Saving Suburbia Part I: Bursting the Bubble

© Flickr User CC tango_28 . Used under Creative Commons

Poverty and violence, boarded windows and weedy lawns, immigrants jammed “by the dozen into houses conceived for the Cleavers.” In “Can this Suburb be Saved?,” New York Magazine critic, Justin Davidson, begins by painting a bleak but realistic picture of suburbia today. It’s these conditions that are making thousands flee to cities everyday, making headlines predict the “death of sprawl.” [1]

Davidson makes the case, and I agree, that the suburbs and architects need each other – now, more than ever. But Davidson ends with a defeatist conclusion. He seems to say, it’s just too difficult, that, ultimately: “suburbanites like the suburbs.” There are suburbanites like these, who believe nothing’s wrong, who shudder at the word “density.” But who are they? The ones jammed “by the dozens” into single-family homes? The ones scraping to make ends meet?

Herein lies the great complication of suburbia. Its myth – of wealth, whiteness, a steady-job in the big city, and a space to call your own – keeps getting in the way of the big-picture: the thousands in need of change. If architects are to “save” the suburbs, and redesign them based on their multiple realities, they’ll have to start by separating themselves from the myth. By bursting the ‘burbs’s bubble.

Read about the Myths and Truths of Suburbia, after the break…

Myth:“Poverty doesn’t exist here.”

© Brookings Institute via CNN Money

Thanks to the Recession, this myth has become too obvious, too uncomfortable, to ignore. For the first time, suburbs have a higher percentage of the nation’s poor than cities. Many are newly-impoverished: home-owners who lost their nest-eggs, who are chained to mortgages they can’t afford.

However, those most affected by the Recession are the nearly 10 million people in suburbia who were living below the poverty line before 2000, including many new immigrants who flocked to the suburbs for the availability of low-wage construction/service jobs. With the housing market folding and those jobs dwindling, suburban poverty, in ten years, has increased by 53%. [2]

But, these are just facts and figures. It’s hard to imagine what it really means to be poor in Suburbia, especially when the ‘burbs persist in seeming so darn idyllic.

So let’s think about that idyllic suburban lay-out for a second: consider how it was designed, and for who (Commuters and Soccer Moms, ostensibly), and how it has grown along long, linear corridors. The suburbs are almost perfectly designed to make the lives of the “disencarchised” poor as miserable as possible.

Myth: “Everybody Drives!” 

An Unwalkable Street in Suburbia. Source SwitchBoard via The Atlanitc Cities

Imagine, if you will, that for the financial burden, the price of gas, the difficulty in attaining a license, you don’t have a car. What are your options?

In suburbia, public transportation is rare or nonexistant. Take Buffalo for example. Although 61% of Erie County’s population lives beyond the 42 square miles of the city-center, rapid transit exists only within city limits.” As one Blogger bemoaned: “Sprawl means stranding.” [3]

What about walking, or bicycling? But then again, no. Beyond the extreme distances characteristic of suburbia (its poor “destination accessibility”), consider the hazard of just crossing the street: cars on multiple lanes that whip past your face, nonexistent intersections or sidewalks. As an article in The Atlantic Cities put it: “We have engineered walking and bicycling out of our communities,” making them “the most dangerous and least attractive option.”

We’ve propagated these pedestrian-hostile environments based on the assumption that the car would forever be King. But the reign is numbered.

Truth: The Car Is No Longer King

© Flickr User CC mugley. Used under Creative Commons

A recent report from the U.S. PIRG Education Fund found that Americans, particularly young Americans, are driving less. Much less. Between 2001 to 2009, the average annual number of vehicle miles traveled by people aged 16 to 34 went from 10,300 miles per capita to 7,900 miles per capita. [4]

This 23% decrease can’t be explained by economics alone; the trend was also seen among the young employed and financially stable as well.

What has changed, then, is our culture. In Davidson’s words, what was once “a passport to independence a toxic jail cell.” And as Americans, particularly young Americans, are avoiding cars, it should come as no surprise that they’re avoiding the car-centric suburbs too.

In his book, The Great Reset, Richard Florida calls it the New Normal, “Whether it’s because they don’t want them, can’t afford them, or see them as a symbol of waste and environmental abuse, more and more people are ditching their cars and taking public transit or moving to more walkable neighborhoods.” Leading the pack of this great migration to inner-cities and mixed-used suburbs? The Baby Boomers, post-retirement and down-sizing, and Generation Y. [4]

Truth: A Need For Space

A reinvention of Keizer, Oregon, by WorkAc. © James Ewing via The New Yorker

As the young and the old abandon the suburbs for denser neighborhoods, there of course remain two camps: the poor who do not have the option to leave, and the families who, as Davidson pointed out, like the suburbs.

Here is where the myth and the reality collide. For those wealthy enough not to feel its hostility, who have the time/money to chauffeur their kids around, the suburbs are exactly the kind of place you would want your children to grow up in: safe cul-de-sacs, backyards for running around, parks to spend a Sunday in.

It wouldn’t work to force an urban high-density model upon the suburbs; its appeal depends upon its characteristic greenery and open space. But must those qualities be sacrificed? If so, to what extent? In Part II of this series, I will suggest how to confront the challenges facing systemic change in Suburbia (laws, bureaucracy, lack of resources, the myth, race/class tensions, etc.).

But for now, I leave you with this thought. The myth of Suburbia, upon which its design has been predicated, is hostile to those living its reality. Instead of catering to the desires of the ideal, we must enlist them in re-thinking suburbia for its forgotten citizens, its poor and “disencarchised,” its young and old.

The suburbs are ripe to be re-imagined. Are we up to the challenge?

You just read about the problem, are you up for the solution? Check out Part II of the Saving Suburbia series: “Getting the Soccer Moms on Your Side?


Davidson, Justin. “Can this Suburb Be Saved?” New York Magazine. February 12, 2012.

Luhby, Tami. “Poverty Pervades the Suburbs.” CNN Money. September 23, 2011.

[3] Bruce. “Public Transportation and the Suburbs.” ArtVoice. May 19, 2008.

[4] Baxandall, Phineas, Bejamin Davis, and Tony Dutzik. “Transportation and the New Generation: Why Young People Are Driving Less and What It Means for Transportation Policy.” The Frontier Group and The U.S. PIRG Education Fund. April 2012.

About this author
Cite: Vanessa Quirk. "Saving Suburbia Part I: Bursting the Bubble" 26 Apr 2012. ArchDaily. Accessed . <> ISSN 0719-8884

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