Describing “suburban bliss” while also pursuing urban planning and living

A student at Columbia discusses her feelings of wanting to become an urban planner and live in the city while also retaining a warm spot in her heart for the suburbs:

Coming to New York from more suburban hometowns, it’s not uncommon for us to miss our cars, big box stores, and front yards. But for me, the conflict between urban and suburban living is more than simple nostalgia for my hometown. It is a question of ideology, and one that concerns my professional future.

I’ve known I wanted to be a city planner since the tenth grade, when I happened to pick up a copy of Jane Jacobs’ “The Death and Life of Great American Cities” while doing homework at the Scotch Plains Public Library. I devoured the book in a few days. It was a revelation for me—someone put into words the vitality of urban streets I so eagerly took in anytime I visited New York. As an urban studies major at Columbia, I’ve studied cities in sociology, political science, history, and architecture classes. My studies have confirmed what I felt the first time I read Jane Jacobs: Urban living is the best kind of living.

I’ve read about the racial discrimination that stopped non-white Americans from taking part in the suburban American dream, the urban renewal projects that devastated working class neighborhoods with expressways, the disinvestment in urban centers that led to riots—all the mid-century injustices that remind us of the true cost of our driveways, lawns, and cul-de-sacs. I understand the environmental danger of car (and oil) dependence, low-density housing, and sprawl. I understand how unfulfilling it can be to live in a socially homogeneous town with little street life or walkability. I feel so strongly about these issues that I even want to go to graduate school to learn how to begin solving them.

Yet I really, really like coming home to my car and to my favorite strip mall restaurant on Route 22—a highway that severely isolates my own neighborhood from the rest of my town. In my time here at Columbia, despite my urban-centric curriculum, I’ve also learned that the suburbs are here to stay, and there’s no sense wishing they didn’t exist. I might end up a city planner with a very urban lifestyle, and I most certainly won’t be moving back to New Jersey, but there’s no reason I can’t relish a trip to the mall. Of course it’s not terrible, I told my friend. Home—with all its unsexy suburbanity—always makes me happy, too.

This piece contrasts a professional ideology versus personal emotions. The key here is that the suburbs are equated with home. I wonder if her viewpoint will change after years of living in the city or, perhaps more interestingly, years of working within the field of urban planning where she may not find too many people willing to defend the suburbs.

Of course, this doesn’t always have to be a dichotomous choice: we certainly need people to do urban planning in the suburbs. In fact, one of the complaints opponents of sprawl often have is that it looks like there was little foresight into how suburban developments, subdivisions or big box stores included, affect their residents and how different types of development do or don’t work together. And if the wave of the future is indeed a denser suburban landscape, particularly in desirable locations, there may be room for a number of planners to bring together city and suburb.

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