In defense of suburbia and its incessant sprawl.

While conventionally popular, suburban living, if not at least suburban sprawl, gets shit on left, right, and centre from intellectuals and (supra)urbanites from across the board.i But you don’t read Contravex to reinforce your beliefs, so here’s a quick rundown of the advantages of suburban sprawl from an municipal, community, and individual perspective :

  • Municipal : Laxer land-use/zoning bylaws and faster permit approvals permit suburbs to more rapidly absorb new immigrants to a city during an economic boom.ii Multiple municipal nodes can also be created by decentralised sprawl (eg. Houston), reducing pressure on downtown infrastructure and diffusing efforts at land development monopolies by a few entrenched players.
  • Community : What is for some a monotony of construction materials and styles is for (many) others a familiar and inoffensive sensibility, not to mention a force for unification rather than division between neighbours.iii The much decried “ticky tacky houses” can be perfectly awful or they can be perfectly pleasant. It depends more on the families inside than anything else.
  • Individual : At the bleeding edge of suburbia, the new homes are closer to nature, which is appealing, refreshing, and decompressing, even if it might mean a more stressful (or at least longer) daily commute.iv The cost per square foot of real estate is also markedly less, meaning that your dollar stretches farther and you’re less likely to be living on top of your neighbours to the same extent as you would be in similarly priced units located more centrally. Then there’s the weirdly intangible and equally invigorating sense of new beginnings out in the ‘burbs due to the significant level of nearby land development and the constant commotion caused thereby. When land development happens in more mature parts of a city, there are always at least as many people pissed off to see a beautiful old building or house demolished as there are to see something new, and everyone is far more likely to be annoyed by the incessant jack-hammering noises echoing off every building in a one-mile radius from the construction zone, starting at 6:00am of course.

The disadvantages should be well familiar, but just to dot our i’s and cross our t’s, here are a few of the most important salient ones :

  • What are initially sparsely populated new subdivisions soon become over-crowded morasses of cars parked on streets that are intentionally too narrow so that developers can squeeze more profit out of a parcel, alongside homes falling into various states of disrepair as vagabond renters breeze through, all in communities underserved by the municipality, and hemmed in by traffic jams bad enough to make you wanna bust a 9.
  • Property taxes and permit fees for new subdivisions are rarely if ever sufficient to cover even the medium-term costs of providing and maintaining municipal infrastructure. This means that there are never enough roads, libraries, fire and police stations, or recreational facilities to keep up with the frequently frenetic pace of sprawl, and that residents of more mature communities sponsor the game of catch-up at the expense of maintaining or improving aging facilities in the city’s core.

Suffice to say that the picture’s always more complicated than it appears in media on either side of the spectrum and that nothing on this planet is “sustainable,” so why should sprawl be ? It’s either growth or death. That’s all there is. And as cities like Detroit are currently testifying to, from the ashes rise phoenixes.

Even if it takes generations. So what ? All evolution does.

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  1. In no way unique but a better example for it is this particular observation by Geoff Nicholson in The Lost Art of Walking: The History, Science, and Literature of Pedestrianism :

    Walk some night on a suburban street and pass house after house on both sides of the same street each with the lamplight of the living room, shining golden, and inside the little blue square of the television, each living family riveting its attention on probably one show; nobody talking; silence in the yards; dogs barking at you because you pass on human feet instead of wheels.

    The point Nicholson misses, as most every urbanists misses, is that THIS IS WHAT CONDO-DWELLERS DOWNTOWN DO ALL GODDAM DAY AND NIGHT TOO. You just can’t see them as readily because you can’t walk past their doors and windows. But if you threw a drone up there and peeked in, you might be amazed to find that they’re doing the exact same fucking thing as suburbanists minus the family members surrounding them. So the better question is, do you want to watch TV alone or by yourself tonight ?  []

  2. While this doesn’t favour the rentier class, which benefits from periodic tightenings in the market supply for housing, it makes growing cities eminently more attractive and more affordable during cyclical upswings, thereby facilitating the geographic mobility that is the backbone of a flexible and effective economy. []
  3. If you live in a more mature neighbourhood, there’s considerably more opportunity for little games of one-upmanship with your neighbour, eg. better landscaping, more newly reshingled roof, more recent house painting, fancier renovation contractors, etc., none of which exists in suburbia where half of the neighbourhood is still under construction and even having any landscaping done at all isn’t a given, nor is a finished basement. []
  4. I say that it only might mean a more stressful daily commute because you might be surprised to know how many people relish their commutes as it’s one of the few moments they have where they aren’t being pressured by the responsibilities of either home or work. It’s sad but true. []