From the Suburbs to the City

I grew up in the suburbs of Chicago -- this is a fate I wish on no other person, and that is simply why I have become an urban designer. In this post I will try to explain what a suburban nightmare really looks like, and give a different type of argument for why we must stop this pattern of building.

Here is a run down of what it was like growing up there:

- there is nothing to do
- you spend a lot of time in the car
- you only ever see people in the same socio-economic group as yourself
- there is nothing to do (did I say that already?)
- your social interaction is limited to speaking with the cashier at the supermarket
- you. can't. walk. ANYWHERE.

As a child, teenager, and young adult, you can feel the boredom but you can't describe it, it is all you have ever experienced. Yes of course, downtown Chicago was a 45 minute train ride away -- but it's not quite the same. You are just used to a life where the car ride to school takes an hour, where you only see your friends if you make specific plans with them, and where you spend more time in the backseat of your parent's car than you do anywhere else.

The 'grown-ups' in the suburbs, supposedly like it. What I think they like is the perceived safety and quality of life they have -- this ties into embedded notions of privilege, white flight, and the typical American narcissism that the only thing that matters is what is what "I" want... but this is a story for another day.

In my hometown, sidewalks are illegal. Can you imagine that? With all the efforts being made to make places walkable and accessible, and with all the research into the significance of a good urban environment, it was against the law to build a sidewalk in my town. As grotesquely counter-intuitive and just plain stupid this may sound, it wouldn't really change anything -- there isn't anywhere to walk to anyways.

I believe that the suburbs have emerged from selfishness. They have come from a distortion of how our society works, and are a reflection of an individual's desire to have their 'own' space and often to have more than someone else has. I would argue that cities, and urban life in general offer a solution that might not be best for any one individual, but still offer the best solution for society as a whole. This however, often ends up being greater for the individual in the long term.

Suburbs on the other hand, offer a solution that is best for every individual, but offer the worst solution for the society as a whole, and in the long term, prove to be the worst option for the individual as well.

Why are suburbs bad for society? Pollution, socio-economic segregation, and a lopsided housing market in existing cities are just a few answers to this. And while many people think that suburbs are great for the individual (big house, big yard, 16 cars, you know, the american dream) they end up being bad in the long run. You spend 5 hours per day in your car, you spend all your money on gasoline and insurance, and you lose almost all levels of basic social interaction -- one of the most basic aspects of being human.

I don't think we need another blog post talking about how important urban life is, nor how walkable cities make healthier and happier people, or how adequate provision of services and public transportation can lead to a more inclusive society. We get it. I will conclude with a short anecdote about why we need urban life.

I was walking home from the train station in Milan , and I noticed a group of 15-16 year olds skateboarding, listening to some really terrible music, and drinking a few beers. Sure, they were annoying and I would bet they were too young to buy beer. However they weren't really bothering anybody, no one was passed out drunk, and if they started to do something too stupid, there were thousands of passer-bys who could step in and call their mothers.

What is the difference between that situation and how suburban teenagers grow up? In the suburbs, it is very easy to get away from the prying eyes of strangers and do the stupid things teenagers do with no one to stop you, or to help if needed. It is easy to go to a house party where no neighbours can hear the noise and call the police, and there is no one to help if a teenager 'experimenting' has had one too many.

The kids skateboarding at Milano Centrale represent the real reason we need cities -- and urbanism. It is this natural ability of the 'city' to give people places to do what they want, but the societal influence to keep everything in check.

To be honest, I envy those that grew up in the city. I wonder what it was like to stop for candy on the way to grade school, or to loiter with your friends as a teenager. I can't say for sure, but I can imagine you grow up with a better, more sensitive understanding of how the world works, that later give you the desire to make it continue working that way. This is why we need cities and why we need people to make those cities work.



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