image from google

Suburbs have gained such a negative connotation in the (new urbanist) architecture community that it’s weird to think that it’s still a growing commodity. I spent the past two weeks in Edinburgh, Southern Virginia, in the burb of the suburbs. Vast fields are plenty, the “downtown” is literally a single strip containing cute little stores, and I’ve made a trip to Walmart about 7 times now. The town was previously settled by Germans and the sparsely spread out brick masonry buildings are coldly reminescent of the little towns in Frankfurt. However, the atmosphere couldn’t be so different. In Germany, people go out to bars and restaurants after work to wind down and relax. Even when we lived at the edge of the town by the forest in the little town Bad Soden, the streets never felt deserted because there weren’t many streets that wasn’t overlooked by a house or restaurant. The North American mentality seems to be that the further away from civilization, the more relaxation you can get. The American dream still lives, big house, a car for each family member, far away from the streets. Although Edinburgh is an extreme case, justified by the land needed for farming and vineyards, the suburban lifestyle is beloved in so many different parts of America.

One of the main social problems with suburbia is that it creates isolated families and exclusive friends, diminishing the value of chance encounters and lowering interaction between a diversity of people.  However, with an affluent population that values community life and makes efforts to (and can afford to) engage with neighbors, the problem doesn’t seem to be as obvious. After spending Christmas in Edinburgh, my cousin and I drove to Northern Virginia, where she grew up. The suburban area contains of a well-educated, upper to upper middle class population, who enjoy the proximity to Washington. Therefore, the population is well connected to the city, the area is much more controlled, community oriented and despite the spread out houses, the population size of a “neighborhood” is relatively small and well managed by enthusiastic neighborhood committees. She says that it’s an ideal place to raise kids because it’s safe and everyone knows each other. There isn’t much need for parks because each house comes with massive yards and if everyone knows each other, neighbors can go to each other’s houses for interaction rather than going to communal spaces. Despite its classification as a suburb, it lacks the cookie-cutter homes portrayed in a typical suburb. However, during my stay there, our main source of entertainment was literally malls after malls after malls. It’s easy to see why so many Americans suffer from unnecessary consumerism.

All of these elements contribute to becoming the difference between a “good” suburb and the isolated middle class suburbs that flourished in the 19th century. They are the result of poorly designed city living conditions and the rapid growth of transportation, encouraged by the image of the American Dream. Having been a city dweller my whole life, I still think that suburbs are a waste of space and energy and can manifest to many social and economic evils. However, the social issue is tempered by a population that puts value on neighborhoods.