Reaching Across the Urban-Suburban Divide

As today’s post from Seattle Transit Blog acknowledges, criticizing the place where someone lives is one of the surest ways to create division and contention when discussing planning issues:

1874818708_bd4d45221e_m.jpgPhoto by yuan2003 via Flickr.

If I criticize a portion of Bellevue’s cul-de-sac development, a commenter is just as likely to deride my urban elitism as seriously analyze the serious consequences of that development.

But development is not done in a vacuum. The policies that favor highway expansion over transit expansion indeed favor sprawl. The lack of strong building codes in expanding suburbs leads to cul-de-sacs or strip-malls that block shared access with egregious shrubbery and ditches. We all know what it’s like to have to get in your car to go to the Baskin Robbins in the next strip mall over. Is this an example of freedom? Not socio-economically, for certain. Not if you prefer to walk than drive. And certainly this lack of oversight is not the best choice for the planet.

But the problem isn’t the suburbs themselves. It’s not even the suburbanites that occupy those houses and drive everywhere. The problem is the government policies that historically let developers do nearly anything with cheap land. It has been a failure at the federal, state, regional, and local levels that we cannot mindlessly blame on suburbanites themselves. Indeed, suburbs are a natural part of the metropolitan framework.
Auto-dependency is not: therefore it is a product of poor governmental policies which are a form of social engineering that have accelerated climate change and have led to things like suffering through congestion
as a requirement to get to work.

…[W]e want our suburban readers to know: You are not the enemy.

What do you think? Has the national mood shifted sufficiently that we can have civil, productive discussions on this topic without hurt feelings getting in the way on either side, urban or suburban? Can we get past the stereotypes and start implementing policies that will reduce auto-dependence in suburbia? Or does it all get too personal too quickly?

In other contentious and not-so-contentious matters around the network, DC Bicycle Transportation Examiner advises GM to keep its P.U.M.A. out of the bike lane; Austin Contrarian crunches some numbers on "job sprawl"; and Discovering Urbanism looks to Charleston and Savannah for urban policy innovations.

  • The proliferation of suburbs is a result of high wealth, cheap land, and cheap gas, with a dollop of massive government intervention. We seem to be on the verge of losing perhaps two of those things, so eventually the problem will take care of itself…

    In the meantime I believe a more constructive approach is to simply inform everyone of the true costs of their decisions. In the case of suburbia much of which has been hidden in the name of propping up the American Dream.

  • Currently I’m in a predicament. Something I hope to make the most of. I’m getting married in October to a girl who’s family lives in a suburb of the city in which I work and live. She spends most of her free time if she can with her family.

    This leaves me two choices. One, to live in the city and have her drive two to three times a week to see her family. Two, to live in the suburb and ride my bike everywhere. Being consigned to being the town’s crazy bike guy.

    She will not ride for some very good reasons. In the end this results in less driving over all. I’m lucky to be in a metropolitan area where there is a commuter train. Without this, my decision would be different.

    Every person out there, in suburbia, in my experience will drive as long as the infrastructure is what it is. They only see results and not causes. “Why do you have a car?” “To get around” They say.

    My hope is that through activism the suburbs will transform into more central communities with sustainable cores. Though my suspicion is that only governments can do this. People are reactionary for the most part. They will not, on a large scale, act in anything but self interest.

  • Boris

    The best way to get suburbanites to change their ways is to emphasize “small town living.” It’s something they can understand. Their greatest fear is to have to live in Manhattan. Let them know, instead, that the best way to preserve what they have- the quiet, friendly neighbors, lots of open space- is to concentrate new development in a town center to ease the pressure of development everywhere else. Basically the compromise is, we allow for some density somewhere (like in place of a mall parking lot) and what you get out of it is that no new subdivisions will be built beyond yours.

  • The urban-suburban divide is a design issue and not one that people were given any choice over, as for a long time urbanization processes were more accidental than otherwise. You can’t really fault their choice to drive because at core it’s only a choice about affordable housing they made. The best way to heal the divide is to propose a plan to urbanize the suburbs that is realistic and considers that their form will remain more or less the same for our lifetime, but that many marginal improvements are possible.

    I started on something like this by applying the principles of shared space and streets to a redesign of suburban commercial strips. I think that can reach a lot of people.

  • civil, productive discussions on this topic without hurt feelings getting in the way on either side, urban or suburban?

    You hear similar pleas when racial reconciliation is the topic because suburbs, racism and classism are deeply entwined. Since it is uncool to be a snob, the defenders of suburbia against creeping urbanism have to focus on “Freedom” and on how safely the children can play in their cul de sacs.

    This is not true of all dwellers in the suburbs of course, but I am afraid there is little prospect of productive discussion with those for whom “No one can live here without a couple of cars” is a feature not a bug.

  • garyg

    So Andrew has decided to poison the well already by claiming that suburbanites are racists (though he allows that “not all” suburban dwellers are bigots. How gracious of him).

    Doesn’t take long, does it?

  • vnm

    Cezar, you should stay in the city. It will encourage your fiancee’s family to do the same. If there is a mass transit option she can use, encourage her to use it.

  • Cezar, I think you should be that bike guy. It would likely be difficult if not impossible to get her family to move and being that bike guy is a lot of fun.

  • Lee Watkins

    Cezar I had the same problem. We decided to get a rowhouse in a really choice location of the city within walking distance of dance clubs and boutiques she loved to visit – and we bought a cheap older motorcycle so we can get to places outside the city, like visiting her parents. It helps if you guilt her parents into visiting you instead! Motorcycles are much easier to park than a car, cheaper to own/operate, and you you can still get a lot of groceries and 2+ people on them if you are creative. I grew up with my parents only having a motorcycle, so it was re-living my past in a way. We are now considering replaceing the gas motorcycle with an electric one from China made by Motorino, which have really good speed and range. Of course we still use our bicycles most of the time in the city. If she insists on a car, you could get a really tiny one like a Mini or Honda Fit or Smart Car – that way less worry about parking. In any case don’t give up on the city – there’s no substitue for walkability.

  • You hear similar pleas when racial reconciliation is the topic because suburbs, racism and classism are deeply entwined. Since it is uncool to be a snob, the defenders of suburbia against creeping urbanism have to focus on “Freedom” and on how safely the children can play in their cul de sacs.

    Thank you, Andrew. We’ll get nowhere ignoring the racist and classist motivations of many people’s decisions to live in the suburbs. Pay no attention to the troll.



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