Sociologist Eric Klinenberg argues that it is particularly difficult to live alone in the suburbs:
Q: What do cities and the housing industry need to be thinking about in terms of homes for this wave of single people?
A: One thing I worry about is that we have built suburban areas that won’t fit our future lifestyles. I interviewed many older people who live alone in suburban areas who discovered that they weren’t good places to be when their children moved away because they tended not to have good areas for walking and often were far from public transportation. The houses themselves were too big, making them expensive to heat and cool; more house than most people need. And the suburbs are reluctant to retrofit. They don’t want to change their zoning laws to deal with reality.
The thing I’m most concerned about is housing for poor people of any age who wind up living alone. We need to rethink this whole idea of the single-room-occupancy building. I write in my book about one very successful SRO experiment in New York that had a mix of incomes, not just the otherwise-homeless people who today are associated with SROs. It became sort of a vertical village and ended up being replicated in other places.
We need to design more housing like that. But it’s expensive, and cities are strapped for resources. And it’s not like the group that needs it the most has any political clout; they’re the most vulnerable people in our society.
Klinenberg brings up an issue that has been raised for decades: certain age groups don’t do well in the suburbs. If I remember correctly, Herbert Gans brings this up in the classic study The Levittowners and these issues are also raised in Suburban Nation by Duany, Plater-Zyberk, and Speck. These observers suggest two groups are particularly disadvantaged: teenagers who can’t yet drive and who want freedom and the elderly who can no longer drive and are now more isolated in their single-family homes. Both of these groups are united by the necessity of driving in the suburbs and how driving is tied to completing daily subsistence tasks (such as getting food) as well as social interaction.
As Klinenberg suggests, building this kind of alternative housing in the suburbs (and cities) will be difficult. Not only is it expensive but I imagine many suburbanites would not desire such housing near their own houses. At the same time, this is a recognized problem in a number of communities: how can communities help the elderly live in the towns they have spent much of their lives in?