Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Parsing Suburbia

It occurs to me that some of you, having read my recent diatribes about urban centers, suburbanization, and even exurbanization, might think that I'm one of those anti-suburban elitists.

Perhaps you've heard of them: urbanists who think humanity best serves the environment by cramming ourselves into high-rise apartment blocks to minimize our geographical footprint. Ecologists who claim suburbanization's car culture bloats our carbon footprint. And therapists who say suburbanization has fueled the unraveling of the very things it was supposed to preserve: family unity, civic involvement, and even personal well being. Since, as a suburbanized nation, we vote less, we attend church less, and we're less content.

Lots of folks living in suburbia probably don't realize they're sitting in the middle of a grand academic and political debate over the merits of their lifestyle. But as exurbanization pushes the reaches of costly infrastructure development ever farther out, gas prices continue to rise, and Gen-X'ers fuel a migration back to inner cities with singles, homeschoolers, and empty-nesters, suburbanization may have started to lose some of its economic clout. Particularly those first-ring suburbs that now show their age, and in which younger generations have expressed ambivalence about staying.

Whether suburban Americans want to admit it or not, change has begun to take place all around them. Even though more Americans now live in suburbs than rural and urban areas combined, the promise of the good life in suburbia has begun to either elude or fail to impress homebuyers who don't need the highly-rated public schools that have remained one of suburbia's biggest draws.

Nobody except fringe liberals are predicting the death of the suburb.  But since the suburbs are where most of America's conservatives, Republicans, and people of faith live, some right-wingers have become uncomfortable with what they perceive as an urban bias in the current presidential administration.  A bias which could lead to spending for big city programs suburbanites fear won't benefit them.

Reverse Migration to the Cities

Oddly enough, however, the renewed interest in city life has actually been coming from the well-educated, relatively affluent suburbs themselves.

Look, for example, at the surprising levels of interest across the country in renovating forgotten inner-city neighborhoods. Here in Dallas, one of the most acrimonious disputes isn't about white flight, but professionals moving back into town, tearing down old frame houses, and constructing gaudy McMansions. In Fort Worth, a dreary industrial neighborhood just west of downtown is being re-made into a trendy collection of high-priced low-rise condominium complexes.

Even poor, minority neighborhoods are being rediscovered, by none other than America's retailers. A seedy stretch of impoverished west Dallas has recently been flooded with big-box stores and chain restaurants. I'm no fan of Wal-Mart, but I have to give them credit for being the only company willing to build full-service grocery stores in some of Fort Worth's most beleaguered areas. It seems companies can make money in the inner city after all, where individual household incomes may be low, but the population density means more people are nearby needing fresh food, toothpaste, and even lumber.

And you've already read about the surge in young whites moving into Manhattan and even Brooklyn, sparking surprising demographic shifts in what has become a minority-majority metropolis.  If even preachers are now trying to claim a piece of the urban action, you know the trend back to the cities is for real.

Against this heady backdrop of progressive urbanization, then, it might sound as though I'm one of the suburban-bashers.  But, guess what:  I'm not.  I still live in a suburb, and have no plans of leaving anytime soon.

Not that suburbia is utopia.  It's just that urban America isn't utopia, either.  And the debate over urban/suburban living, like many debates, has degenerated into yet another politicized and propagandized war over preferences.  Generally, conservative Republican pundits want to preserve the idyllic family-friendly ethos of the idealized suburban model, and liberal Democrats want to deconstruct conventional American society by forcing all of us into a dense coexistence.

I think accepting reality would make most of us a lot happier.

Suburbanization for Better or Worse

Who can say suburbanization has been entirely good, or entirely bad? Of the factors which coalesced to create the phenomenon, some were benign trends, while others were overt fallacies.

To a certain degree, suburbanization evolved as a logical extension of urbanization to accommodate the Baby Boom generation after the Second World War.  The sheer population dynamics of this vast cohort of people testify to that.  Where would all those kids have fit in the cities of 1955?

Then there were the developers who built the Levittowns of suburbia, and the industrialists who built the cars and the freeways to get there.  America's grand consumer marketplace quickly became the world's most dynamic innovation engine after World War II, and furnishing all of these new homes and deploying mass-market cars instead of mass-transit commuter lines played significant roles in our country's economic development.

What bothers me most about suburbanization is an irony, because one of the big motivators getting whites out of inner cities was veiled - or sometimes, blatant - racism.  Although some conservatives bristle at the notion, "white fight" has been proven to be one of the key phenomena which fueled the growth of our suburbs.

The irony comes when I acknowledge, much to the chagrin of my liberal urban theory professors from college, that in a capitalist democracy, I don't necessarily think we should expect everybody to live together in high densities.  Particularly in the United States, we are not as homogeneous a society as academics like to think we are, and there is a benefit to having some space between ourselves for everybody's shared sanity. Let's face it: many of us like the privacy, space, and individuality that you simply can't get living on top of each other.

Think about it: it's hard to work up a riot in suburbia. Even in poor suburbs. Not hearing the upstairs neighbors fighting all the time is a good thing. Even Chicago's towering 1950's-era public housing project, Cabrini Green, has been replaced with low-density apartments, and some of those are in the suburbs. Obviously, a mix of urban and suburban can be beneficial in a society which supposedly values differences.

From a purely logistical standpoint, some version of suburbanization would have happened anyway, as populations bubbled over city lines like soup in a boiling pot.  Either cities would have annexed the little towns ringing their boundaries - which sometimes happened anyway - or the little towns would have, over time, grown into good-sized cities in their own right from the spillover effect, much as Arlington, Texas, where I live, has done.  We've grown not only as a suburb, but as population has spilled over from Fort Worth, with whom we share a city line.  Surely urbanists can't have expected to keep the country's burgeoning population growth within the confines of existing city boundaries? Sprawl of some sort was inevitable.

One key characteristic differentiating most suburbs from their nearby urban cores is population density.  And if you're going to argue from a purely ecological standpoint, then no, suburbia and its inherent sprawl characteristics aren't the most environmentally-friendly invention mankind has ever come up with.  A lot of land is wasted on yards homeowners never use, acres of parking lots sit empty every day, and mass transit becomes inefficient since everything is so much further apart.

But how environmentally-sustainable are high-density urban centers?  It could be argued that suburbia actually dilutes some forms of pollution, whereas cities concentrate some forms of pollution.  For example, due to the abundance of concrete surfaces, cities become heat islands which can increase the amount of electricity necessary to keep people cool.  Congestion on city streets can also be more significant than in suburbia, contributing to vehicle emissions from stalled traffic.

And how about that traffic? Liberals love to tout mass transit functionality in urban centers, but incessant budget cuts - largely triggered by irresponsibly high unionized wages - have whittled mass transit service down to bare-bones operations in most cities, which has driven many city dwellers to private vehicles for reliable mobility.  Sure, I think most people - even conservatives - would be willing to park their car and use mass transit if it was frequent, safe, convenient, and affordable. But our post-modern lives don't seem to be slow enough for the not-for-profit systems we have.

Suburbs in Transition

Personally, I think the greatest threat to the conservative suburban ideal is the same American trait that spawned them to begin with: that desire for something new and different. Sure, post-war Americans could have stayed in larger numbers in their urban hometowns to raise their kids, but they wanted their own space with their own grass for their kids. Today, suburbanites could stay in the 'burbs, but not only does the excitement and intrigue of the inner city beckon, but developers have invented the next big thing in family mobility: the exurb.

Exurbs have been popping up along the fringes of major metropolitan areas for the past decade, characterized by more brand-new home construction in an even deeper rural setting. Which takes no imagination, since many of these exurbs are being built on pastures which were farmland when suburbs were being invented 60 years ago.

Meanwhile, our current suburbs will continue to age, our own little suburban cores turning unattractive as new styles and fads from the exurbs - and renewal projects in the city - make them appear dated. Eventually, suburban towns will evolve into towns with remarkably similar problems as have plagued our urban centers for decades. Only on a smaller scale.

Not that suburbs will cease to exist.  Sooner or later, hip Gen-X'ers will be able to find some redeeming qualities to the suburban environments in which they were raised, and maybe even spark some sort of split-level subdivision renaissance.

After all, how 'ya gonna keep 'em down on the farm after they've seen Naperville?
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