Book Review: The End of the Suburbs

Book reviews are posted every few weeks on Tuesdays. I tend to read books about urban planning, the built environment, demographics, sociology, cultural anthropology, and the environment. They are not always new books, but a good book will not be dated and will keep coming up when discussing current issues.  Click on the “Book Review” tab to see all reviews.

As someone who reads everything they can get their hands on about urban planning and the shape of our cities, “The End of the Suburbs: Where the American Dream is Moving” by Leigh Gallagher seems to be one of the most widely talked about outside of the industry circles. I appreciate her perspective as journalist, coming from the viewpoint of business and the economy. I appreciate that the idea for the book did not originate from an elitist, morally superior opinion of city over suburbs, but from financial and census data that points to a trend worth discussion by everyone, not just those in the industry.

There’s really no way I would not recommend this book: It’s a great overview of the subject of how the suburbs were created and how we got to where we are today, but it’s also very readable and entertaining for those who know the pattern as well as any other important cultural event in American history. Gallagher states that the suburbs have “overshot their mandate.” The book goes through a basic history of the suburbs, and presents snip-its from interviews with leading authors, thought leaders, developers, builders, and suburban residents. Gallagher talks a lot about alternative development patterns, like New Urbanism and infill projects, changing demographics and household size, and the future of the suburbs as we know them.

The anecdotes from people in different situations are the most telling for me, like the story of Diane Roseman, who defied convention by moving from the suburbs to the city (Cambridge) while her kids were growing up, and found more freedom for her kids, a shorter commute, less yard to maintain, a more vibrant and connected social life, and most importantly, she is unshackled from her car.

Even those who love and appreciate the suburbs (most of us, since the majority of Americans live or grew up there) cannot deny the fatal flaw with how we have distributed ourselves over the land: total dependence on the car. What was once an emblem of freedom has allowed us to spread out to where now so many families never leave their home unless it is in the car.

From here, setting aside impassioned debates, the problems with the suburban pattern of building are just simple math: more time in the car=more stress=less exercise=less time on things we love=poorer health=less time for civil engagement=decreased quality of life. More roads and infrastructure spread over more miles with less people=unsustainable tax base. Rising oil prices=a canceling out of whatever savings were achieved by moving further out. More lawn to treat+more house to heat and cool+more vehicles to drive and maintain+more impervious surface leading to flooding and pollutant run-off+more stuff+more infrastructure=environmental disaster. More cars+wider streets+faster car speeds+inhospitable infrastructure+isolation that comes from being totally dependent on rides from parents=more danger for children, physically and psychologically.

The conclusion of many thought leaders, including Bruce Katz at the Brookings Institute, is “People really just want more alternatives.” Alternatives for housing types, living space, yard size, land use, use mixes, transportation options. Our job as design professionals is to provide liveable, vibrant, healthy communities that are “car-optional,” and somewhere between the car-dependent exurb and the city apartment tower. Public will must be there to affect change in zoning laws and lending policies, and accessible books like this are a great tool.

Suburban Living tips for Ex-Urbanites

We’ve talked about urban living and what to consider when looking for a multifamily unit. However, a great location and vibrant neighborhood may not trump a little breathing room for many people. There are just as many charming suburbs as there are cookie-cutter ones, and there’s no reason why you can’t enjoy living in the suburbs, even if you have previously been a hard core urbanite.

The biggest disadvantage of the suburbs culturally, financially, and socially is total dependence on the car, the greatest disadvantage being the toll that it takes on ones health. Take advantage of walking and bike trails. Live in place where your kids can walk or bike to that great school. Take a stroll to the grocery or corner store, or out to dinner. Sometimes we get in our car without thinking about it when things are within reasonable to walk or bike. It is truly an enjoyable way to get around. Of course, in many large cities, public transit extends into the suburbs. Distance from a commuter line could be a major consideration when looking for a home in the suburbs. When looking at a house, make walkability one of your main considerations.

Unless you have a strict homeowner’s association, which is becoming more and more common in master planned developments, you have space for some homesteading. The new way to rebel in the suburbs is by daring to have a garden in your front yard. (See the NYT article, The Battlefront in the Front Yard) Even small back yards offer plenty of space for chickens, gardens, composting, line drying clothes, and water collection.

Sharing spaces is a great way to foster community and help curb the isolation so many can feel in car dependent places. Check out the book Superbia!: 31 Ways to Create Sustainable Neighborhoods by Dan Chiras and Dave Wann. (See my review here) for many ideas on how to combat the dystopian movie cliche of the suburbs and create fulfilling, healthy, fun places to live.