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Why Suburbia is Bad for Us

(Image Source: The Week)
Before I go into this any further, I am not criticizing suburbs in general. This post is about criticizing the suburban design of North American and Australian towns.
How we live our life moulds our social relationships and personalities. The way our suburbs are structured not only affect us economically, but also functionally and psychologically. Living in a North American suburban cul-de-sac is very depressing to humanity. But why is that? It’s because we took the notion of a quaint pre-WWII non-sprawl city, and then threw it out in the garbage, making room for the mass-produced auto mobile. Now don’t get me wrong. I love to drive. I love the exhilaration of while I drive. However, I also like to walk and interact in a public realm. I’d also like not to have a car control the way I live my life. There are many factors to bring on why suburban design in this continent is very misanthropic. Many of them interconnect with one another. So here’s my list of these factors:
Majority of our cities and towns in North America have single-use zoning laws. My city, Mississauga (Canada), is guilty of this too. Suburban single use zoning extinguishes the idea of a traditional mixed-use development. Instead, they separate residences into their own specially constructed residential zone, while shopping and work are all divided into different areas for their own commercial zones. Say goodbye to having all shops, offices and homes in one zone. Now you can enjoy your secluded peaceful slumber because suburbanites do not wished to be interrupted by the “noise” generated by the public. You know, human activity. Another thing is that many suburbs are usually large towns/small cities, so there shouldn’t be any worry of nocturnal noise pollution to begin with.
Since all of these commercial and residential areas are built in an automotive scale, it resulted in that running a small mundane errand, should be required into getting one’s car and driving somewhere. Sometimes even driving for miles. It removes any practical motive for walking, encourages unnecessarily wasting money on gasoline, risking damage to your car (since many suburban sprawl roads are deteriorated by overuse and weather), and adding mileage.
(Image Source: Material Handling & Logistics)
The number one reason that makes suburban sprawl frustrating is traffic. The most obvious reason for that is because everything requires driving long distances into “collector roads”, often merging traffic from a given cul-de-sac to a single preordained path. Whether you’re coming from a winding road or from the sea of parking lots of suburbia. Traditional towns and cities are designed in a dense grid and/or interconnected web of streets, so there are many alternative ways between two points.
The number two reason that makes suburban sprawl frustrating; Traffic accidents. Because having a sea of vehicles driving on one main road that desperately want to get to work/home, sometimes in horrible road/weather conditions, works out fine, right?

Lack of Pedestrian Accessibility

It’s not uncommon in suburbia to live very close to a nearby strip mall. I live near a  Lowe’s shopping strip within spitting distance. I can see the store entrance from my bedroom window.

But, that doesn’t mean I could walk to the store, as a normal person from virtually anywhere else on the planet can agree from my statement. In its fanatical mission to deprive the pedestrian realm and make cars exclusive first-class objects, suburbia manages to make it even harder. Local building ordinances generally require some sort of “divider” between these nearby land quantities, like a ditch, a chain-link fence, or a concrete wall or noise barrier. In my case, that means I have to jaywalk across the street from my house, go around the chain-link fence, and then cross several hundred feet of parking lot to go to the store. And you wonder why everyone else would rather drive the distance.

Wasted Space and Low Density

Many people that I talk with seem to like living in Mississauga, as oppose to living in Toronto, because it doesn’t “feel” like being in a big city. Also, all that wonderful space you can have! This preference isn’t uncommon. Ever since the Industrial Revolution, many people were overwhelmed by over population, poor living conditions and pollution that came from industrialization. This cause for them to create an antidote to the city. And this had created the cabin in the woods idea; Let’s drag the country to the city! Let’s own homes far away from everything with large amounts of land, even though we have no agricultural or cultural purpose do make with it! Unsurprisingly, that idea became moot. By the beginning of the 20th century, Majority of cities around the western world combated the negatives of industrialization with renter/owner’s rights, separating factories from the public, and accommodation ordinances.

Yet, here we are a century later. Suburbanites seem to can’t get over their love of space. But even if you like lots of space, you’d have to agree that the quality depends on what kind of space it is. Modern suburban developments are required to put useless frontages, pointless green space between compatible land uses, as well as chain-link fences, concrete barriers, and drainage pits. Space is still inhabited by humans, and has to be articulated to match their specific uses for it. A lot of open space in suburbia lacks that articulation. The ridiculous large width requirements for inner residential streets are a whole other story. Small, low-density streets don’t need to be so wide that one almost can’t see his opposite neighbor’s house because of the intervening curvature of the Earth, especially given that street parking is generally absent in these places. Because everyone needs their very own (expensively and unnecessarily) paved driveway. Just simply parking on the street, or behind the house like in traditional neighborhoods, isn’t satisfactory enough. Sometimes I get the impression that modern suburban homes’ primary function is really to provide parking for one’s car.

What’s more pleasant to be in. This?

atlanta-035(Image Source: jaybyelrod)

Or this?

shadeside(Image Source: Reimagine An Urban Paradise)

Economic Segregation

In pre-WWII neighborhoods, many types of buildings of varying sizes coexist together.  As a result, it makes it possible for poor, middle class and rich people to live side by side in one neighborhood, with the exception that the rich people’s houses or apartments are slightly bigger. Suburban ordinances aggressively disallow this, since it’s the fastest way to tank property values within the logic of the suburban system. That’s why every new subdivision only has a small variation similar house types, and the residents are all in a similar income bracket.

Competitive Materialism

Whether or not suburbia ignites the need to be the top dog among your neighbors, it does very much seem to be interconnected with it. Especially considering that new suburban subdivisions have occupants with the same income. You already have unnecessarily large castle-wannabe house that goes beyond its primary functions. So does the rest of your neighborhood. Why not jazz things up? Throw in a customary interlock. Plant some huge funky bushes and trees. Install huge porch LED lights in every nook and cranny, so bright it’ll blind your neighbors! Don’t like your boring “885” on your house? Why not change that into Eight Hundred and Eight-five, along with your street name? Just cause, right? Let’s see your neighbors do something as schizophrenic and eclectic (which they will).

This is all fine and dandy if you’re rich enough to spend your money so frivolously, or if you’re retired. But to the average middle class household, not only you’re hurting yourself with excessive narcissism, you’re killing your poor wallet. Just for a bunch of people in your area that you may or may not talk to.

Social Homogeneity and Anti-Social Behavior

One of the things that makes interesting places interesting is variety. However, with suburban residential neighborhoods you’re being subjected to homogeneity. Economically and socially.

Every major city in the world has a nearby suburb next to it, and people live in those suburbs for whatever reason. No problem. But for some reason in North America and in Australia, life in suburban subdivisions are very sterile. Same houses, same income bracket, same lifestyle, same mindset. Every aspect seems to be the same. There might be a couple of neighbors that maybe a bit different. They don’t feel directly ostracized, but they know that the rest of their neighborhood think they just “stick out”. You know these type of neighbors? They don’t wish to participate in any gossip in their block, or just not as passionate spying on their next-door neighbor? Yes, those people.

When the public realm is so depressing and demoralizing, it’s understandable that nobody would want to take part of it. It’s inevitable to the fact that we don’t value our public realm in North America, and by no surprise, we’ve not established a public realm that’s worth valuing. Instead, we’ve retreated into our inner-world. All escapists, ranging from readers of fantasy literature to video game players to drug addicts. Sometimes I wonder why  people question when they watch the news about something macabre that has happened in their cul-de-sac, instead of somewhere in the city. After years of witnessing all the stories on the news, it doesn’t surprise me. The psychological problems in suburbia backs it up.

Lack of Public Transportation and Walkability

Whenever I mention how unwalkable Mississauga is, people usually respond to me: “What do you mean? We have side walks. Why don’t you just walk?” They mean right there, on a highway overpass, next to 8 lanes of traffic, in below freezing weather.
In reality, people aren’t going to walk where it’s neither comfortable nor interesting to walk. There’s nothing about a treeless 8 lane highway that encourages this notion. I’m going to drive, not walk, because to walk would be boring, tedious, uncomfortable, and dangerous. It’s also going to take a long time to get to my destination because the geography here is so spread out, since it was designed on an automobile scale.
And, having an insufficient public transportation doesn’t help either. Let’s say I have no access to a vehicle, or I don’t want to overuse my car since the price of owning a vehicle in this country is out of control. Then what? There are no accessible fast train lines to use. All that’s left is the bus. Now, here’s the thing about the bus system in Mississauga; It’s great if you want to get to Square One, but if you want to get to anywhere else in the city, then  expect to take 2 or 3 buses since transit routes are not interconnected well.  Also, just like how everything else is spread out, the bus stops are spread out as well. Many of them don’t have shelters to stand under. Living in a climate which experiences four seasons in a suburban sprawl will be a very unpleasant experience. Hope you enjoy having the snow/rain/wind in your face!
Many suburban cities in western Europe don’t seem to have this problem. Take for example Großweikersdorf, a suburb north west of Vienna with a population of 3,121. Blocks are built on a human scale, meaning its faster to get to any destination. Bus stops are within short distances. There’s a local train stop in the center of the town where it can be easily accessed. What’s most sad, is that this Vienna suburb is more pedestrian friendly than many Canadian cities. When you look at Edmonton or Calgary’s density on paper, you’d think its a rural area, as oppose to a city. And, while we think having rural towns in North America being so spread out as the norm, many of western Europe’s rural communities are very tight-knitted.
Here we have Kirchheim am Ries, a rural town in Germany. Who says that rural areas have to be spread out and isolated? 5 bucks says that they have their own train station too!
OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA(Image Source: kirchheim-am-ries.de)
I hope people will take action and start building neighborhoods that are more walkable and pleasant. People will have start living closer to where they work. And, builders will get rid of these ugly big parking lots and filling them in for mixed-use developments. Otherwise, we will all be stuck in this sprawl hell-hole.


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