Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Thoughts On The Outside.

Someone was asking me the other day specifically why I think suburbs are the downfall and ruin of this country. Their defense was that technology has provided people with the ability to own both worlds--the world of the city and the world of their own. Interesting argument, because I personally believe the opposite.

First off, suburbs are simply a reflection of our auto-dependent lifestyle. His point about technology paving the way for these type of developments is spot on. However, what he fails to realize is the sustainability of these types of structures. No one likes to admit it, but there is a simple supply-and-demand equation when it comes to oil. Demand will continue to rise as our nation continues to grow. (Projected to be 450 million Americans by 2050). However, the supply of oil is a very specific amount, a number that is pretty difficult for us to predict. Nevertheless, when that peak hits and oil production slows down, what will we be left with? An immobile country, that's what.

Gas right now is at a comfortable $2.60 a gallon (in Ohio). But what happens in five or so years when we will be paying $8 or $9 per gallon? Will we still be able to drive 30 or 40 miles to work? Will big box industries still be able to sweep all of their transportation costs under the carpet? Will travel still be as easy and affordable? The answer is a quite obvious NO to all of these questions. And if we continue to plan and develop suburbs that circle the center city, we are planning for our own destruction.

So, to get back to the topic at hand, I believe suburbs are the ruin of this country because they will not be able to exist forever. On top of their future bleak outlook, as they stand today they are horrendous for the development of real communities. Notice how there are rarely sidewalks? It's because the developers want you to drive everywhere. And if you're isolated in your car instead of walking the streets, you're alone. And, to follow the cycle, if you're alone you're not making friends. You aren't establishing relationships. There is no community when you park in the garage and never step foot towards your neighbors house.

As a note, I have no problem with neighborhoodss that are outside of the center city. I myself don't live downtown, and it would be a ridiculous assertion to say that everyone must live in a skyscraper. That's not my point here. What I am getting at is the typical type of development that American cities are seeing 20, 30 or even up to 50 miles outside of where people work. This type of development is just plain awful, and it goes beyond just the lack of community and the dependence on the automobile. Why maintain ten mini-cities with tax dollars when, if the city was denser, you could support just one? This one point alone is enough to make me cringe.

Columbusites spend millions of dollars maintaining Westerville, Lancaster, Marysville, Polaris, Grove City...all of these large areas 20 or so miles outside of downtown, and it just doesn't make any sense. We wouldn't need 15 different fire departments or police stations if we just moved the people closer together. Think of all the roads that must be maintained, or the schools, or the streets, or the stoplights, etc. etc. If we didn't have a land of suburbs we wouldn't need to pay for these things over and over again--and thus our city could function far better.

But people argue that they enjoy having their own space. And that's understandable--but it's just not practical. One of the very basic tenants of good urban planning is Jane Jacobs' idea of "Eyes on the Street". Our sidewalks and streets are the fundamental building blocks of our cities. They are what make people feel safe--and this simple feeling is the determinant of a successful city or a failing one.

So how does one create safe streets? Well, simple--eyes on the street. Have coffee shops with big patios, get runners, parents with their kids, people walking their dogs...activity is where it's at! But this activity goes vis-a-vis with that safety factor, and its by no means an easy equation. But it's an imperative one. Suburbs by nature cannot create this vibrancy or this level of activity. Their low-density and exclusionary practices keep a homogeneous group of citizens and an inactive feel to them.

Let's make a recap--suburbs cannot be maintained because of their dependence of the soon-to-be-costly automobile. Suburbs to a fault destroy the ability to create communities. Suburbs guzzle tax-dollars because of their low-density yet high-maintenance requirements. Suburbs do not create the kind of activity that favors low-crime and high-likability.

But wait, there's more!

The actual planning of suburbs is just atrocious. It's bad enough that they just turn into a sea of cookie-cutter homes, but do the planners really have to design the roads so disgustingly? I mean, who actually likes driving out in the burbs? Planners just seem to hate grids in suburbs, but grids are frequently what is most efficient. Sure, grid style developments leads to cars cutting through side-streets, but I'd rather have that than the ugly and uninspired crap that planners shit out these days.

That's my case. I fully believe that one cannot attain a high-quality of life when they're commuting 30 miles to work or school everyday. I do not believe in any capacity that the American suburbs are sustainable developments which will continue to be well-maintained in the far future. At the same time, if you personally enjoy the suburbs, who am I to point and tell you to move? If you're happy, then ignore this whole post. My only concern is for the collective future of this country, and I truly question what kind of place it will be when the central cities continue to fail and then the suburbs go down with them.