“Paul doesn’t like the suburbs”

While in Nebraska earlier this month my wife announced to my brother that “Paul doesn’t like suburbs.” This isn’t an entirely incorrect statement, but it caused me to consider the topic a little further and I decided I’d try and demuddle the comment a little bit.

Let me say that the idea of a suburb in and of itself isn’t really a problem. In fact, there are far worse places to live in the world than an American subdivision, even with its cookie cutter homes. Architecture + Morality pointed out a while back that some of the East German housing projects are extraordinarily dire places to reside, composed of enormous, lifeless, bland concrete boxes. When in California in September we visited with a friend who lives in Germany, and her impression of Bochum — which is on the west side — wasn’t much different (Not to bash on Germany to much; some cities in the country are lovely, or so I’m told.)

The problem with suburbs in America today is a lack of coherent planning — or of any planning at all beyond street and utility layout — which results in car dependent sprawl. The sprawl is inefficient, wasteful, unnecessary and evidence of such errant lack of planning.

Suburbs don’t have to be sprawling, though. Communities, even those developed within the context of an automotively addicted culture, can be designed in such a way as to incorporate new subdivisions outside of their original plat. Or new developments can be planned in such a way that they are self-sustaining and prepared for annexations as necessary.

Designing this way presents some challenges, of course. For instance, if we attempt to create a community with a central hub of services, like communities are generally planned around, how do you add land to the city without creating prohibitive walking distances to these services? Ideally, you create new hubs and find new grocers and postmen to provide new services.

Our economy doesn’t favor this model, however. Walmart isn’t interested in throwing up a new supercenter every four miles just so that each well-planned community has one within walking distance. The Postal Service doesn’t have the money to do that either. In the days of small independent grocers and five-and-dimes, this would have been much more feasible.


From there we might look at how we can extend the reach of a hub. This isn’t a new concept. Look at the trolleys in the above photo of Enid, Oklahoma, in 1908. The same thing used to happen in cities all over the country. Some cities have managed to create a similar system today, with things such as park and ride, allowing people living further away from the original downtown to still get there in a reasonable amount of time. (If you’re interested in more on why trolleys disappeared from American streets, read up on the Great American street car scandal.). The scale of a modern park and ride system, however, usually seems to be outside the scope of a desirable community plan. That is, even though you might be able to park at a remote location and take the train downtown, downtown is still farther than you usually go for groceries. In all likelihood, you still drive to a Super Center or Whole Foods to stock the fridge. These grocers probably have locations close enough to drive to in less than 20-30 minutes, which are too far to walk (if there are sidewalks and pedestrian bridges) to and too close to take public transit efficiently.

A hub and spoke system can work, I believe, if it’s in the plans from the beginning. Part of the struggle for a city like, say, Portland is that the public transit is being built around existing development, development that wasn’t necessarily designed to be friendly to buses or light rail.

There are ways to cut down on the amount of space a city takes up, which would aid the effort to create more walkable or more transit friendly communities of greater population. For instance, build up instead of out, or plat smaller yards (and plan for more public greenspace, which also beautifies a city). More people walking, cycling or taking the bus means fewer parking spaces needed in those asphalt oceans between roads and department stores. In essence, increase the population density.

Another problem with modern suburbia is the resulting lack of human interaction. Other people mow our lawns for us, cutting down on the number of opportunities for us to talk to Wilson (or whatever neighbor) over the fence. We “pay at the pump,” or pay a machine as we checkout of the grocery store ourselves. We use the internet for research instead of going to the library and watch movies at home on cable or via Netflix.

Introverts are probably cheering at these “advancements” in society. Extroverts like myself are left looking for new ways to actually interact with human beings, especially those of us with desk jobs. Regardless of your particular state of vert, people need people.

I’ve probably talked about all of these things before, but they’re worth repeating. Suburbia, and all that the word presently implies in our culture, is not good. But the broader idea of outlying developments, suburbs, are not inherently evil, or even ugly.

Photo from Wikipedia.


About pcNielsen
Paul Nielsen founded The Aesthetic Elevator late in 2005. He owns a piece of paper, located somewhere in his house (not on the wall), stating that he earned a B.F.A. from the University of Nebraska around about 2001. While there, he studied studied architecture, graphic design and ceramics, graduating with a degree in studio art. Paul presently serves as communications manager for a small non-profit doing their print design and marketing. He spends as much time sculpting in his studio as possible — which is not nearly enough. Visit his website at pcNielsen.com.

One Response to “Paul doesn’t like the suburbs”

  1. Sarah says:

    Wow. We’re tapping into the same wavelength. I’m always doodling these little spoke-type sub-divisions like you describe. People often criticize me for slamming on sub-divisions saying that I live in what was once a farm and technically THAT’s a sbu-division. Ah, true, but my house was built in 1929 when they were still thinking about passive solar design, close-knit neighborhoods and walkability. I can walk to town, the grocery, the bank, the main park in town, etc. One thing that is unique in my neighborhood is that hardly anyone has an attached garage. We all have to walk to our houses, even if it is only by 10 feet. We often see a neighbor in that 10 feet walk.

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