Is suburban life social death?

This is an amazing article. It starts out talking about the example created by Barcelona but serves to stir up many of the issues that are deeply moving to me. First, and foremost, the stark contrast between the overly privatized auto-centric built environment we have created, and the people-focused dense communities that allow for sociability, walkability, strong public transit, empathy, and arguably, happiness

The first quote that struck me was this idea of Americans not knowing what they are missing. “When they see people chatting in sidewalk cafes, bikes and pedestrians and scooters covering the pavement, herds of children being walked to and from school, people of all ages and social classes mixing in public transit and on the street — when they see street life — they feel it. It moves them.”

I can relate very much to this after my first exposure to it during my exchange semester in Lyon, France.

That’s me, dumbstruck by the walkability of this adorable little town, Annecy, in France.

Growing up in the suburbs

Growing up in Twin Falls, ID I was not at all familiar with the idea of density. My version of street life was playing ghost in the graveyard with my neighbors across the street.

Somewhere along the way, even this neighborly interaction has disappeared as we continue to sprawl our socializing further and further away from our homes. Coupled with, as David Engwicht talks about, the retreat from the street. 

“As speeds increased, residents retreated even further by not walking, not allowing their children to walk, and not parking their car in the street. Each step of this psychological retreat from the street not only eroded the quality of neighborhood life and sense of community — it also encouraged the traffic to go even faster.”

To show that visually:

David Engwicht Street Reclaiming
David Engwicht Street Reclaiming

That game of ghost in the graveyard we used to play in the streets? Yeah, I’m not likely to let my 4 year old and 7 year old do the same. Even though we live in a suburban neighborhood with a disconnected street. 

Privatized Socializing

So then what do we do to entertain the children? We schedule play dates, enroll them in camps and sports where they must be transported (via private vehicles) across town. This further deepens the feelings of isolation and busyness. Now, instead of feeling like I have a “village” to support me in raising my children, I feel trapped, overwhelmed and often alone in my struggles.

This goes beyond the kiddos. I’ve become so accustomed to the private life that I sometimes convince myself that I’m an introvert, but really it’s more due to the overwhelming burden that is associated with socializing. It’s not as simple as walking out my door. It requiring planning, scheduling, and often can only happen with an investment of money or feeling like I’m invading someone’s private space (or they are invading mine)Because our built environment has shifted so far in the “private” we’ve lost, and continue to lose, public spaces, or as Ray Oldenburg called them, the Third Place.

But, as the article points out, “even where public spaces are built, they don’t come alive without sufficient density around them. They become internal tourist destinations, places residents drive to visit.” This quote immediately brought to mind the Village Meridian. My goodness, what a missed opportunity out there!

The Village has so many amazing elements; a large beautiful park, entertainment, dining, shopping, and now, even a local grocery co-op, but instead of putting in proximate housing and hotels, they surrounded the village with a sea of parking! And, for any locals who might be reading this, yes, I am aware that there are now apartments and condos being built nearby, but have you stopped to look at the connectivity of these houses to the amenities? It’s all focused on getting CARS from point A to point B quickly. 

What are we building for?

Further, it’s this back-fill housing strategy that brings the NIMBY / YIMBY pot to a boil. While I cannot presume to speak for either camp, I would imagine NIMBYs are hoping for predictability. Meanwhile, YIMBYs see housing as the first step towards affordability, walkability, and hopefully feasible transportation options only made possible with density. Like the argument of the chicken or egg, one of them must come first. 

As we grow as a society we have to recognize that change is inevitable. Our built environments (cities, towns, villages) are either growing or dying. I think the smartest way for us to change is to recognize our need for close connections (both physical and emotion) and start building in in a way that helps us achieve closeness both physically and emotionally.