“The suburbs” are a brand. It is a brand which so dominates market share that for most families the only question is the type of suburb to opt for. Much like the illusion of choice in our political discourse, the expression of difference is highly encouraged, but only within severely limited boundaries. In most regions of the United States for most of the middle class it’s Cherry Coke, Vanilla Coke, Diet Coke, Caffeine Free Coke, Regular Coke, Sprite, Dasani…you can take your pick…but you’re buying a Coca Cola product.
Convincing people to rethink auto-centeredness is akin to doing the same with patriotism or religion. The concepts are nearly identical in that the place where you are raised is so key to your mindset. It’s fairly obvious that the most patriotic of Americans would have been patriotic Italians or Danes had they been raised in Italy or Denmark, and the most devout Christians, devout Muslims had they been raised in Islam. So too, a suburbanite in the U.S. would believe that the traditional way of raising a family in Spain or Japan was “right” had they been brought up in that culture. If one has grown up in post war America, raising a family in a detached single family home in a community divided by the norms of Euclidean zoning practices is what one does if one is able to do so.
The difference between this “American Way of Life” and other traditional ways of life is that the former is untried and untested over the long term. It has thrived for a brief period, propelled by an increase in the extraction of fossilized energy at a pace which will be impossible to maintain. As absolutely true and undeniable as the previous sentence is, for most American adults it is all they have ever known, and for many it is all that they have ever seen. Convincing Americans that a people centered place, a walkable place, perhaps even an urban place would be a better place to live and perhaps, to raise a family would first require that something, in the words of Daniel Dennett, “Break the Spell”.
For me it was living in Spain, spending years living in six different Spanish cities and visiting dozens more and seeing with my own eyes how much happier, and how much more autonomous, young people were there. Very few of my American colleagues would notice it however. Most of them were from west of the Mississippi and could only bemoan the lack of jet-skis, pick up trucks, and In-n-out Burgers, and the delay in the arrival of the newest American film or song. I’m sure that the time I had spent in Springfield’s traditional, if declining, downtown prepared me to understand Spain in ways my friends from suburban California and Utah were unable to do.
I read what is being written now by parents bemoaning something different, something they see as having been lost in America: childhood. Children’s lives are too scheduled they say, with too much time spent strapped in a carseat being chauffeured from place to place. What about free play? What about going to the playground and making new friends? Auto centeredness has atomized us so thoroughly that everyplace which is not our home or our yard is enemy territory: “If you are not with us, you are with the terrorists”.
(This attitude is not altogether irrational as the suburbs are incredibly dangerous for young people in particular. Traffic deaths and suicide take more children than any other causes. They are both negatively correlated to density. Taking your child on, or forcing your teen to make, more trips, more often, over longer distances, at greater speed in an automobile puts them at greater risk. Living in isolation puts them at greater risk.)
A place where you still see hordes of unaccompanied children walking the sidewalks, riding their scooters, riding their bikes, shopping at the corner store, playing on playgrounds, and hanging out with their friends is the city. The kids doing this, in my town at least, are mostly black or Hispanic, and relatively poor. Their parents are not part of the culture which now demands helicopter parenting, although when they do intersect with that culture the minority parent is often judged to be lesser. Much like young black girls and body image, many urban parents are sufficiently isolated from the broader culture that they remain untouched by its detrimental effects. In cities “Free Range Parenting” isn’t a movement, it’s…parenting.
But the city has absolutely no marketing. At least no affirmative marketing. If I can be forgiven for stretching my original metaphor just a bit; city living is tap water. In spite of the fact that, in some places, it is of demonstrably higher quality than some bottled waters, and is much less expensive, is more readily available, and does less damage to the environment, tap water doesn’t have much of a corporate machine to drive it. Suburban sprawl, like bottled water, has built for itself a constituency. James Howard Kunstler would list home builders, road builders, bankers, and of course, the millions of Americans who are convinced that a suburb of some sort is the only decent place to raise a family, as cheer leaders for sprawl.
What is it that would make suburbanites consider moving to the city? They would have to see things with fresh eyes. Instead of seeing the green lawn, the driveway, and the white picket fence and thinking “this is the place”, they would have to start from a zero base and analyze exactly how a place works for children, and for adults, in terms of autonomy and engagement in the living of life. If they look carefully they’ll see that it’s where traditional America, perhaps the real America, still exists, especially for young people, if, right now, somewhat more impoverished and darkly complected.