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European-American Topics - Editorial - Suburbs: The American Perspective

Suburbs: Snap out of if

By DW Hamilton

In regards to suburbia, I wish I could tell the American public to just “snap out of it.”  Many, many voices are saying it is time for a new American dream, and Americans are worn out trying to keep up with that lifestyle’s demands. We know this. It is ironic that many Europeans come to America critical of this lifestyle, but end up adopting it as well.  But unfortunately, this is understandable, because there is a real lack of appropriate in-city housing choices for families, even in the progressive Pacific Northwest.  

Seattle, with its rise of hip new neighborhood centered projects mixing retail, office and residential use is still not a kid friendly place. Choosing to live near where you work means limited career opportunities.  Parking spots are expensive, and it is a demanding environment for anybody relying on public transportation (and ours is better than most American cities).  Affordable grocery stores within walking distance are few and far between (let alone hardware stores).  People I know living near the freeways must keep air purifiers going 24-7, and find a fine black residue of smog on their windowsills. Those are just some of the challenges facing single folks living here.  Imagine these logistics with a child or two. 

Only a negligent parent would let his or her child roam Seattle’s streets or parks unescorted. Schools are caught in a budget whirlpool, while the nicer neighborhoods get the better schools. Houses or condos in the city with more than 2 bedrooms start in the upper $200,000 range, while much more space is available for the same money in the suburbs.  Let’s face it, most families need some room to spread out.   So, right now, the city is not yet a healthy place to raise a family. 

The suburbs began as a noble precept that people ought not live directly in the shadow of soot-spewing factories, that, plus that fact that most American cities grew and developed within the last half-century in tandem with the rise of the automobile, means that our choices are structured by our zoning ordinances.  At the time, tracts of detached single-household dwellings seemed like a nice escape from the evils of the city, and for many, despite their cultural isolation, they still do.  

American cities do not have thousands of years of history behind them like those in Europe. Up until the twentieth century, cities in Europe centered on pedestrian life, resulting in pedestrian friendly plazas, wide human scaled sidewalks, high density centers of commerce and culture — the type of things urban planners are now referencing when implementing new zoning and development here. Seattle’s neighbor to the north, Vancouver BC has had great success along these lines, and Seattle is looking both there and to Europe for inspiration as we address the issues of livability. 

So there is some hope that we will overcome our mainstream family’s dependence on suburbia, but ultimately, it may mean that the people in the suburbs will want to reconsider their own zoning to allow mixed-use multi-story residential, retail and office parks within walking distance of their own homes.  Instead of dragging the suburbanite back to the city, perhaps it is time to export what is best about the city to the suburbs. But one wonders, are American suburbanites really ready to wake from their slumber and rejoin their neighbors on the street?


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