The problems with suburbs: carelessness, lack of community

Jason Diamond’s book The Sprawl: Reconsidering the Weird American Suburbs argues the suburbs suffer from these problems:

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The overall problem with the American suburbs has always been carelessness. Profit over people; keeping people out to keep up the property value; building up and out without much reason besides making more money. The idea is that what you and your family have is enough. What else could you need? Everything, you’re supposed to think, is fine as it is.

Almost every suburb in America has one thing in common: somebody built the place and moved on. These little subdivisions and towns were built, but they weren’t completed. Developers built houses and stores, but they couldn’t create community. And that’s the piece I saw lacking in so many suburban places from coast to coast: community. You can call the place you live one, but a community is only as good as the people who work to make it stronger. Nothing is complete: we’ve built the suburbs out, and now it’s time to grow them from within. It’s time to look at the past to see what we’ve done wrong, apply it to the present, and learn for tomorrow. Because whether we like it or not, the future is still in suburbia. We just need to reclaim it. (217-218)

Arguably, if you and your family have all you need in your single-family home and middle-class or higher lifestyle, what need do people have for community? People can believe they are self-sufficient enough to avoid reliance on others and can limit conflict with others. Whether this is actually true does not matter. Even as the suburbs have all sort of social networks and social interactions and are built on a long history of policies, decisions, and ideology, the perception that people can be independent and live the good life matters. This all contributes to the idea of individualism.

Reclaiming community at the suburban level is an interesting task. There are multiple communities already present in suburbia, but they do not necessarily advance the interests of the community as a whole or the people who might want to live there and cannot. For example, people are involved with local schools, public and private. Suburbanites care about education and how good school systems support higher property values. These interests and existing connections may be helpful or not for thinking about the community as a whole. Suburbanites like exclusion and local government control, two factors that can work against creating community for everyone.

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