The future of the suburbs is being much discussed. Allison Arieff of the New York Times has a follow-up to her blog post about whether the suburbs can be saved. Empty cul de sacs of unbuilt or foreclosed houses in the Sun Belt have given rise to both apocalyptic fantasies and, more productively, a discussion about whether the burbs can be recycled into something more sustainable. Just what opportunities do empty malls and McMansions present?
From a design standpoint, the suburbs are at a crossroads. Urban planning strategies, like Washington's own Growth Management Act, are designed to promote in-fill, and the high-price of gas and growing suburban populations has created a demand for more urban-style amenities in former bedroom communities (performing arts centers, farmer's markets, better transit). The Eastside here was colonized by Starbucks, the 1990s indicator-species urban creep, and today skyscrapers sprout in downtown Bellevue, the most rapidly densifying city in the region. The economic crisis also presents new opportunities to rethink the suburban future even here where many suburbs are already being Seattleized.
One is to reclaim areas for green space, perhaps turning parts of subdivisions into larger commons areas and creating more places for parks and walking. Other developers are converting single family subdivisions into multi-family housing for suburban workers who aren't car dependent, like transit riders and telecommuters. Another idea is to turn cul de sacs into de-facto communes, promoting, as Arieff says, a kind of hyper-neighborliness that is notably missing in suburban-style cities like Seattle where people like to keep their social fences intact.
During the years I edited Eastsideweek in the '90s, I noticed that this was already happening in many parts of the Eastside where subdivision alienation was often more myth than reality in rapidly growing areas like the Sammamish plateau. Here, immigrants from other parts of the country and overseas attracted by high-tech jobs sought a community of strangers with potlucks and play groups. People in sterile-seeming cul de sacs seemed to have a more active social life than people in Seattle's livable neighborhoods famed for their cold shoulders, in part because newcomer need was the mother of sociability.
Small, greener homes, adaptive re-use of big boxes and malls: these are some of the other incremental changes that could "save" the suburbs as current formulas based on growth and mass corporate marketing falter. The very idea, however, of saving the burbs brings out the intense hostility some cityfolk have toward them, Arieff notes. Her previous story generated a lot of comments of the "burn 'em down" variety. This attitude prevails in the conventional wisdom about urban planning: suburbs bad, big city good. Urban planners see current suburban struggles as a chance to correct the post-World War II model of sprawl, once considered modern society's more virtuous model.
My own attitude about the suburbs is complicated, enough so that I have been whacked by writers like Erica C. Barnett of The Stranger for being a suburban-living, car-loving planet destroyer, and by Joel Connelly of the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, who has accused me of dissing the burbs for having criticized the fact that they offer "life without surprise, without risk, without variety." He cites a couple of random examples to prove this is not true (Redmond has a new green City Hall!). Neither view is accurate.
My guiding principle as an Eastside writer and editor was this radical notion: to take the Seattle suburbs seriously and not dismiss them as unworthy or morally inferior. Indeed, there is much about them that is commendable. People move there for better schools and safety, to make it easier for soccer moms and dads to raise healthy kids. Folks also move there, believe it or not, to be closer to nature: to have a yard, a view, some land, more trees. Americans, rich and poor, have voted with their feet (and cars) and flocked to the suburbs in the last half century.
There is a dark side, of course. (Isn't there always, everywhere?) Part of the pursuit of crabgrass utopias has also been, for some, a retreat from diversity of race, class, and pluralism. And thus my characterization, quoted by Connelly from a commentary for KUOW shortly after 9-11, where I worried that our response to the attack would be to indulge in a model of defensive living made famous by gated suburban communities. Our view of the suburbs should be complicated because the suburbs are also complex: they are not a monolithic "other" but fascinating ecosystems that are part urban, part rural, entities often in competition with other cities and regions. They are an ancient form of living that can produce great innovation (the Silicon Valley, the Silicon Forest) and tedious sameness such as the gray-box developments that have all the variety of Monopoly houses now found on the fringe of nearly every city.
There is no question that suburbanization in Pugetopolis has produced some hideous results: a sometimes bland, destructive corporate landscape that comes at the expense of farms and trees. Last fall I stopped for gas in Battle Ground, WA in Clark County, which has been giving way to sprawl in recent years. (Clark County is where Portland outsources much of its sprawl, and Washington welcomes it with open arms.) I was returning from a workshop in which I had been immersed in the native pre-history of the Pacific Northwest and had heard Native American elders describe how their tribes had infused the land with meaning. Suddenly, I found myself at a four-way intersection anchored on each corner by a Krispy Kreme, a Shell station, a Costco, and a Weinerschnitzel. Nothing particularly remarkable, but at that moment the giant sucking sound you could have heard was my soul being pulled into an abyss over what we do to ourselves and the places we live. If one wanted a critique of modernism, here it was: convenience, efficiency, shallowness, greed. A once sacred landscape now made as nutritious as corn syrup.
But the suburbs are much more than that. They have been incubators of invention. They're increasingly a place where immigrants communities go to get their start on the ladder of success. And they meet the needs of millions of people with good schools, safe neighborhoods, and relatively affordable housing.
The form is not perfect (nor is the urban one), and it certainly is ripe for re-thinking. Can less wasteful, more sustainable methods of development be employed to adapt them to new realities? Can older suburban forms (e.g. strip malls) be re-invented? Should we work harder to grow suburbs into cities, or does that simply leapfrog the burbs further out? Will Seattle ever learn to respect the aspirations of its neighbors across the lake or the Sound, or must we all be assimilated into one megacity dominated by the ethos of Elliott Bay? Can both proponents and opponents of the suburbs think more deeply and respectfully about one another, without resorting to ELF-like rhetoric about burning everything to the ground?
To re-think the suburbs we should first re-think what we think of them.
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