work     Feb 08 2012

The Other Guy Had a Point (Maybe)

Mapos LLC

I wonder where my skepticism comes from. Being a fan of urban density and everything that comes with it – cultural diversity and abundance, housing density, energy efficient living, mass transit, walking and biking as healthy alternatives to car commuting, the list goes on – I sometimes feel that the anti-suburb conversation is swinging the pendulum too far in the other direction (and let’s be truthful, a lot of suburbs are beautiful desirable places to live).

To move the conversation in the right direction, we need a balanced look at history. What were the planners at the time thinking about when they put pen to paper and dreamed up their bucolic garden communities on the edge of cities? Some of them had to be intelligent people, after all, so let’s not throw the tomato plants out with the lawn shavings.

Suburban sprawl – and especially the far-flung exurbs – HAS proven itself to be an unsustainable development, as Christopher Leinberger writes in the NY Times, but is it completely broken as to say that it is in “collapse”? Or that the fringe suburbs have achieved an untimely “death.” When I was right out of college, I knew many Midwestern peers who wanted exactly what they had growing up and never considered the “lifestyle reasons and the convenience of not having to own cars.” And as I’ve often said, when I retire (if I ever do), I want to live in an elevator building in New York City for the exact reasons Leinberger mentions in his piece. But I’m also not that naive to believe that every “boomer wants to live in a walkable urban downtown.” In fact, I know many who like their suburban manse, thank you very much. To generate profound and lasting change in our development patterns, I think we should look at why a lot of people are making the lifestyle decisions they do. What made the suburbs so successful and so desired in the first place? And while we’re at it, let’s not forget that urbanism preceded suburbanism, and was itself was preceded by agrarianism. We’ve been here before, haven’t we?

In another piece in the Times, Louise Mozingo puts suburban office developments in her sites. At least she describes why the landscaped corporate parks were so popular. But again, to simply say that corporations should move back to the city or tie their suburban campuses to mass transit (which are great ideas) misses the point. I’m not about to write a treatise on human habit development over the centuries, but a realistic look at human behavior and WHY some of us – MOST of us – used to really like the suburbs would be a good idea.

And before I get too far with this line of thought, let me repeat myself: I like the city and want to live in one. Always. Humans are complex things, however, and we’re never going to agree on everything, especially when we swing the pendulum too far out of reach