Before we can understand what makes some suburbs so miserable, we first have to understand what makes others succeed. The most successful suburban neighborhoods fall into two categories. First, there are the dense and walkable ones that, like the most successful urban neighborhoods, have town centers that give local residents easy access to retail and employment opportunities. These neighborhoods generally include a mix of single-family homes and apartment buildings, which allows for different kinds of families and adults at different stages of life to share in the same local amenities. The problem with these urban suburbs, as Christopher Leinberger recounts in his 2009 book The Option of Urbanism, is that there are so few of them, and this scarcity fuels the same kind of gentrification that is driving poor people out of successful cities.
The other model for success can be found in sprawling suburban neighborhoods dominated by households with either the time or the resources to maintain single-family homes and to engage in civic life. As a general rule, the neighborhoods in this latter category don’t allow for apartment buildings or townhomes on small lots. They implement stringent local land-use regulations that keep them exclusive, and they attract families that tenaciously defend the character of their neighborhoods.
There are many differences between these two models. But the most important one is that denser suburbs can accommodate family diversity relatively well while sprawling suburbs simply can’t. Living the low-density lifestyle requires that you either be rich in money or rich in time and skill.
Think about it this way. The typical postwar suburb was built to meet the needs of two-parent, single-breadwinner families. They were full of single-family homes that were rarely built to last, and their chief amenity was privacy, which generally meant a decent-sized lawn. Maintaining these houses was a heroic endeavor, but the division of labor implied by two-parent, single-breadwinner families meant that it was not an impossible one. Indeed, the very fact that maintaining these homes was such a chore made them precious to their owners, for whom they were a store of wealth as well as a place to live.
There is little doubt that the family structure in the United States has changed from the early days of the post-World War II suburban boom to today. And, numerous suburbs have going to have to respond to these changing demographics as they think about providing housing for older residents with no kids, single-parent families, and single households which are now the most common household type in the United States.
Yet, this argument seems too reductionistic. Similar to Rodney Balko’s argument about odd government dealings in St. Louis County, Missouri, I think this article ignores other important factors in the construction of suburbs, particularly policies and zoning and behaviors motivated by race and keeping non-whites out of wealthier suburban communities.