Suburban_development_via wikicommons

The Invented Reality of Suburbia Is Not the Norm

It’s hard to imagine a less efficient or more socially isolating scenario than living in a classic “bedroom community” built in the latter half of the 20th century. Life in suburbia requires a car for almost every adult residing in each home, who drives to work, drives to shop, and drives to find entertainment or meet up with friends. And yet this is seen as the “norm” by most Americans. 

According to the 2017 American Housing Survey of nearly 76,000 households, about 52% percent describe their neighborhood as “suburban.” But why should people continue to spend huge amounts of money on cars and gas and insurance, on maintaining roads and other infrastructure, when the demographics of home buying are shifting in a different direction? “Freedom” is the American answer—and, for a while, it was perhaps a plausible one. In the invented reality of suburbia, however, people are largely slaves to their cars. And the inefficiencies of low-density living mean that taxes explode to pay for all the necessary infrastructure. As a result, the freedom of each and every American family to own its own castle comes with hard costs, not to mention significant environmental costs as well.

History and technology created the context for suburbia. The failure of farming around many urban centers in the first half of the 20th century was due to the industrialization of agricultural production in flatter, more fertile, and more rural places around the U.S. After World War II, the Federal Highway System upended the built environment. The transportation of products—especially agricultural ones, using the newly portable technology of refrigeration—proved the fatal blow for farming near urban centers. We no longer needed access to local farms to make food affordable. 

As a result, that fallow and abundant farmland became cheap to develop into single-family homes, all connected by the same highway system. The explosion of single-family homes, each on its own plot of land, was ignited by those concrete highways. Construction of the highway system fueled the expansion of the automobile and all of its related enterprises: the oil industry, home and road building, everything related to the great suburban experiment. In postwar America, suburb-building supplanted wartime production and planning, ruining inner cities and swapping out those long standing communities with sprawl.

Since where we lived was changing after World War II, how we lived changed, too. The average home size, which had been around 1,000 square feet since the 19th century, grew to more than 2,500 square feet. A new crop on those formerly fertile plots of land, and untethered to a city’s street grid constraints, over the last generation they have exploded into McMansion scale, frequently doubling the national average for house size. 

But the Greatest Generation and their children, the Baby Boomers, who built this wave of houses, are now aging out of the housing market. The children of Boomers have left those homes and are living with roommates in rentals well into their 30s, abandoning cars, working remotely, and holding off on creating families until their 30s (if at all)—in short, rejecting the commuter life their parents created.

These cultural realities spell doom for the traditional bedroom community, and other practical realities threaten the suburban lifestyle as well. Joan Arnold, executive director of Allied Community Enterprises in Westchester, New York, says, “These little fiefdoms are not sustainable. Young people do not want to live here, and older people cannot afford to live here, either.” The result: classic suburban communities “are becoming more silo-ized.”

“Density” is now the buzzword in planning circles. Presidential candidates including Elizabeth Warren and Cory Booker are looking to make homes more affordable by allowing zoning laws to increase density, so that more households share the cost of infrastructure, land, and taxes. Land-use law is changing everywhere.

This shift is not about affordable housing, an issue that has been part of our zoning evolution since the suburbs exploded. A generation ago, at the height of the boom, the creation of “workforce housing” became a priority, allowing density in affluent places so that teachers, firefighters, police could live near where they worked. Then “active senior” demographics were used to allow greater density for those who do not have school-aged children.

The new changes coming to the suburbs are not about desired social outcomes. They’re in direct response to changes in housing market demographics. Large, isolated houses are increasingly unworkable for more and more people who want to own their own home. Arthur C. Nelson, a professor at the University of Arizona, advocates for subdividing unsellable McMansions into sliced-and-diced “townhouse” units. 

Many towns that once rejected second or third units on sites designed for single-family use are now encouraging the creation of accessory dwellings to allow for multiple independent occupants on existing sites. In some cities, the Airbnb industry has changed community-use patterns, often with negative consequences. Technology now allows for greater density, as new septic systems are allowing for less area and poorer soils in waste accommodation, increasing the capacity of existing sites to house more people without central systems. There is also a growing value in escaping coastal areas subject to sea rise and stronger storms, a result of the changing climate. 

Many towns are rewriting zoning laws to accommodate apartments-over-retail. The old suburban zoning almost willfully separated “home” from every other aspect of life: working, shopping, entertainment. It is an anachronism. The future of suburbia is shifting to a place that might end up returning us to the 19th century model: fewer cars, more buildings and people per acre.

“Everything will become denser,” says Sara Bronin, an architect, historic preservation advocate, law professor at the University of Connecticut, and chair of Hartford’s Planning & Zoning Commission. “Climate change requires us to think differently. Towns are becoming more diverse, and increased demand for mass transit will mean communities become more interdependent.” 

What was old may become new again.

Featured image via Wikimedia Commons.

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