Residents of the suburbs can take a few easy steps to start learning about a community and what really is going on behind the scenes. Here are
six seven easy steps:
- Check out the community’s website. How does the community present itself? What words are used and what photos are displayed? There is often a wealth of information available but also a lot of stuff that may not tell you much. At the least, the website will give you an idea of how the local government wishes outsiders to see them.
- Look at the zoning map of the community – this is often on the website and also can be viewed at the city/town hall. This provides an overview of how the community allots its land. The colors used should quickly tell you what takes up a majority of land – typically housing – but can also reveal where other pockets of activity are located (whether commercial districts, industrial parks, institutional land, or other options).
- Read some local history in books, local museums or historical societies, and websites. Local histories are often pretty positive about a community – many suburbs don’t want to talk about darker moments – but they can provide an overview of a community’s broad trajectory.
- Talk to some long-time residents about their experiences. While such conversations can highlight idiosyncratic individuals, residents can give a sense of the feel of a community as well as highlight important communal moments.
- Walk around. This is highly underrated and often appears quite difficult since so many suburbs are auto dependent. Walking gives you an opportunity to slowly see what is happening at the street level. If walking doesn’t work, try biking. If neither are a good option, driving around repeatedly can still be helpful since so much of the suburban landscape is designed to be seen from the road.
- Look at Census data for the community. Use the QuickFacts feature to see latest estimates from the American Community Survey and dicennial data. You can quickly see demographic and economic data for the whole community.
- Identify important institutions in the suburb. This could include groups that have a long presence in the community or organizations that consistently come up in discussions with residents or documents from the local government. Important institutions could include schools (since suburban life is focused on children and their success), local businesses, religious groups, non-profit organizations, and civic groups.
Through these steps, someone should get a sense of what community members think separates their suburb from all the others. In other words, what is the character of this suburb? One step that almost made the list: read a local or regional newspaper. However, these don’t exist in many communities now and even if they do, the news reported is highly selective.
In a soon to come post, I’ll provide follow-up steps to the six listed above.
[UPDATED with a seventh step on 5/9/19]