Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Debunking the American Dream of Suburbia

Recently, the New York Times ran an op-ed piece called I Dream of Denver, about Americans preference for living in the suburbs and in low density communities. The article retreaded old arguments that Americans still want their yards, garages and Mini-vans and SUV's to take their kids to soccer practice and have room for their ski's for their weekend get away. While this is no doubt true for a good portion of Americans, it is a slanted view that Americans choice to live in suburbs today is based on preference. For many Americans the choice to live in suburbs is purely based on housing value returns and education for their children.

While there are negative social ills in cities that might hinder some from living cities, there are unique features and aspects of cities which the suburbs could never replicate. Also today's city is not the city of the 1950's and today's suburbs are not the suburbs of the 1950's either. The past styles of development for cities and suburbs are no longer applicable today. Cities are no longer a collection over housed slums crowded next to factories and suburbs as we had built them in the 1950's are no longer sustainable. And because of that the image of Americans wanting to move away from the big bad city into the leafy suburb needs to change. The reality today is that many Americans actually prefer to live in urban places and many suburbs now face the same social ills as cities.

Back to the article. The author quotes,

"The time has finally come, some writers are predicting, when Americans will finally repent. They’ll move back to the urban core. They will ride more bicycles, have smaller homes and tinier fridges and rediscover the joys of dense community — and maybe even superior beer.
America will, in short, finally begin to look a little more like Amsterdam.
Well, Amsterdam is a wonderful city, but Americans never seem to want to live there. And even now, in this moment of chastening pain, they don’t seem to want the Dutch option

I always find it funny that when critics think of urban living and urbanism they point back to Europe instead of looking at successful urban neighborhoods right here in the states. There are also many forms of urban neighborhoods ranging from small rowhouses in Georgetown in Washington D.C. to large rowhouses in Hyde Park in Chicago to the single family homes in Inman Park in Atlanta.

"Second, Americans still want to move outward. City dwellers are least happy with where they live, and cities are one of the least popular places to live. Only 52 percent of urbanites rate their communities “excellent” or “very good,” compared with 68 percent of suburbanites and 71 percent of the people who live in rural America.

Cities remain attractive to the young. Forty-five percent of Americans between the ages of 18 and 34 would like to live in New York City. But cities are profoundly unattractive to people with families and to the elderly. Only 14 percent of Americans 35 and older are interested in living in New York City."

Again I believe the rating of cities most likely comes from safety and education, the two things that the suburbs have over cities but even that is declining. When pointing to cities, which by the way there are over 100 in the U.S. pointing that many over 35 do not want to move to the most populous uber city in the country may not be the best example. On top of that city neighborhoods actually provide seniors a chance to walk to stores and services as opposed to suburbs that are totally auto dependent.

"Third, Americans still want to go west. The researchers at Pew asked Americans what metro areas they would like to live in. Seven of the top 10 were in the West: Denver, San Diego, Seattle, San Francisco, Phoenix, Portland and Sacramento. The other three were in the South: Orlando, Tampa and San Antonio. Eastern cities were down the list and Midwestern cities were at the bottom.

...These places are car-dependent and spread out, but they also have strong cultural identities and pedestrian meeting places."

The cities that the article pointed out with the exception of San Francisco, San Diego and maybe Portland do not have strong cultural identities. These cities which once were towns that did have an identity are now just a collection amorphous collection of suburbs.

The point of this post is that the idea that Americans still want to move to the suburbs is still a 1950's construct. Do a lot of Americans still hold that image dear to their hearts? Yes. Do most Americans realize that dream is unsustainable and is ultimately hurting us? Yes. Lastly suburbs have always failed to give a true representation of the diversity in architecture, culture, art and ideas of modern America. The suburbs do not represent America, cities do.

"Finally, Americans want to go someplace new. The powerhouse cities of the 20th century — New York, Los Angeles, Chicago — are much less desirable today than the ones that have more recently sprouted up."

Let me ask you, the reader this, if you were to show someone what America is, through it's successes and it's failures, it's grandeur and of it's commonality, would you take them to Tampa or San Antonio or would you take them to Chicago or Philadelphia?


Puant said...

Good article! Though I'm not sure that "most Americans" realize that the American dream is unsustainable.

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