Suburbs: a middle ground between cities and rural life?

I was making the case in a recent conversation that the American suburbs could be seen as an adaptation between city and rural life. Illustrating this point, here is a testimonial from a mother describing the benefits of living in River Forest, Illinois:

We were house poor in New Jersey and miserable in an Ohio McMansion. In the Oak Park area, we found our ideal town: River Forest is close enough to the city to have some diversity and urban edge, yet distant enough to give us a tiny backyard…

They too logged many miles in the stroller, but they played at playgrounds and the library, meeting other babies with whom they will go to school. Finding playgroups for them was actually easier and less transient than in the city.

The steep price of private education drove us out to the suburbs, but attending public school has been an amazing experience. Our oldest two children have thrived in their public school. They have gym every day, as well as a rich music and art programs, and when they walk to school, the crossing guards greet them by name.

In the suburbs, we’ve been able to make our home the neighborhood hangout house. Our children’s friends are always around: in our house, on our teams, and at our local pool. Our house is noisy and busy, but it’s a happy chaos that lets me really get to know my children’s friends.

Great restaurants and culture are just a few exits away, but being so near Chicago keeps us aware of crime and poverty. Bikes are stolen, shopkeepers are held up at gunpoint and the food pantry has long lines. We enjoy the perks of small town life without losing touch with the urban reality of the Chicago skyline we see from our yard.

I wouldn’t want my children growing up any other way.

Here are the trade-offs:

-Cities provide exposure to culture, diversity, and “real life.”

-Rural areas or small towns provide close-knit communities where people know each other, safety, and more open space.

The suburbs provide a little of both worlds: close access to the gritty authenticity of big-city life but good schools and friendly neighbors. Notice I didn’t say “the best of both worlds” but rather access to some of the characteristics of rural and urban life. They may not be ideal places but a majority of Americans live in these communities.

I wonder how living in River Forest itself affects how one might view the suburban life. According to the Census, River Forest is 84.8% white, 76% of those 25 and older have bachelor’s degrees, the homeownership rate is 89.9%, and the median household income is $116,528. Overall, River Forest may have lost 4% of its population between 2000 and 2010 but this is still a mainly white and wealthy suburb. Sure, it is close to more diversity in Oak Park and Chicago but this is upper-middle class suburbia and this may just skew this rosy interpretation.

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