Opinion: In defense of the suburbs

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The suburbs have a major PR problem. Despite being home to millions of Americans, these areas of low-density housing outside of city centers have been the subject of many negative stereotypes.

Suburbs have been depicted as white dominant communities which run on systemic racism, sprawling neighborhoods of environment destroying inefficiency and conformist rows of cookie-cutter housing which stifle individuality and make its inhabitants miserable.  Time Magazine even ran an article suggesting suburban life, with its upper-middle class wealth level, makes people more selfish.

Yet with all this condemnation, the suburbs continue to grow. Their growth has recently overtaken urban areas according to the Brookings Institution. So why are so many Americans still choosing suburbs when so many claim they are a terrible idea?

Debunking the myths of suburbia

The fact so many stereotype suburbia as negative is problematic at its core. This is because suburbs are just as diverse and unique as cities. We wouldn’t claim Los Angeles, Seattle and New York are all the same because they’re big cities, so why would we do the same with suburbs, especially in a negative light?  Each suburb has different designs, populations and challenges.

While it may be impossible to speak for all suburbs, it is possible to debunk the stereotypes applied to them. Mainly, the myths that suburbs cater only to white residents, are bad for the environment, and stifle quality of living with cookie-cutter developments.

Race in the suburbs

Suburbs have long been criticized as being made up almost entirely of white residents. This stereotype was recently shown in an episode of the College Humor series “Adam Ruins Everything.” The episode, titled “The Disturbing History of the Suburbs,” claims the suburbs largely house wealthy white residents who aren’t affected by systemic racial discrimination. The video argues, because white citizens aren’t affected by policies such as redlining (a process by which banks refuse to offer loans and financial resources to neighborhoods housing racial minorities), they are able to afford suburban homes, enjoy higher education standards, lower crime and better job prospects.

Now, I am in no way denying the very real discrimination that has existed in the U.S. based on race. Policies such as redlining have affected many generations of racial minorities, and the general inequality and effects of those policies is still felt today. There is still work to do in achieving racial equality.

But suburbs have also changed since the 1950’s. The “Adam Ruins Everything” short tries to claim minorities still can’t move into suburbs by pointing to a 20-year-old article in The New York Times looking at just one suburb (the suburb of Levittown, which employed redlining) and stating it was still (in 1997) overwhelmingly white. This is a gross oversimplification of race and the suburbs nationally. Modern day suburbs vary widely in their racial makeup and economic level. According to the Brookings Institution, the majority of racial minorities in the U.S. now live in suburbs. This trend has been occurring for years, according to CBS News.

An essay in The Economist looks at many different suburbs nationally and internationally, including the suburb of Maryvale in Phoenix, one of the poorest in the nation and now home to a Mexican American population. The author states, despite its low income level, Maryvale and other similar suburbs allow their minority residents to enjoy a higher living standard and small business opportunities.

“They have the space and freedom to paint their houses bright green, to build extensions for grandparents, to have barbecues in their front yards and to keep chickens (a few even keep horses),” the essay states. “Some run small businesses out of the local shopping mall, which has been turned into a mercado.”

Modern day suburbs can be just as diverse as the cities they surround. Photo by Axel Quartarone.

This example is reflected nationally with many minority suburbs granting their residents with a higher standard of living than some inner cities, with poverty, education and crime statistics being better, according to The Atlantic.

Now these sources don’t in any way claim all suburbs are ideal for all minorities.But these examples do show the issue of race in the suburbs is a lot more complex than the simple rich white suburb stereotype.The general problem of poverty based on race affects residents anywhere they live weather it be city, suburbs or rural areas. It is not unique to the suburbs at all, and we as a country should do all we can to improve the lives of minorities affected by poverty.

Environment and the suburbs

Another common stereotype of the suburbs is how bad they are for the environment. This is mainly connected to the idea of “sprawl.” Sprawl is the rapid expansion of low-density housing away from city centers. This causes longer commute times, which leads to more pollution.

Again, this stereotype rests on increasingly outdated assumptions about how suburbs are designed. Developers are utilizing new strategies to reduce energy consumption in new developments.

Yale University ran an article by Marc Gunther, titled “Beyond Sprawl: A New Vision of The Solar Suburbs of the Future.” Gunther states advancements in tech such as solar panels and electric cars are part of a larger trend to create what some call “solar suburbs.” Suburbs which are so efficient in energy, they provide more energy to the city than they consume, according to the University of Washington.

Another way in which suburbs are becoming more energy efficient is by changing the way they are designed. New developments, such as The Village shopping center in Meridian, showcase a new trend in city planning called “urban burbs,” communities that offer low density housing, but with urban amenities in a much closer distance to homes.

Lee Gallagher is the author of the book “The End of the Suburbs: Where the American Dream is Moving,” which isn’t a critique on suburbs themselves, but rather bad suburban planning. In an interview with CityJournal, Gallagher talked about changes in suburban planning.

“To say that everyone wants to live in a 50-story skyscraper in New York City is not at all practical or realistic or in touch with how people want to live in this country,” Gallagher said. “So a big part of the future will be ‘urban burbs,’ where it’s possible to live in closer proximity to the things you need to do everyday.”

A smaller commute, energy efficient houses, and better city design show why suburbs are increasingly less reflective of their bad for the environment stereotype.

Quality of life in the suburbs

A third major attack aimed at the suburbs focuses on quality of life. Chris Weller writes an article in Business Insider, titled “There may be an evolutionary reason suburbia feels so miserable.” Weller (who doesn’t live in a suburb but rather New York City) argues suburbs, with their long and winding streets, cookie-cutter houses and lack of walkability, stifle social interaction. Because humans are social animals, he argues, residents in suburbs must be less happy than those in cities.

Ironically, the exact opposite of the claim may be true. According to a study by Adam Okulicz-Kozaryn, assistant professor of public policy at Rutgers, suburban residents actually report some of the highest levels of happiness among the general population. Why is this? Because just like suburbs across the nation, every individual has unique wants and desires for where they want to live. What some city residents would call dull, others would call peace and quiet.

With every commute to work, I see people walking their pets, playing with their kids, meeting with friends at barbecues and waving back to me as I pass by, not locked up in their houses. Residents choose to live in suburbs because of a slower pace of life, and while it can’t compare to a vibrant downtown, some people just prefer to have some time to themselves and a smaller community.

Live where you want to live

Are all these arguments to say all suburbs are better than the city? Absolutely not. But at the very least, they should contradict the claim that life in the suburbs is wholly negative. Every suburb is different, and every city is different. Instead of attacking suburbs for the problems they’ve had in the past, we should be discussing solutions for suburbs to make life better for everyone.

Maybe life would be better if we just understood some people prefer different lifestyles and we stopped dividing ourselves along things as silly as housing density.


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1 Comment

  1. Your underlying theme that suburbs are based on racial inequality has a major fault. For those who claim racial inequality exist and must be wiped out, they fail to address the major contributing factor for this perceived problem. Without equality of effort, you will never get, not should you, equality of outcome. America is still the land of opportunity for everyone who is willing to work hard for what they want.

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