in which i defend the suburbs against misconceptions (some thoughts on reading jane jacobs)

I'm reading Dark Age Ahead, Jane Jacobs' 2004 strong caution to North American society. I'll blog about the book in general at a later date, but wanted to share some thoughts that keep coming up as I'm reading.

This is the first time I'm reading Jacobs since living in a suburb, the kind of area Jacobs reviled, rather than living in a dense urban environment, the kind she revered. And now, when I read Jacobs' shorthand descriptions of suburbs, I wonder if she truly understood them.

Two of the charges levelled against suburbs - and if you've read Jacobs or anyone influenced by her, you've encountered these repeatedly - are (1) no one knows their neighbours, and (2) you have to drive everywhere. The former refers to the absence of shared community spaces. Jacobs often wrote that we must encounter each other face-to-face in order to build tolerance and a sense of community. The latter criticism is often expressed as, "You have to drive [x] distance just to pick up a loaf of bread."

I think this reveals some misunderstanding about how most suburban people conduct their lives. Most suburbanites don't live in walking distance of a big supermarket, but that doesn't mean they drive to the store every time they need anything. Based on my observations, most people do all their shopping at once, bringing home groceries for a full week or more from one trip. In other words, just because they (supposedly) need to drive just to pick up bread, doesn't mean they do.

Urbanites may pick up small numbers of items every day, often on their way home from public transit. Many people shop for dinner on the way home from work. Many urbanites don't have the means to shop for a week's worth of food at one time, and may not have the space to stock up on staples. To those people, the absence of a variety of shops and services within easy walking distance looks incredibly inconvenient. But to suburbanites, shopping daily or several times a week may look similarly inconvenient.

I said "supposedly need to drive" for a reason. Most modern suburban neighbourhoods do have a small commercial strip with a few stores and services in walkable distance. However, these strips are often not visible from the main arteries. They're located inside the neighbourhood, so to speak, on smaller through-ways. So while it may appear that suburbanites must drive to pick up milk or bread, chances are (a) they buy milk or bread weekly, along with everything else they need, and (b) if they do need something in an emergency, they can walk to get it, or drive a very short distance, if necessary (recognizing that not everyone can walk carrying packages, in all weather).

Commercial strips aren't the only suburban feature not visible from the main roads. Many or most suburban neighbourhoods also contain green space, tucked within the neighbourhood itself. My Mississauga Library System colleagues who live in Toronto often claim that Mississauga lacks for green space - shared, outdoor, public commons. As commuters, they see Mississauga only from the main roadways. In fact, almost every neighbourhood in Mississauga has green space, inside the subdivision. And in those spaces, you'll see people walking their dogs, kids in playgrounds, teens on their bicycles, seniors out for a stroll, and so on.

As for knowing our neighbours, we do, to the extent that we want to - and that's exactly the extent we knew them in New York. Mississauga is more diverse than most of New York City, and in general it's more tolerant and less insular than any given New York City neighbourhood. But that, I think, is more a function of Canada and Mississauga, and the high value placed on newcomers and diversity in our area.

* * * *

I grew up in the suburbs (Rockland County, in lower New York State). It was before the existence of McMansions: my family had a small house and a huge yard. We owned two cars, and needed them both, and when we reached our teen years, we needed more than two. There was no local public transit, just buses to New York City. As children, we were completely dependent on adults driving us to do anything. We did have a lot of freedom to roam around the neighbourhood, but so did urban children in that era (and many still do).

The suburbs in which I grew up was very much like the ones that Jacobs loathed: isolating, and completely dependent on the automobile.

hated living in the suburbs, and vowed I would never choose to live in one as an adult. Never is a big word when you're young and have no idea the shape your life will take. But even a few years before we moved to Mississauga, I couldn't have envisioned being happy in the suburbs. I always thought if we left urban life, we would opt for a small town in a rural area. (Where, I should add, people are equally dependent on cars!)

And now, of course, I live in a suburb and I really enjoy it. Mississauga is technically a city - Canada's sixth-largest! - but it's an extremely suburban environment. The City of Mississauga has come a long way in adding public transit and in cultivating public spaces and excellent community services. But when it calls itself "urban," it's stretching that word beyond all meaning.

Many suburban and rural people disparage cities - cities are dirty, crowded, noisy, and so on. I usually sense that they've never lived in a city, so they see the negatives without understanding the positives. That is, they don't see the trade-off.

Think back to the woman I overheard on the plane, wondering with horror why her urban friend spends so much money to live in Brooklyn when she doesn't even have a backyard or a detached house. I've heard countless people similarly wonder why people pay such exorbitant rents to live in Manhattan. While there's no proper justification for the ridiculous housing costs, I would say that those people simply don't understand the trade-off: they don't understand what you get in return for those crazy housing prices. As E. B. White said, "...the city makes up for its hazards and its deficiencies by supplying its citizens with massive doses of a supplementary vitamin -- the sense of belonging to something unique, cosmopolitan, mighty and unparalleled." You pay those prices, live in those small apartments, put up with the crowds, because you thrive on urban life.

In a quieter and less spectacular way, the suburbs can also offer a rich trade-off. Naturally we need more and better public transit. That's a given. And suburbs must be more than places to live and shop. People need to be able to work, play, and create in their own communities. But Jacobs herself reminds us that smaller towns and cities all over the US were once equipped with trolley cars, linking communities internally and to each other, before North American society (thanks to General Motors) (this, too) abandoned public transit in favour of the automobile.

We need better planning, for sure - more density, more transit. But the suburbs themselves are not the problem.


Amy said...

Having always lived in a suburb since I was 4, I know the trade-offs well. They work well for me because I don't like noise and crowds all the time, though I love cities for short visits. I just couldn't live in one. But for my daughters, the city life is perfect. To each his/her own.

M@ said...

It's funny that urban areas are romanticized (by some) and suburbs reviled (by others) but I don't hear much about living in medium-sized towns. I've lived in Milton (before its expansion, population ~20,000), Guelph, and Cambridge, and I found life in those centres almost identical to life in suburbs (considering Oakville a GTA suburb, and Stoney Creek a Hamilton suburb).

Maybe it's more about low-density and high-density areas or something. But the "which is better, urban vs suburban" question seems to be more about tribalism for those who are very invested in one side or the other.

laura k said...

If you would ask Jane Jacobs, she would say it's about which is better for the environment and better for communities, and thus healthier for people. By those measures, cities win both times.

But suburbs can be made denser and with better public transit (already happening in many places). And cities might be better set up for community, but that theoretical ideal is not necessarily borne out.

laura k said...

A big problem with suburbs is the brutally long commute, which is bad for people and bad for the environment. But IMO that's more about the cost of housing and the availability of jobs than anything else.