Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Cool suburbs?

Last week there was an article in the Washington Post, Five myths about the suburbs, which draws a few interesting conclusions. To summarize:

-Suburbs today are ethnically diverse, with almost a third of residents minorities. The percentage is even higher in public schools, at 41%. Similarly, a third of the nation's poor live in suburbs.

-Suburbs are becoming increasingly expensive for local governments, with upfront public infrastructure costs for new developments reaching $13,426 per resident. To compensate, property tax rates have been rising sharply, whereas they've been keeping steady or even fallen in urban areas. The myriad of suburban communities has also necessitated a patchwork of municipal governments, each with its own school district, police force, etc.

-Annually, the US loses 1.4 million acres of land to sprawl, between 1982 and 2007 an area equal to New Jersey and Illinois combined. 

The author, a city supporter, believes the US population cannot continue growing at its current rate without densifying, becoming more walkable, and introducing public transport. I'm sure there are a lot of suburbanites who would be unhappy about that prediction, but its undoubtedly the truth unless the nation wants to continue losing huge swaths of forests and agricultural land. The growth of Miami has encroached unforgivably on lush wetlands. 

The article links to a Travel + Leisure magazine feature called Coolest Suburbs Worth a Visit, a title which in itself is a bit of an oxymoron, but admittedly I was intrigued. But as the Washington Post article notes, cool suburbs bear a striking similarity to cities, offering a variety of housing options, walkable streets, and many small businesses. Often, they fill the void otherwise occupied by a hip inner-city neighborhood that no longer exists due to white flight and urban renewal. 

The magazine featured some 25 suburbs, certainly too much to focus on, and not all of them piqued my interest, but a few did, some of which I was already familiar with, some not.

Montclair, NJ 1903
Evanston, IL city hall early 20th century. Image : Chuckman's
Alameda, CA 1893 Queen Anne style home. flickr : The Real Devil Doll
In the end, after researching nearly all of them, I struggled to find impressive residential areas to feature. Often I'd zoom in and ask myself "where's the city?" for all I could see were suburbs. Sure some of them may have a nice main street and a lively restaurant scene, but at the end of the day the residents go back to their home in the 'burbs. Into their cars to arrive at a home with a large front lawn, a great distance to nearby homes, and not much in the way of walkability.

These suburbs are nothing more than a lesser evil and come nowhere close to being as beautiful as a traditional inner city neighborhood. I'm disappointed Travel + Leisure would even place them on a pedestal, because I don't believe they deserve it. They are merely exceptional suburbs but suburbs nonetheless. This does, however, confirm the American love affair with suburbia. I can only hope the densification of suburbs happens sooner rather than later.