Some thoughts on suburbia

Correspondence with a visitor to this site

At 02:12 AM 4/14/99 -0700, you wrote:

finally, your various jibes against suburbia hurt a bit. i grew up in the suburbs. i am typing this in the suburbs [....] don't be so hard on me...

Sorry! This is a thorny topic.

From the perspective of a New Yorker, suburbia is a terribly bad thing. The suburbanization of the US after WWII literally destroyed a number of American cities -- think of Detroit -- and although New York survived, it was horribly battered. True, some American cities have "revived" -- in a rather limited and unsatisfactory sense -- but the need to fit them into a predominantly suburban matrix is very damaging. I had occasion to fly into Minneapolis a few weeks ago, and it's a very depressing spectacle. From the air, the surface area, right into and through the urban core, appears to be about half parking lot.

It's difficult for me not to see the suburb and the car as two sides of the same coin -- "one and inseparable," as Daniel Webster said in a different context. Certainly suburbia as we know it both implies and is implied by car-mobility as the predominant mode -- or wouldn't you agree? Is there a way to re-work suburbia to fit into a more rational and humane social and spatial order? I don't assert that it's impossible, but I also don't see how to do it.

On the other hand, most Americans do live in suburbs and apparently enjoy it. So where does that leave us? I frankly don't know. My own goals are a bit less global. I'd like to see the cities rebuild themselves on a far less automobilized basis. Maybe this would lead to a sharper division between city and suburban hinterland -- the return of the mediaeval walled town! I can't honestly say I'd mind. I can envision real cities, with few cars and very dense settlement, at the core of a Sprawlville of strip malls and tract housing. Sprawlvillians who wanted to come into the city would have to get themselves to a train line. A considerably richer mesh of train lines would presumably be needed in Sprawlville, but that seems at least physically possible, though certainly a political challenge at present.

Michael Smith

Essays and refections -- contents