A Wonderful Essay on Suburbs

This outstanding four-chapter essay from The Economist about suburbs around the world reminds us of the three essential reasons the vast majority of people love the suburbs, it is because: “Suburbs are about family, ease and quietness.”

An excerpt.

THIRTY kilometres south of central Chennai, just out of earshot of the honking, hand-painted lorries roaring up Old Mahabalipuram Road, you seem to have reached rural India. The earth road buckles and heaves. Farmers dressed in Madras-checked dhotis rest outside huts roofed with palm leaves. Goats wander about. Then you turn a corner, go through a gate, and arrive in California.

Lakewood Enclave is a new development of 28 large two-storey houses, wedged tightly together. The houses are advertised as “Balinese-style”, although in truth they are hard to tell apart from any number of suburban homes around the world. Outside, the houses are painted a pale pinkish-brown; inside, the walls are white, the floors are stone and the design is open-plan. They each have three bedrooms (middle-class Tamil families are small these days) and a covered driveway to protect a car from the melting sun. Just one detail makes them distinctively Indian: a cupboard near the door for Hindu gods.

A quarter of a century ago your correspondent taught in a school not far from these houses. It was a rural area; bonnet macaques would sometimes invade his shower. Now farmers are selling their small parcels of land to housebuilders for sums beyond previous imagining. Commuters are rushing in so that, every morning, they can rush out again. Chengalpattu, the district where Lakewood lies (see map on next page—where the new development is also pictured), now contains more than half a million people. Lakewood looks likely to be the rule, not the exception. “The force of human nature means it will happen,” says Balaji Narasimhan of SSPDL, its developer. “You can’t stop it.”

The shift in population from countryside to cities across the world is often called the “great urbanisation”. It is a misleading term. The movement is certainly great: the United Nations reckons that the total urban population in developing countries will double between 2010 and 2050, to 5.2 billion, while the rural population will shrink slightly. But it is nothing like as obviously urban. People may be moving towards cities, but most will not end up in their centres. Few cities are getting more crowded downtown; between 2001 and 2011 Chennai added just 7% more people while Chengalpattu swelled by 39%. In developed and developing worlds, outskirts are growing faster than cores. This is not the great urbanisation. It is the great suburbanisation.

Suburbs are curious places, neither here nor there. They have been around since ancient Rome (which gave the world the word), but it was not until the 19th and 20th centuries that first the train and then the bus and car brought them truly into their own—the first places in human history where many people lived but far fewer worked. The idea of places with little purpose other than providing space for domestic life struck those from city and country alike as peculiar and diminished. In 1904 the Times worried that London would be surrounded by “a district of appalling monotony, ugliness and dullness”. That dullness was said to seep out of the suburbs’ tidily planned streets and into the minds of their inhabitants, giving rise to a condition known as suburban neurosis. To Lewis Mumford, an American urbanist writing in 1961, suburbia was:

“a multitude of uniform, unidentifiable houses, lined up inflexibly, at uniform distances, on uniform roads, in a treeless communal waste, inhabited by people of the same class, the same income, the same age group, witnessing the same television performances, eating the same tasteless prefabricated foods, from the same freezers, conforming in every outward and inward respect to a common mould.”…

In one sense the critics are right: suburbs are a place apart. People who live close to the heart of buzzing cities can feel themselves part of a great project. Suburbanites have relinquished that, or forgone it. What they have gained in its stead is surprisingly consistent from city to city and from country to country. Suburbs are about family, ease and quietness. Searingly ambitious people find them dull, and some become alienated in them. But many others experience a humble liberation. D.J. Waldie, then an official in the southern California city of, as it happens, Lakewood, described his suburb as “adequate to the demands of my desire”. And to a great many other people’s desires, it turns out.

Retrieved December 10, 2014 from http://www.economist.com/suburbs

About David H Lukenbill

I am a native of Sacramento, as are my wife and daughter. I am a consultant to nonprofit organizations, and have a Bachelor of Science degree in Organizational Behavior and a Master of Public Administration degree, both from the University of San Francisco. We live along the American River with two cats and all the wild critters we can feed. I am the founding president of the American River Parkway Preservation Society and currently serve as the CFO and Senior Policy Director. I also volunteer as the President of The Lampstand Foundation, a nonprofit organization I founded in 2003.
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