, of course, that it doesn't take into consideration the fact that just because you don't live in a city doesn't mean you live in a series of hermetically sealed boxes. There are some environments that don't have corners. You find more of them outside the cities.

jb: I did grow up on a cul de sac. So maybe that says something about the difference in our perspectives. Also, no doubt, in some suburbs you do need a car.

This thread really makes me want to leave New York.

'xcuse me while I go to the meetup, where I won't mention this thread...
posted by bingo at 3:21 PM on May 1, 2004


One thing I noticed on many cross country trips is that sprawl only happens near major interstate highways. Once you get 20 or more miles away from a major highway, the towns don't get that big or have the mega stores. Of course many states have so many highways it pretty much is a forgone conclusion sprawl happens anywhere. But many states are big enough there are huge areas that have retained the old-tyme development standards. It all comes back to the highway system. In particular when highways form a triangle between 3 cities, the area inside that triangle is on a fast track to a sea of sprawling rooftops.

BTW I am not a fan of living in the city so I find it curious that so many here assume city living is desirable or better than suburban living. City living is generally more difficult IMO, not to mention more costly, less friendly to children.
posted by stbalbach at 3:29 PM on May 1, 2004


I like the idea of their being such a clean-cut distinction between grimy cities and clean suburbs. Has anyone here heard of the concept of the working-class or low-income suburb? There are plenty of grimy, poverty-wracked suburbs in the U.S. There are plenty of bland American downtowns, ones that you'd be a fool or really brave and pioneering to live in because they mostly shut down after 6 p.m. And Jane Jacobs wasn't attacking suburbs per se, but a certain type of development style, and more specifically urban planning as it stood in the middle part of the 20th Century.
posted by raysmj at 4:42 PM on May 1, 2004


Has anyone here heard of the concept of the working-class or low-income suburb?"

Cheektovegas!

Buffalo is weird. As far as the physical milieu of residential areas are concerned, the city is practically indistinguishable from many of the suburbs - two-story houses, built close together from the same basic pattern. City real estate is also dirt cheap; if I had a job - and I mean a $10 an hour job - I could own my own house within five or ten years. I know an architecture student who just bought a building for $9,000. And yet there are still suburbs, and suburbanites who are afraid to come to the city at night. Freakin' weird.
posted by skoosh at 5:53 PM on May 1, 2004


raysmj makes a good point about the spectrum of suburbs. It's another fact that goes to show suburbs are not just uniform cookie-cutter entities.

The suburb of Kansas City that I grew up in is very nice and clean etc., but I've also lived in more than one suburb of Seattle that weren't so nice (while still being very different from each other, from topography to the type of buildings to the type of people who live there). Also, I lived in Los Angeles, which basically IS a big suburb. Sure, there is municipal entity called Los Angeles, and a lot of people live in it, but there is still a stark difference between the layout and the zoning in downtown vs. say, Koreatown (to pick the place I lived), which is technically a part of L.A. I guess Hollywood is itself a suburb, for that matter.

Just came back from the meetup on the subway, and on the sidewalk too. I hate the crowds. There is nothing unnatural or unhealthy about wanting to be around far, far, fewer people, both in terms of physical proximity and in terms of general space.
posted by bingo at 8:34 PM on May 1, 2004


I actually understand about not liking city living - I have a friend from Alaska who thinks being more than a short drive from utter wilderness is to be crushed under human weight. His ideal is less than one person per square kilometre (or per thousand kilometre) - needless to say this isn't typical. (Unless it is typical for all Alaskans - I have a sample of n=1 to make assumptions from, which should be very accurate.)

My ideal would be along the lines of a small city or large town which has a certain density and a distinct centre, but is still predominately low-rise. I visited Cambridge, UK this summer, and loved it - especially the cows grazing on the fens right in the middle of downtown. I like New Haven, CT as well because I can walk everywhere, but they really need more parks downtown. (I miss the trees - but I've also been lazy about getting myself to the large parks outside downtown). I think a lot of what you expect has to do with a mixture of personality and your own upbringing (and sometimes a reaction against). We need a variety of living - from very dense high rise, to medium dense low rise to low density to rural. It's certainly what makes your little Sims in Simcity happy : )

But I think the question for urban (and suburban and rural) planners is to think about how to accomodate human desires with societal and ecological needs. (We shouldn't pave over the sources for our water tables, for example, least we get thirsty.)
posted by jb at 9:25 PM on May 1, 2004


Urban = connection and suburban = isolation is a big fat lie, as far I can tell.

I lived in New York City for four years and Chicago for three years and never knew or spoke more than five words in a row with anyone in my buildings, to say the least of anyone in a building next door. Moreover, I don't ever recall being introduced to someone's new friend or significant other with the mention that he was a fellow who lived down the hall or she was someone who got her paper at the same newsstand by their common subway stop.

I've lived in a suburb for two years now, and got to know all of our neighbors within a week of arrival, with two of our neighborhs becoming good friends of my wife solely (as far as I can tell) on the basis of proximity. And we don't even have kids in school yet -- we'll know 100 families in our broader neighborhood once kindergarden gets rolling.

Now, it is true that my town isn't an exurb (we're served by a nice quick train connection to the city) but it is also true that a middle class family could never afford to buy here anymore, although many middle class families still live here as a legacy of days when real estate was much cheaper. A couple where Dad makes $55,000 and mom makes $35,000 is entitled, I think, to find themselves a nice single-family-home and good neighbhorhood lifestyle, too, and the exurb is the only place where they can get it.
posted by MattD at 7:01 AM on May 2, 2004


hey, fwiw, just saw this on techlive - skyweb express a personal rapid transit system :D looks like they might build one in minneapolis!
posted by kliuless at 9:25 AM on May 2, 2004


MattD - I think those connections are very important, but they are also a result of neighbourhood culture than just layout. I've had friends who lived in inner city neighbourhoods (even slightly slummy) that had all those connections, and friends living in nice suburbs that did. Layout can matter - highrise buildings are awful for creating community. Lowrise, whether single family homes, duplexes, or small apartment buildings with shared spaces like backyards, seems to foster it better (my friend downtown lived in a co-op of duplexes, and had very strong community connections). Who you are and your neighbours are also matters - if your neighbours greet you with a cake when you move in, your are probably more likely to get to know them. If you don't speak the same language, relations may be cordial, but more distant. Of course, no matter how much you do or do not ike your neighbours, if you are working 12 hour days including a commute (9 hours in office, 1 1/2 each way), you probably aren't going to get to know them well.

I don't worry about those connections in the context of suburban development so much as the connections to neighourhoods outside yours, to neighbourhoods unlike yours - but really, I mostly worry about the lack of bus connections. (And forest connections, and watershed connections).
posted by jb at 9:51 AM on May 2, 2004 [1 favorite]


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