urban vs suburban

urban vs suburban

in my twitter adventures, i get into lots of heated debates about all manner of subject. recently a discussion was had about the future of our urban environments and how to incorporate our current suburban architecture “into the fold” so to speak. during the course of this discussion I suggested that the suburbs won’t die till Americans get over their “bigger is better” mentality. a good friend of mine calmly suggests that “it is not always about bigger is better, SUV, etc. some people like the disconnect of suburbs”. and I have to wonder, is that true? do we really want to “unlug” and retreat to the relative solitude of the burbs with our minivans and flat screen tvs and 5000 channels all showing the Real Housewives of Orange County and Jersey Shore? or is the majority leaning more towards more dense urban lifestyles?

personally I think it’s both. there is a market for everyone. there are those that prefer the quiet suburbs and even the desolate rural areas that surround our cities and stretch across our country. but then there are also those that prefer the hustle and bustle of dense urban metropolis complete with mass transit and walkable micro-neighborhoods within the larger urban landscape. the real issue as we continue to move ever forward as developing nations is how do we connect all these different “islands” of development? how do we create vibrant, interconnected and inclusive cities that include urban, suburban and rural neighborhoods?

the simple answer is public transit – combinations of rail and bus lines that work in tandem with existing and future roadway networks.  this, in my opinion, is the future of “city life”. you’ll be able to live in a rural neighborhood, maybe with a couple of acres of land, your own small farm perhaps. but you work in the urban core as a stock broker or architect or whatever. you drive to a transit hub, park your car/truck and take a train into the urban core. the same would be true of living in a suburban area. and then going the other direction, living in the urban core it would be possible to take transit OUT to the suburban and rural areas of your city, to one of these hubs, and from there perhaps rent a car and go out to whatever activity is available – hiking, camping, river rafting…whatever.

I think we’re getting close to a time where the old ideas of utopian city planning are going to come true, but on a much larger scale than was ever conceived or even intended. whether this happens in the next 5 years or 20, what is apparent is that we can’t continue as we have. our total dependence on the single user auto is ending, suburban sprawl has failed and our urban centers struggle to stay viable. but if we connect all these “struggling” entities into contributing parts of a whole linked by efficient transit corridors then success is much more attainable and without giving up our diverse lifestyle options.


6 thoughts on “urban vs suburban

  1. Pingback: Tweets that mention urban vs suburban | r | one studio architecture -- Topsy.com

  2. I totally agree the answer is indeed public transit, but I would also argue that general support for public transit is never going to happen until a major energy crisis hits the US. People (especially Americans) are incredibly stubborn and stuck in their ways despite the fact that no one in America should be spending 17% (Dept of Labor stats) of their income on cars. That’s insanity.

    I’m a big supporter of public transit and haven’t owned a car in three years. I bike, walk, take trains and buses. Until recently, however, I lived in the one of the largest and densest urban centers in the US. It was easier to bike, walk, take trains and buses. I rarely had to walk more than 5 minutes to find all of my needs taken care off: dry clean, laundry, grocery, mail, restaurants, bars, major retailers.

    I’m currently in the far outer suburbs of Chicago and am finding life difficult carless (to put it mildly). Here the prejudice against public transportation has resulted in ZERO public transportation options except for commuter trains into the city, minimal cab service and very sporadic bus transit. The general population is anti-walking, anti-sidewalk, anti-bike and anti-density. As a result, there is no town center and virtually no community. A weird result of this anti-density attitude is that suburbs are turning into food deserts. On average, you have to drive more than 5 miles to find a grocery store. Fast food is plentiful, yes. Fresh groceries, no. It’s also a killer of independent business. The only stores you find out here are big box retailers and national chains. As I’ve stated on Twitter many times before, independent businesses create wealth for communities, but big box stores do not.

    The suburbs of the US are gradually becoming more impoverished due to poor urban planning and starting to resemble European suburbs, which are either enclaves of extreme wealth or impoverished slums. To fix the suburbs, the bureaucracies that govern these small towns and villages need to take steps to improve infrastructure, incorporate public transportation, promote local small businesses, and find ways to keep workers close to home rather than commuting to nearest major city. In other words, for suburbs to survive, they need to behave like cities.

    • This isn’t something you’ve thought about before is it? 😉 I agree completely with everything you’ve said. I’ve lived in some very different cities in my life: from small towns like St. Marys, Ga to moderate towns like Savannah, Ga, Northern Va on the DC Metro and now Jacksonville, FL which has the potential to be a major metropolis but is stagnated due to disconnection. What I’ve learned from all the different types of places I’ve lived is that sprawl simply does not work. It’s a nice thought to move out to the country, have a big house and a big plot of land to do whatever, but no one really thinks about “where do I buy food, where do I buy clothes, where do my kids go to school”. And those are huge issues. Currently I live in a very walkable community just outside the urban core. I bike to work (buses suck) and can walk to the grocery store or to a local shopping center. I know some of my neighbors and when I go out I typically run into at least one or two people that I know – this instead of being completely isolated in the suburbs.
      I like the last line of your comment – “for suburbs to survive they need to behave like cities”. Add too, that cities, in order to survive, need the incorporation of suburbs in order to survive. We really need what I described above – cities and burbs all connected by reliable and efficient transit corridors. Cities like Atlanta, DC, NYC, Austin, Charlotte, Boston, even LA have already figured this out and are primers for other cities to follow.
      Thanks as always for your comments! Cheers.

  3. Jeremiah, I understand what you are getting at. We built a house in the city limits of where we live and we can walk or bike downtown if we choose. Our son goes to school less than a mile away and once he goes to middle school, he’ll be able to walk to that school. However, what I have found is the American mindset is not going to change easily even with expensive energy costs. People pay ridiculous prices to see a football game, let alone what they’ll pay for gasoline. The automobile is truly a symbol of American freedom that is deeply rooted in our culture. So it is not going to disappear anytime soon and most people don’t want to walk or “share the ride”. Also, the great part of America is the ability to choose, even if it means choosing against what we as architects value. I find it frustrating and something that I would like see change. However, I find that people are more apt to change by education and leading than by force. If you know the story of the sun and wind competing to see who could get the coat off of the man, you’ll know the sun won by warmth not force.

  4. You’re spot on, Lee. The auto is a significant source of “American Pride” and has been for decades. I don’t think we’ll change any minds by force either, but I do think that there is a large enough sector of society that is in favor of reliable public transit in most cities. Look at the successes in cities that have recently constructed light rail and street car systems like Tampa, Charlotte, Austin, etc. It’s happening, slowly, but it’s happening. I think if at least we construct our infrastructure responsibly so that everything works together (rail, bus, streetcar, freeway) then Americans will have more choices for transit and if we pair that with responsible development then our cities will flourish. A little warmth and a little push.

  5. Jeremiah, I must say that I concur with you wholeheartedly. In your brilliant piece, you have clearly laid out a pragmatic solution for the problems of over-urbanization and overpopulation. I like your article so much that I want to adapt it for a chapter on architecture in my second college reading book. I understand that I need your permission to reproduce an adapted version of your post. The reading text I am writing is for underprivileged, at-risk students whose reading proficiency is relatively low. As it stands right now, the Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level for your article is above 10. For our developmental readers, we need the FK level to be no more than 7.0. This problem could be solved if, with your permission, I adapted your original post.

    The favor of a reply is greatly appreciated. Please email me at jwarsi@qcc.cuny.edu and let me know if I can adapt your “Urban vs. Suburban” post.

    Many thanks,


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