What Is the Future of Suburbia? A Freakonomics Quorum

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On a forum at the Chicago outpost of City-Data.com, a certain JohnDoe2008 asked suburbanites:

Why do you like suburbs over [the] city? Be honest please, I never understood it, still don’t. I might have serious problems, because I hate even looking at pictures of suburbs.

Respondents cited backyards, quiet and cheap living, and congestion-free commutes — the very sort of suburban characteristics that have started to change due to higher gas prices, more single-person households, and even refugees.

What will the future hold for suburbs? In an interesting article about Clifton Park, a suburb of Albany, N.Y., that has swollen mightily in past decades (and where I, during one long, hot summer, helped build new houses), here’s what a local architect and urban planner, Dominick Ranieri, thinks may happen to suburbia: “If we don’t change the patterns, we’re in for a long and slow and arduous collapse.”

Several months ago, we ran a quorum here about urbanization, pegged to the fact that more than half of the world’s population now lives in cities. Given the economic changes of the past several months, particularly those in the housing market and in energy prices, it seemed like a good idea to run a new quorum on suburbia, even if it might cover some of the same ground. (Indeed, we even invited two participants from the first quorum to respond to this one as well.) So we gathered up a group of smart people — James Kunstler, Thomas Antus, Jan Brueckner, Gary Gates, John Archer, Alan Berube, and Lawrence Levy — and asked them the following:

What will U.S. suburbs look like in 40 years?

Their answers are informative and often fascinating. As always, Kunstler is vastly entertaining as he advocates what one critic calls “apocalyptic utopianism,” while Antus gets a bit Swiftian on us. Brueckner and Archer are far more measured (and, if I had to lay money on the future, closer to reality), although Archer borders on his own utopianism. Gates takes a surprising and compelling angle, Levy is brutally realistic, and Berube is prescriptive in a way that I wish political candidates could learn to be. I hope you enjoy their replies, and learn from them, as much as I have.

James Kunstler, the author of The Long Emergency: Surviving the Converging Catastrophes of the 21st Century, World Made By Hand, and three books about suburbs and cities: The Geography of Nowhere, Home From Nowhere, and The City in Mind: Notes on the Urban Condition.

“The suburbs have three destinies, none of them exclusive: as materials salvage, as slums, and as ruins.”

There are many ways of describing the fiasco of suburbia, but these days I refer to it as the greatest misallocation of resources in the history of the world.

I say this because American suburbia requires an infinite supply of cheap energy in order to function and we have now entered a permanent global energy crisis that will change the whole equation of daily life. Having poured a half-century of our national wealth into a living arrangement with no future — and linked our very identity with it — we have provoked a powerful psychology of previous investment that will make it difficult for us to let go, change our behavior, and make other arrangements.

Compounding the problem is the fact that we ditched our manufacturing economy for a suburban sprawl building economy (a.k.a. “the housing bubble”), meaning we came to base our economy on building even more stuff with no future.

This is a hell of a problem, since it is at once economic, socio-political, and circumstantial.

Here’s what I think will happen: First, we are in great danger of mounting a futile campaign to sustain the unsustainable, that is, of defending suburbia at all costs.

In fact, it is already underway. One symptom of this is that the only subject under discussion about our energy predicament is how can we keep running all our cars by other means. Even the leading environmentalists talk of little else. We don’t get it. The Happy Motoring era is over. No combination of “alt” fuels — solar, wind, nuclear, tar sands, oil-shale, offshore drilling, used French-fry oil — will allow us to keep running the interstate highway system, Wal-Marts, and Walt Disney World.

The automobile will be a diminishing presence in our lives, whether we like it or not. Further proof of our obdurate cluelessness in these matters is the absence of any public discussion about restoring the passenger railroad system — even as the airline industry is also visibly dying. The campaign to sustain suburbia and all its entitlements will result in a tragic squandering of our dwindling resources and capital.

The suburbs have three destinies, none of them exclusive: as materials salvage, as slums, and as ruins. In any case, the suburbs will lose value dramatically, both in terms of usefulness and financial investment. Most of the fabric of suburbia will not be “fixed” or retrofitted, in particular the residential subdivisions. They were built badly in the wrong places. We will have to return to traditional modes of inhabiting the landscape — villages, towns, and cities, composed of walkable neighborhoods and business districts — and the successful ones will have to exist in relation to a productive agricultural hinterland, because petro-agriculture (as represented by the infamous 3000-mile Caesar salad) is also now coming to an end. Fortunately, we have many under-activated small towns and small cities in favorable locations near waterways. This will be increasingly important as transport of goods by water regains importance.

We face an epochal demographic shift, but not the one that is commonly expected: from suburbs to big cities. Rather, we are in for a reversal of the 200-year-long trend of people moving from the farms and small towns to the big cities. People will be moving to the smaller towns and smaller cities because they are more appropriately scaled to the limited energy diet of the future. I believe our big cities will contract substantially — even if they densify back around their old cores and waterfronts. They are products, largely, of the 20th-century cheap energy fiesta and they will be starved in the decades ahead.

One popular current fantasy I hear often is that apartment towers are the “greenest” mode of human habitation. On the contrary, we will discover that the skyscraper is an obsolete building type, and that cities overburdened with them will suffer a huge liability — Manhattan and Chicago being the primary examples. Cities composed mostly of suburban-type fabric — Houston, Atlanta, Orlando, et al — will also depreciate sharply. The process of urban contraction is likely to be complicated by ethnic tensions and social disorder.

As petro-agriculture implodes, we’ll have to raise our food differently, closer to home, and at a finer and smaller scale. This new agricultural landscape will be inhabited differently, since farming will require more human attention. The places that are not able to grow enough food locally are not likely to make it. Phoenix and Las Vegas will be shadows of what they are now, if they exist at all.

These days, an awful lot of people — the production builders, the realtors — are waiting for the “bottom” in the real-estate industry with hopes that the suburban house-building orgy will resume. They are waiting in vain. The project of suburbia is over. We will build no more of it. Now we’re stuck with what’s there. Sometimes whole societies make unfortunate decisions or go down tragic pathways. Suburbia was ours.

Thomas E. Antus, township administrator of Freehold Township, N.J., since 1994 and a township employee since 1984; member of the New Jersey Municipal Managers Association, International City Managers Association, and Central Jersey Managers Association; guest lecturer at Rutgers University and Princeton University.

“To pay for the expanded services taxes will also increase exponentially to the point where individual pay checks are made payable to the government and deposited directly in the general treasury.”

In 40 years I could see living in the world’s largest city, a megalopolis, extending from New York City to Philadelphia and engulfing all of New Jersey. New Jersey could change the state motto to “The Overdevelopment State.” As we already have more cars per square mile than any other state, we could change the shape of the license plates from a rectangle to the outline of a car.

Government services such as police, fire, health, and public works will increase exponentially. To pay for the expanded services, taxes will also increase exponentially to the point where individual paychecks are made payable to the government and deposited directly in the general treasury. All individuals will have to use credit cards for all living expenses, going into massive debt and having to work until they are 90 years old, thus saving our Social Security system.

With a massive increase in the population density there will be a traffic light on every single corner. Smart individuals will have seen this coming and invested heavily in the firms that manufacture and install traffic lights, creating a new class of wealthy Americans (the “stop light rich”).

Developers won’t be impacted by the megalopolis as they rival Bill Gates in wealth and purchase the entire state of Wyoming. The first act of the new Wyoming legislature will be to abolish development so the developers can live in peace and quiet.

Jan Brueckner, professor of economics at the University of California, Irvine, and former editor of the Journal of Urban Economics.

“If [gentrification] continues in a significant way, large numbers of suburban households looking for urban stimulation may end up switching places with minority central-city dwellers, stirring the ethnic pot in both places.”

Urban economics tells us that cheap gas, lots of investment in highways, and rising incomes created the suburbs that we now see in American cities.

The first two forces made it affordable and convenient to commute from far out, and greater affluence made people covet big houses, which can be built for less on inexpensive suburban land. Lately, these suburbanization forces are being reversed by “gentrification,” with well-off, empty-nester households lured back to city centers by improving urban amenities (restaurants, museums, etc.) and the renewal of crumbling downtown housing stocks.

Over the next 40 years, these forces will continue to operate, with some new twists thrown in. Skyrocketing gas prices will lead some households to reconsider their long commutes, introducing an “anti-suburbanization” force that favors denser, more compact cities. Boosts in auto fuel economy will soften this blow, but the push for suburbanization will nevertheless slow. Urban densification will also mean a different look for some of our neighborhoods: single-story ranch houses, the hallmarks of past suburbanization, will increasingly give way to denser, two-story suburbs, as is already happening in many cities where land prices are high.

Suburbanization has shown a white bias, with most minority households yet to acquire their nice house in the suburbs. Some of this difference may reflect a history of housing-market discrimination, but lower suburbanization by minorities is mainly a result of lower incomes. As the black and Hispanic middle classes continue to grow and get richer, they are likely to follow the same suburbanization path as white households before them, restrained somewhat by higher gas prices. So U.S. suburbs 40 years hence will look much more ethnically diverse than they do today.

Although some cities, such as Chicago, have seen dramatic recent gentrification, the future path of this phenomenon remains unclear. If it continues in a significant way, large numbers of suburban households looking for urban stimulation may end up switching places with minority central-city dwellers, stirring the ethnic pot in both places.

Gary J. Gates, a Senior Research Fellow at the Williams Institute, UCLA School of Law, and co-author of The Gay and Lesbian Atlas, has written extensively on the demographic and economic characteristics of the lesbian and gay population.

“The Will and Grace version of gay America — urban, wealthy, and white — is starting to look a bit dated.”

While Ward and June Cleaver and their two boys might still be around in the suburbs in forty years, my guess is that their neighbors will be Olivia and Harriet and their twin girls. The Will and Grace version of gay America — urban, wealthy, and white — is starting to look a bit dated.

Suburban locales like Decatur, Georgia (Atlanta), Takoma Park, Maryland (Washington, D.C.), and Ferndale, Michigan (Detroit), are joining urban neighborhoods like Castro, Chelsea, and West Hollywood as gay meccas. Lots of lesbians and gay men now view the suburban home with a white picket fence and a family with 2.5 kids as their version of gay equality.

In 1982, Gallup found that only 32 percent of Americans considered homosexuality to be an acceptable “alternative lifestyle.” Their 2008 poll shows the figure at 57 percent. With greater social acceptance, gay people are coming out of the closet, and many are doing so outside of urban America.

From 2000 to 2006, the number of same-sex couples in Montana, Wyoming, Iowa, and Utah increased by more than 140 percent. That’s nearly five times higher than the national increase in same-sex couples and 23 times higher than the general population increase. Since there’s little evidence of a mass migration of gay folk to Montana, these big increases probably reflect more willingness of lesbians and gay men to be visible in the heartland.

Not surprisingly then, the proportion of same-sex couples living in large cities has been halved from 45 percent in 1990 to only 23 percent in 2006. Houses are a lot cheaper in Ottumwa than Manhattan. Perhaps that explains why home-ownership rates among same-sex couples have increased from 52 percent in 1990 to 70 percent in 2006. With marriage now available to same-sex couples in Massachusetts and California, lesbian and gay couples are making it legal — more than 11,000 in Massachusetts so far and an estimated 5,000 just in the first week it was possible in California.

Suburbs, home ownership, and marriage — what’s left but the kids? In 1990, fewer than one in ten same-sex couples had children. Today, it’s more like one in five. In states like Mississippi, South Dakota, Alaska, South Carolina, and Louisiana, it’s one in three. The gay-by boom is alive and well in small town and suburban America. And these new parents are largely non-white. African-American and Latino/a lesbians and gay men are two to three times more likely than their white counterparts to be raising kids.

So back to the question at hand — my vision of suburbia circa 2050. Lesbian and gay families will be a much more visible community fixture. They’ll probably be married, own their homes, be raising a few kids, and will very likely not be white.

John Archer, chair of the Department of Cultural Studies and Comparative Literature at the University of Minnesota and author of Architecture and Suburbia: From English Villa to American Dream House, 1690-2000.

“Suburbia will be flexible, it will be smarter, and it will be hybrid.”

First of all, forget the personal helicopters. Frank Lloyd Wright promised them to us in the 1930’s, and the Jetsons reinforced the idea in the 1950’s, but they are one futuristic vision of suburbia whose proponents just got it wrong.

Nevertheless they do embody fundamental aspects of suburbia that are going to persist well into the future, as they are endemic to Western, and now global, society. Modern suburbia evolved in the early eighteenth century along with Enlightenment ideals of private selfhood and capitalist economics. As such, suburbia — not the city — became, and remains, the perfect social and geographic apparatus for bringing fundamental ideals and principles of our culture to fruition, for better or worse.

Ideals of privacy, property, and selfhood — overoptimistically embodied — in those helicopters, are splendidly realized in the single nuclear-family detached house, set in its private surrounding yard. And no matter the threats of global warming or energy shortages, the solutions that we pursue are going to adhere to those ideals.

Nevertheless, as we look to the future, suburbia is evolving in three key directions — not incidentally, along the same paths already being paved by global capitalism; suburbia will be flexible, it will be smarter, and it will be hybrid.

For example: one of the troublesome consequences of the tract-house boom of the 1950’s and 1960’s is that the housing stock of that era no longer suits current needs and desires. Except in the most expensive housing markets it is economically unrealistic to retrofit those houses, resulting in worries over the rise of suburban slums.

There is, however, an optimistic vision. With advanced methods of modular construction and individualized product design, suburbia, like capital, will learn to be flexible: instead of holding the same shape for 60 years, at the mercy of demographic shifts and mortgage-finance crises, houses can become resizable and reconfigurable to suit residents’ changing needs. Neighborhoods will evolve, instead of turning over, thus enhancing community and social capital.

Planning will become flexible as well, so that infrastructure of all scales can smartly adapt to changing demographics and advancing energy, water, transportation, and other technologies. Again, the flexibility of capital as an investment will be registered in the form of more flexible real-estate instruments — which, as different clusters and neighborhoods evolve in different ways over time, will afford more occasions for aesthetic and demographic diversity.

As many “new urbanist” and “new suburbanist” projects demonstrate, suburbia is becoming a hybrid place that melds desirable traits of city living (activity, diversity) while still maintaining allegiance to primary suburban ideals of selfhood and domesticity (and, one might add, consumption).

Still to be realized, but now on the horizon, are greater opportunities for aesthetic hybridity. Left behind will be master planning codes that leave critics complaining about the aridity of suburbia. In part motivated by the continual need to adapt to ever greener technologies, as well as the need to make “smarter” capital investments, Americans may well realize the advantages of a more adventurous range of housing types, scales, styles, colors, landscaping, and so forth, in any given locale.

One of the least recognized truths about suburbia is that it has always been more extensively segregated by class than it has by race. Affording the flexibility to make local modifications in response to changing desires and conditions can result in a more dynamic and diverse aesthetic that, instead of eventually becoming old and tired, sustains healthy growth and change for the person, family, and community alike.

Alan Berube, research director and fellow at the Metropolitan Policy Program at the Brookings Institution, which he joined in 2001.

“… in 40 years perhaps we’ll get beyond our fixation with “the suburbs” (love them or hate them) and develop a richer vocabulary for what lies beyond the city limits.”

In 40 years, “the suburbs” won’t exist.

With all their current heterogeneity and further changes on the horizon, chances are we’ll have retired the phrase from popular lexicon by 2050.

That’s not because they’ll depopulate — the nation will need to accommodate at least another 100 million people during this period, and not even $10-per-gallon gas will send the majority of Americans scrambling back to cities. But “suburbia” will be an even less useful descriptor in 2050 for the diverse range of communities in which the majority of Americans will continue to live. An educated guess at what we’re likely to see:

New physical forms. Just as America’s first suburbs sprouted up along the streetcar lines built in the early 20th century, the first half of the 21st century will see the growth of “light rail suburbs” (even in areas that don’t have the rail yet).

High oil prices and the imperative to address global climate change will help spur denser residential development along transit corridors outside of cities. We’d see more of it today, if supply kept up with demand. Chris Leinberger estimates that walkable suburban communities served by transit today command anywhere from a 40 percent to 200 percent price premium over conventional drivable suburban development.

New demographic profiles. Suburbs of 2050 will be a far cry from the Ozzie and Harriet communities a century before. Already, most immigrants in the nation’s newer gateways — metro areas like Sacramento, Charlotte, Minneapolis, and Washington — skip the city and head directly for suburban communities. These regions boast a far-flung ethnic patchwork, with a tremendous diversity of national origin groups. Meanwhile, as the Baby Boom generation “ages in place,” the suburbs of several major metro areas are projected to have larger elderly population shares than their cities by 2030. And even today, there are more poor Americans living in the suburbs of major metro areas than in cities.

New governance. Diversifying populations and changing infrastructure needs will demand a less parochial, more regional approach to public decision making. Small suburban jurisdictions can’t finance and manage transit systems, public hospitals, or affordable housing on their own. A move toward more metropolitan collaboration on these issues, borne of economic necessity, may further blur the traditional political boundaries that define suburbs.

“Suburbia” is an oppositional concept — in Latin, it’s literally “under city.” But as the people and places that define suburbia look more and more like those we associate with the city, and less and less like one another — in 40 years perhaps we’ll get beyond our fixation with “the suburbs” (love them or hate them) and develop a richer vocabulary for what lies beyond the city limits.


Lawrence C. Levy
, executive director of the National Center for Suburban Studies at Hofstra University in Hempstead, NY, and a Pulitzer Finalist as senior editorial writer and chief political columnist at Newsday.

“It depends — on how smart and bold we are willing to be.”

In my former life as an editorial writer at a great suburban newspaper, I hated when politicians or even academicians (as I am now at Hofstra University) would answer one of my questions by saying, “It depends.” And I swore I wouldn’t do that to other journalists, as well as their viewers and readers, when I found myself at the other end of a question.

So I guess I will have to hate myself: How the suburbs will look in 40 years depends … on everything from local, state, and federal policies to the price of a gallon of gasoline.

One thing for certain is that most suburban communities — wherever they are — won’t look like they do now. There will be more clusters of taller buildings, surrounding more public transportation, and populated by people who don’t look a lot like — or earn as much at least at first — as those now living next door.

The suburbs are the locus of change in America — dynamic demographic change that is being driven by migration from nearby cities, counties, and, in a shift from prior generations, directly from other countries. (My family spent a generation after leaving “the old country” before moving to the “new suburbs.” Now, legal and illegal immigrants alike are bypassing that cramped apartment in a central city for a cramped subdivision, or sometimes, a subdivided house in suburbia.)

Overall, although not always, this change is pushing out in waves that are changing each subsequent suburban ring.

For nearly two decades, the inner-ring suburbs have been looking more and more like the cities they surround. They are nearly as physically dense, politically Democratic, and, unfortunately, socially and educationally dysfunctional. In more recent years, more of the outer rings of suburbia have acquired more of the characteristics of the inner rings. A recent study by the Brookings Institution, which is drawing attention to the need for cities and suburbs to work together to create stronger metro areas, found that there are more poor people in suburbia than the central cities.

These demographic trends should continue but not all of them have to be a negative for the people living there, rich and poor. The challenges of the changing suburbs can lead to smarter solutions that could transform the suburbs into cleaner, less congested, more liveable, more economically viable, and more welcomingly diverse communities for old and young, black and white, English speakers and non English speakers.

The energy price crisis, which is battering suburbia harder than other areas because of its dependence on the car, has hastened a trend toward building higher rise housing in village downtowns near commuter rail lines — aka “transit oriented development.”

The units are more affordable because builders can acquire land in depressed village downtowns more cheaply than in other areas and because they are usually allowed to build more units per acre. The affordable apartments in hipper, walkable urban-style neighborhoods become a magnet for young, well educated workers that many suburbs have been losing. Independent elderly couples, who no longer need or want a big single family house, also are drawn to these cheaper, more interesting neighborhoods.

And so it goes — a cycle of survival and renewal that will save the suburb from itself.

Success will breed success and courage. As more of these new suburban spaces succeed, without substantially changing the single-family home character of most of the rest of the community, they will become easier to sell politically. And as NIMBY uproar diminishes, politicians will more likely approve projects that they wouldn’t have dared let through a generation or even a year ago.

But the future of the suburbs depends (sorry about that word again) on more than the actions of local village, town, and county officials.

If the federal government reduces incentives for sprawl (by shifting funds from highway building, for instance, to mass transit or to sewer construction necessary for “densifying” suburbs), the so-called “smart growth” movement will hasten and spread deeper into suburbia. If the oil cartels and our own consumption habits keep energy prices high, consumers will pressure builders into putting up smaller and “greener” units that may not look like my parents’ split level. Highways may not be as congested or at least they may be safer because people will be driving slower to save on gas. Increased purchases of hybrids and other energy-saving moves will reduce pollution and the “carbon footprint” of suburbia.

And with environmentalists and builders, along with politicians, agreeing on less sprawling tract housing and more “clustered” homes that preserve large swaths of land, the outer “ex-urban” rings may not look like the Levittowns of my parents’ generation that grew out of fields that once bore potatoes.

So how will the suburbs look in 40 years? It depends — on how smart and bold we are willing to be.


David SB

James Kunstler part of a group of "smart people"? I don't think so. Kunstler is a bitter crank who delights in apocalyptic predictions only because he hates the world as it is. A forum about the future of suburbs is certainly a worthwhile topic, but let's keep the discussion limited to realistic voices and not irresponsible extremists.

PAL

I do not understand why some folks believe it's "natural" for people to live stocked up on one another in polluted cities. Just go to Manhattan and think about whether it's ideal to live like sardines in vertical boxes.

If the average new yorker could see the huge backyard my kids play in, they might well questioned whether the obdurate, reactionary attitude toward what are derided as "suburbs" is justified.

I do not miss the noise, pollution, expense of living in Manhattan. No wonder only rich folks can afford to live there.

Grimp

Dear New York Times:

In this article, you brought together a panel of experts on the topic from several different viewpoints. As a result, readers can analyze the situation from several angles and make their own judgments based on sound information. Please do this for every article you publish in the future.

This is real journalism.

Engles

I've always lived outside of the city, so I don't know whether David's view of urban living in the US is in the minority, but I recently visited my son in Budapest, Hungary, and I was impressed.

His apartment exited down stairs to a main street in the heart of Budapest. There is no need for a car (a liability, really) as there is an abundance of public transportation. There is an underground city rail system, an above ground rail system, a bus system, and taxies. For further out there are trains and, more relaxing, transport boats on the Danube.

All the cars that are there are from familiar manufacturers, but the European models are about 2/3 the size of those here.

This model, though, did not happen overnight; it evolved. And the situation here is summed up by James Kunstler: "Having poured a half-century of our national wealth into a living arrangement with no future - and linked our very identity with it - we have provoked a powerful psychology of previous investment that will make it difficult for us to let it go, change our behavior, and make other rarrangements."

Except that this living arrangement IS the future; people will live where their cars will take them to work and back. It's like the joke, "You know what they call a vegitarian who eats fish? A liar"

It's great to talk about reducing our carbon footprint, but until that changes, nothing will.

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Vooch

David -

Your view is a distinct minority.

People are willing pay more for a city home - they are voting with their pocketbook.

One can argue round and round the particular merits of City versus Outer Ring Suburb, but the relative price levels pretty much answer the question where most people want to live.

Betsy

These comments are so very interesting! I would love to see these experts debate on live t.v regarding these matters and invite call in viewers I have so many questions !

Betsy

Allen

The lack of understanding peak oil implications is amazing to me. Americans believe we are inherently entitled to cheap fuel or magic pixie dust that will continue to fuel or suburban lifestyle. The majority of the above comments demonstrate a separation from what we want and wish for, and what we have to deal with in realistic terms.
Come to Arizona or Las Vegas for a preview of things to come. Brand new 4000 sq ft homes selling for 150k and no buyers in the x-urbs. The so called top performing schools are a joke--my daughter's homework assignment instructions are written so poorly and chucked full of misspellings that I must call the teacher to decipher directions and instructions. The teacher's in highly respected schools cannot spell or string together sentences coherently. If schools are the center of suburban life, indeed we better be planning or moving towards an alternative to this failed arrangement.

Wake up people, and stop deluding yourselves. We are approaching a period of change unlike any change in the history of the world as oil becomes scarce and we are utterly unprepared for the implications on our suburban lives. There is no magical technology on it's way to save us, unless the Chinese have developed the magic bullet, but I doubt it.

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ponygirl

To #29 and all others not willing to face reality: the suburbs are a facade for all the aspects of life mentioned in these postings. They let parents off the hook and allow them to breathe easy (like #32 having a beer in JK's honor in Disney World- how disrespectful is that? Don't do JK any favors) in the "comfort" of their suburban homes, thinking and believing (mistakenly) that their kids are "safe" at "good schools," that their lives are "convenient" as they park their SUVs in a giant parking lot of a giant chain store. But what is behind this facade?

"Good schools" just means white schools, let's be honest and say what we really mean here. I am a teacher (and white) at a suburban "good school"- and hell will freeze over before I send my daughter there. Sure, everyone is white- but what goes on in these schools is unfathomable. Twelve-year-olds dressed like prostitutes screaming through the halls about what they did to who sexually, yelling racial/ religious slurs, slamming other kids into lockers, making the quiet kids feel that they'd be better off dead. I won't walk down the hallway, and I am a teacher. And do I really have to mention that school shootings typically occur in suburban "good schools"? Unless you live under a rock, you already know this. Our school, ironically, has had assemblies about all these things. We have character education programs, speakers, films, organizations, and posters- lots of posters. But the parents, parents like #19 and #29, want so badly to believe that these suburban schools are "good"- sorry, white- that they will never face the reality of what actually goes on there. Oh, and you think that the teachers and administrators of these "good schools" are providing a quality education? Why? Because everyone's white? Guess again- would you believe that most of the teachers I work with are totally inappropriate with the kids, teaching in slippers, text-messaging their boyfriends, playing computer games, letting kids listen to their ipods during class, partying on the weekends- yes, the teachers-and how the administrators just sit back and allow this all to happen? And as far as the general belief that urban schools equal bad schools, I used to teach in one of those too, and the teachers and administrators were more professional and dedicated than any of the teachers I know in the suburbs, running a school the way it ought to be run- with structure and guidance. Good moral character was expected from the kids there- and nothing less was accepted. Suburban schools- and parents- don't want to believe that the students could ever be in need of structure, so it's not provided. Everyone just turns the other cheek and allows children to act nothing less than shamefully. (Have any of you suburb-cheerleaders stopped to think that it could be the actual suburbs that cause the problems so specific to these areas?)

And let's talk about the "convenience" of parking your SUV in the giant lot of WalMart (or, Target, if you are slightly more privileged). It may feel convenient for you, but it's not so "convenient" for the child laborer in Vietnam who made your $6.99 towels- what a bargain! Not so convenient for the workers at the store you bought them at even, who probably don't have health insurance or a union to turn to when they are treated poorly. Not so "convenient" for the environment, as you contribute to the energy crisis every time you drive anywhere, whether you drive a cool new Prius or a gas-guzzling truck you're not moving anything in except your kids and your shopping bags. I think what makes the suburbs so perfect for people like this is, you can just pretend that everything is okay. That the world is okay. And it's anything but. But hey, as long as your little "corner of the world" looks and smells nice, I guess you have nothing to worry about. Oh- and if it makes you nervous at all, which I hope it does, my "suburb" now doesn't look or smell so nice- those "undesirables" from the city- and we all know you mean people of color but are just too politically correct and self-righteous to say so- have started to encroach upon every aspect of our suburb, despite the fact that we have no public transportation to speak of. They are just walking down the busy highways to get where they need to go. So that's changing fast. As far as the other points people tried to make about the suburbs being "clean" and "safe"- well, my once pristine condo development is literally falling apart structurally. All I smell is exhaust and fast food when I venture to the edge of my once "safe" neighborhood.

So beware- it looks like your idea of suburban utopia-or at least the theory that the suburbs somehow "work"-isn't holding much water. Good luck maintaining the facade so you can feel better about yourselves.

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David Pearson

Even if life in the suburbs is more expensive, is there anything more wretched than high-density urban living?

kit ramsey

it isn't about suburb versus city, saving the planet, or stopping global warming.

it is about a small minority trying to regulate how everyone else lives their lives.

and the small minority is the same group (and their intellectual progeny) who try to convince us that the collectives and five year plans of the soviet union was a great working model of society.

their arrogance is only exceeded by their ignorance.

my 2 cents

I live beachfront 5 minutes from a medium sized central city. No public transportation. Traffic is terrible twice a day. Public transportation, a light rail, is imperative. But being South Carolina, won't happen until the second coming.

Vooch

Whitney,

Lizards ?

Whitney

I can't understand the suburb hate. I kind of hated my 'burb when I was a teenager (no car, nothing to do) but you simply cannot beat, as a 6 year old, being able to get up in the morning and watch lizards, snakes, birds and bugs, get dirty and play with the dog, without having to wake up my parents and go down to the park.

Peter

"...not even $10-per-gallon gas will send the majority of Americans scrambling back to cities"

LOL
The gas price in Sweden is around $8.6-per-gallon. At the cheapest places in the country...today.

Schultz

I don't think it is fair to lump old suburbs in with the newer, cookie cutter-esque, McMansionized suburbs of today. I live in a suburb just outside the city of Pittsburgh. The town, Mt Lebanon, is 100+ years old, has a light rail that connects it to downtown Pittsburgh, and is a very dense and walkable community.

whoanellie

Planners are supposed to plan with regard to the public interest. The public is not interested in voluntary change. It will take more than a minor increase in fuel costs to have a substaintial impact on the design of suburbs, although I have a feeling a lot can happen in 40 years.

lusciousbobby

So much bashing. Oil is more expensive than last year, and will be more expensive next year. You hold on to that 4000 foot house. You show 'em. Put a war on Iran. You show 'em. Put a war on Russia. Russia is bad people, you show 'em

You just keep showin' them, but be sure to pay your oil bill and your tax bill. And thank you congressman. Least you can do.

J

"Most suburbs (particularly outside the US) don't look as ugly as the picture at the top of this article"

That photo could have been taken in any number of locations in the cities of Los Angeles or Dallas. In fact it looks a little like Lincoln Blvd in LA, except for the water tower.

"Service & retail jobs are located near the people. I do not commute from a suburb to city to access my mechanic, plumber, dentist, daycare provider, medical clinic or retail store"

Jobs are too, even the white collar kind - or maybe it's people locating near jobs. I live in an outlying suburb over 40 miles from the city center, and while there probably are some, I don't know anyone in my neighborhood who works more than 10 miles from their home. The vast majority work in a business park about 3 miles away.

Jake

Ann (#112),

Service & retail jobs are located near the people. I do not commute from a suburb to city to access my mechanic, plumber, dentist, daycare provider, medical clinic or retail store. All of those services are located in the suburbs. A large number of the suburb to city commuters work in white collar jobs. These jobs are more readily adaptable to telecommuting.

Mark

It is interesting to hear suburbanites defending their lifestyle. Most of the statements about energy efficiency of cities, why light rail systems help, etc. are clearly misinformed. More importantly, though, the issue at hand is not making a moral judgment about people who choose to live in suburbia (however tempting it may be). The issue at hand is that certain types of urban, suburban, small town and rural communities will be practical in the future and others will not. Many of the things people like about smaller communities will indeed be feasible in 40 years, just not necessarily the way we try to achieve them now with sprawling developments a car ride away from work, shopping, etc. Manhattan obviously isn't the only model for the future, and certain types of suburbs clearly won't survive. In between there are many options.