Monday, February 07, 2005

At home in nowhere

Joel Kotkin, writing in the Washington Post, hails the triumph of the suburbs over cities, and said suburbia is where the American dream finds its true expression. As suburbs become less dependent on cities, they need to create a more complete sense of community than what they now offer:

The urbanization of suburbia -- the creation of a more sophisticated, self-sufficient community -- is already beginning. From the suburbs of Northern Virginia to the Los Angeles basin, cities are restoring the commercial cores of what had once been autonomous small towns. Often devastated by malls and big-box shopping centers, these downtowns once gave suburban towns a sense of distinctiveness -- something many now wish to recover. Other places are attempting to create whole new communities, with their own defined town centers complete with fine restaurants, smart shops and even nightclubs.

Over the past decade, for example, Naperville, Ill., has grown from simply another Chicago suburb into a definable place, with a well-appointed old town center, a lovely riverside park and even some striking public architecture. It is filled with pedestrians from the surrounding area. "Our downtown is what keeps us together," says Christine Jeffries, a civic leader in the community of 138,000. "It gives us an identity."

Wait a second here--If the suburbs are so great, why are they trying to transform themselves into cities? Could it be that high-density, pedestrian-friendly development is a more natural, more hospitable way to live?

And while Kotkin notes that metropolitan regions across the globe are becoming more suburbanized, it is important to remember that in America, the suburbs did not flourish by accident, nor solely as a result of the free choice of the people who moved there. Decades of government policies, from subsidized mortgages that favored new construction over housing rehabilitation, from highway projects that slashed city neighborhoods to ribbons, to accelerated depreciation rules that made shopping malls profitable, have accelerated suburban growth and the flight from cities. Many of the policies ostensibly designed to help cities also contributed to their demise, such as welfare, public housing and urban redevelopment.

Finally, regardless of how Kotkin chooses to live, and regardless of the fact that many cities bear responsibility for their own deteroriation, it strikes me as unseemly--though certainly not un-American--to take joy in their downfall.


Blogger fester said...

Yeah, I always find it interesting that one of the dominant responses of a suburb that loses its cheap land AND accessibility selling point is to start figuring out how to increase the density of its commercial and residential services. Monroeville's master plan for the Golden Mile is one of the more notable local examples, where they want to make 22 less scary for pedestrians, and decrease the importance of having several parking spaces per anticipated car by clustering the stores more efficiently. Always amazing to me.

7:53 AM

Blogger Jonathan Potts said...

What suburban officials and residents are slow to grasp is that it is their onerous zoning codes that are the cause of much of their misery. Where did we get the idea that it is bad to live near a store or a restaurant?

10:04 AM

Blogger fester said...

I know, maybe this is part of my being a lifelong urbanite (originally in a mill-town near suburbia, and a resident of the well designed and maintained urban East End of Pittsburgh), but I can not get my mind around the concept that being near the things that I like to use on a consistent basis is a bad thing.

10:33 PM

Blogger O said...

Let's not forget that the growth of the suburbs was spurred, not just by government policies but also by private interestes. For a long time after WWII because of mortgage redlining, the only place you could really get a mortgage was in the suburbs. Let's also not forget that there's a twinge of racism in the history of development: trying to get away from "those people". Kotkin talks a lot about design, but glosses over a lot of the socio-political history.

8:32 AM

Anonymous Anonymous said...

So, if the 'burbs rule, does that mean that the fact that I love Squirrel Hill the best of any neighborhood in the entire Pittsburgh area make me un-American?

3:19 PM


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