I’ve been reading a wonderful book about urban planning called Suburban Nation: The Rise of Sprawl and the Decline of the American Dream.
In this politely harsh critique on the idiosyncrasies of modern attitudes towards city building and the backwards promises of suburbia, Andres Duany and his team write one sentence in particular that could easily sum up the main problem with suburban living:
Nothing interests humans more than other humans.
I’m sure you’ve seen images like the one here before.
Cookie-cutter homes, sometimes all built exactly alike, placed along winding “community” roads that don’t really lead anywhere. These “communities” promise high standards of living sometimes afforded by 24-hour security personnel, reliable maintenance staff paid for by money-hungry homeowner’s associations, and most importantly, a peace of mind that only a staid arrangement of homes, homes and more homes could offer.
But the negatives in these communities outweigh the positives. I see this happen even in a highly populated city like Miami, whose outlying suburbs – Kendall, Miami Lakes, Cutler Bay – cause traffic jams daily as commuters travel increasingly longer distances than they should to get back home from their jobs in the city.
Traffic is only part of the problem, though. The very idea of people jumping into their cars, tuning out the world until they enter the safety of their gated home within their gated community, is one that’s tearing us apart as a society.
In Suburban Nation, Duany explains that suburbia grew out of a mid-20th century distaste with dirty and cramped inner cities whose factories, sweatshops and tenements were but infant children of the Industrial Revolution. “Inner-city living” became a phrase befitting of people who couldn’t afford to live somewhere nicer.
Nowadays, the opposite is true, with people paying premiums to live in city centers even if the extant appeal of suburbia has blighted them into a shell of what they used to be.
Downtown Miami and its surrounding neighborhoods are great examples.
A formerly bustling area at all hours of the day, Downtown Miami is now a vagrant-ridden ghost town after 6pm. However, condominiums in and around the area are commanding insane prices that most of Miami’s population can’t even afford.
Why is that? Because the urban renaissance is upon us. People don’t want to live ten, twenty, thirty miles from their jobs or from places of entertainment, for that matter. The city life is the new chic, with the ability to walk to everywhere becoming the new way to live. Cities themselves are way cleaner and more attractive than they used to be when suburbia became a thing, meaning “inner-city living” is fast becoming something cool.
The most appealing factor of that city life chic, however, is indeed the fact that it’s so easy to interact with other humans. When people are able to walk to the majority of their daily destinations, they naturally encounter a greater amount of other humans than if they were to drive everywhere. Think about running into your friends or colleagues at a bar on your way to the grocery store, jumping into a fitness class at the park on your way back from work.
We need to ask ourselves, then: what do we really qualify as a high standard of living? For me, living in a gated community where there’s nothing to do is the exact opposite of a high living standard. Being able to meet new people simply by stepping outside my living quarters is a much more appealing lifestyle, and for obvious reasons, it’s also a much more sustainable one: think about how many pedestrians fit into the space taken up by a single automobile.
Suburbia, Duany and his team ultimately conclude, is a failed experiment that catered to specific circumstances of its time but ultimately did not deliver on its promise of better living. People love people, and putting up dividing walls, fences and gates between neighbors is not the way to promote that.
What do you think about living in suburbia versus living in the city? Let’s talk!