The American Enterprise Online

A Conservative Case Against Suburbia

Are today's suburbs really Family Friendly?

by Karl Zinsmeister

Published in:
Cures for Lonely Suburbs and Dying Cities
 November/December 1996 Issue

Suburbs are where the majority of Americans live, and Americans are not idiots. The virtues of suburbs are many: They are generally safe and peaceful. They are economically affordable (on their outer edges at least). They provide their residents with lots of physical comfort, ample space, and wide consumer choices. Suburban politics tends to be reasonably responsive.

Suburbia is particularly favored today by families raising children. "Naturally family-friendly terrain" is how most of us think of such places. Suburbs are also considered the homeland of conservatism, of social traditionalism, of America’s Norman Rockwell virtues.

There are many good and understandable reasons for these impressions. Yet the truth is that suburbs as they have been built in this country over the last 50 years are much less conservative, traditional, and family-friendly than we sometimes imagine. In "the innumerable suburbs that have sprung up since the Second World War," the great conservative thinker Robert Nisbet once wrote, "there is little more sense of community than there is in a housing project."

If we step back and compare suburbs to the ways people have lived for most of human history, we see that suburbia is actually a fairly radical social experiment, and one directly linked to many modern woes. The hurried life, the disappearance of family time, the weakening of generational links, our ignorance of history, our lack of local ties, an exaggerated focus on money, the anonymity of community life, the rise of radical feminism, the decline of civic action, the tyrannical dominance of TV and pop culture over leisure time—all of these problems have been fed, and in some cases instigated, by suburbanization, in ways that few people anticipated a generation ago when mass suburbs were first being created.

The Suburban Appeal

Modern tract suburbs are completely understandable as a reaction against the barbarism that has overtaken most American cities. My family and I are ourselves refugees from a major East Coast city, and I completely sympathize with people who say that our big urban centers have become unlivable for families. They have. That’s why we left. So as I describe what I see as the problems of suburbs today, don’t imagine that I think most parents should be raising their children in downtown Chicago or Los Angeles or Manhattan. That would represent jumping from the frying pan into the fire for most families.

But before we discuss possible alternatives to suburbia, let’s begin by simply noting that today’s typical suburban development is desirable to families not so much for what it is as for what it isn’t: It is not dangerous, not dirty, not racially tense, not uncivil, and not plagued with broken-down public services and disastrous schools as most of today’s cities are. Nor is life in the average suburb as economically tenuous as life can be in small town or countryside. The suburb is thus a kind of anti-location which, while hardly ideal, is well hedged against the opposing rural and urban risks of modernity. The single most important thing suburbs offer their residents is security—more physical security than cities, and greater economic security than the average small town.

Deep in the heart of most parents raising children, though, is a hope that their community will be not only safe and inexpensive but also neighborly. Friendship, informal cooperation, and mutual aid are tremendously important both to children and to the adults taking care of them. Alas, most suburbs have turned out to be much less neighborly places than one would hope.

Perhaps the best aspect of today’s suburban diffusion is the opportunities it provides for individual choice. Professor Robert Fishman describes today’s large metro areas as "à la carte cities." While no single locality offers a full set of community services, an enormous range of possibilities is available within an acceptable car trip’s distance. You pick your mall, your office park, your residential street, your child’s daycare and school. There are the secondary choices of exercise club, video store, medical clinic, car repair station, and favorite ethnic restaurants. You assemble all these into a daily travel package, and that is your "community."

The advantage of this is that everyone’s "community" is highly personalized. One person likes racquetball, sushi, the Gap, and colonial ramblers. Another wants a weightlifting club, steakhouses, Sears, and a split-level ranch house. They can live across the street from each other.

An obvious disadvantage of this life is that we become slaves to our cars, with traffic, smog, and congestion now worse in many suburbs than they were in dense downtowns. This threatens the very ease, moderate pace, and pleasantness that drew us to the suburbs in the first place.

A deeper, less obvious price of modern suburbanization is that none of our fellow residents shares more than just a small piece of common turf with us. Since the "community" assembled by your next door neighbor is frequently very different from your own, the occupants of suburbia are separated and partitioned off from each other. Denied a common physical community, we must seek out human connections in other places instead: in our shopping, our workplaces, or in the artificial "neighborhood" of television shows.

The mass-produced tracts of suburbia never pretended to be great incubators of individualism. But the original suburbanites, fleeing what they called the "chilliness" of modern urban life, did hope that suburbs would satisfy the natural hunger for human connection—as small towns and old-style city neighborhoods had in the pre-modern era. In practice, though, suburbs turned out to be relatively inhospitable places for individualism and community life both.

A Neighborhood’s Physical Structure Influences its Social Life

Urban historian Lewis Mumford once described the spatial structure of a town as the "container" for its social system. A neighborhood’s physical layout not only reflects the values and preferences of residents, he says, it helps form them as well. Winston Churchill made the same point with his observation that "we shape our buildings, then they shape us."

There is no doubt that suburbanization has changed social interaction in America. "The classic suburb is less a community than an agglomeration of houses, shops, and offices connected to one another by cars," writes architect Andres Duany.

The best foundation for strong community life is regular personal contact among residents. The traditional neighborhood, with its easy daily interactions, provides many such opportunities. Take the humble sidewalk (something few modern suburbs have). The exchanges that take place when neighbors randomly cross paths on foot are categorically different from those that occur around office coffee pots or at evening dinner parties. For one thing, they are less guarded. When you bump into someone on your way back from the mail box they see you unmasked—with your hair rumpled, or a cross word for your misbehaving child on your lips, or an easy arm around your spouse. Meeting on territory where you both know every cracked brick, loud dog, and weedy flowerbox, there are ample opportunities for forming communal alliances. Family matters and talk about how to improve the local community will be the foremost topics of discussion. You learn something about a neighbor each time you encounter him or her in this way. If you live in such a way as to miss these casual meetings (or so that they take place through two panes of auto glass instead of face to face), you are deprived of a golden chance for familiarity and closeness.

Suburbs Cut Roots

Suburbanization also disrupts community life by encouraging neighborhood turnover. The suburban boom that began after World War II brought a sharp increase in the moving rate of American families (particularly the rate of long distance moves). Each year now, nearly one out of five American families relocates to a new home. That’s about twice the rate that prevails in most industrial countries, and the majority of our movers are suburbanites.

The 1990 census showed that nearly half of all Americans age 5 or older were living in a different house than they’d occupied in 1985. In the course of a lifetime, the average American will occupy 13 different residences. This is particularly hard on children. Any childhood that includes several moves, studies show, carries real risks.

Adults suffer too. People living in transient areas show many more signs of psychological disturbance. A strong correlation exists, for instance, between the rate of family migration in a locality and the number of divorces that occur. Suicide levels are also linked to the frequency of residential turnover.

The very nature of the suburban day encourages rootlessness. It’s been calculated that typical suburbanites will travel the equivalent of more than 20 times around the globe in a lifetime of commuting. Not only breadwinners but also all other family members are affected. As a Hungarian visitor to this country once remarked, "It is very interesting, in America the children are being brought up in moving vehicles." A whole generation now exists that has never known a more settled life.

In a short story, G. K. Chesterton described a protagonist who "found himself in some strange way weary of every moment," yet "hungry for the next." That encapsulates a certain modern personality, one that easy-in/easy-out suburban residences may feed. For transitoriness, as author Max Lerner notes, is built right into the suburb:

As a man moves from production line to foreman to shop superintendent, or from salesman to division manager to sales manager, he also moves from one type of suburb to another.... By stages the family moves from court apartment to ranch house, and adopts new ways of behavior, new standards of tastes, and new circles of friends.

There is a wonderful aspect to this process, namely its social and class openness. But in its course, families end up putting on and taking off neighborhoods and neighbors like so much old clothing—and there is a price attached to that.

In any case, economic migration accounts for only a small part of our suburban house trading. Though "a lot of people think Americans move for reasons like jobs," says Jeanne Woodward of the U.S. Census Bureau, official figures actually show that only one in five relocations is employment related. In the largest number of cases—about half—families pull up stakes simply to find "a house that fits them better." This consumer’s hunt for a more perfect physical environment drives the suburban whirl. One early suburbanite captured its essence when he remarked to Harper’s in 1953 that "After all, this is only the first wife, first car, first house, first kids—wait ’til we get going."

Towns Without History, Towns Without Values

In communities where there is little shared history, residents often lack unity and direction. After studying the disastrous record of the "urban renewal" and New Town projects in Europe and America that knocked down existing older neighborhoods and replaced them with new "improved" ones, David Riesman concludes that "there were values concealed in the most seemingly depressed urban conglomerations which were lost in the move to the more hygienic and aseptic planned communities—much as farmers for a long time failed to realize that worms and other ‘varmint’ were essential to a well-nourished soil."

Like a lot of modern experiments, the suburban experiment has had a certain machine-like artificiality to it. At its core lies the social engineer’s confidence that if you don’t like society the way it is, you only need manufacture a new society. Never mind all the social evolution, and individual trials and errors, and intangible little inheritances from history that go into making existing communities work. Just get a plan and some money and build a new structure.

Let’s not forget that the government played a huge role in funneling people into suburbia. For one thing, the feds poured vast sums into low-interest fha and va mortgages that could only be used for new houses, not for renovating existing homes in small towns or urban neighborhoods. And in the 1960s and ’70s the government bulldozed thousands of acres of downtowns in the name of urban renewal, with only the most half-baked ideas of how to regenerate the flattened homes and businesses. Governments also spent billions building new suburban roads and freeways to feed commuters to the new locations. This was a direct subsidy for greenfield suburban construction, and, worse, the new thoroughfares also wrecked many existing communities. City neighborhoods were slashed by elevated highways, and outlying towns had the life snuffed out of them by beltways and controlled-access interstates.

Making the World Over

America is a progressive, future-oriented society always ready to try doing things a new way. This gives our nation a dynamic quality we should be profoundly grateful for. But this impulse, like all impulses, needs to be governed. The liberal, make-the-world-over mentality that serves us so well in, for instance, the realm of technology can cause great damage if applied without caution in the world of human relationships. When it comes to things like building workable communities, raising children, and defining our obligations to fellow citizens, a lot more humility is called for. People have irreducible natures and needs that cannot be "improved" or manipulated in the ways that products and institutions can—as failed social makeovers ranging from the Great Society to today’s attempted redefinitions of the family make clear.

The idea of relocating most of the American population within one generation to brave new communities only just carved out of hay fields was a bit heady—somewhat reminiscent of modern efforts to end drug abuse with pills, to stop racism with school buses, to eliminate poverty by writing checks. Tract suburbs, like much else that emerged in the decades after World War II, were a technocratic response to human problems that were mostly moral and economic.

And with no past, no inherited standards, no evolved wisdom wormed down into their cores, suburbs lacked a base on which to build cooperative feeling. So when the late-twentieth-century winds of materialism, selfishness, anonymity, and rat-race workaholism whistled through American society, families in many suburbanized communities flapped in the breeze.

Feeding Giantism

Big new suburban developments often extinguish existing community life when they move into a locality. With the arrival of commuter towns and their highways, "villages and open country settlements that have lived more or less aloof from the large center nearby are in a short space of time incorporated into an urban community," writes historian Amos Hawley. "Village institutions are replaced."

Consider Gwinnett County, Georgia. Situated some 30 miles northeast of Atlanta, Gwinnett County contained fewer than 45,000 people in 1960. The startling suburban boom that has since taken place around Atlanta increased county population to more than 300,000 in 1990. By the year 2000 the county may have 450,000 residents.

That is more people than many cities contain. Yet the suburbanites of Gwinnett County have little sense of community identity. When the New York Times purchased the Gwinnett County News and tried to compete with the Atlanta Constitution, it found that the suburban residents had no attachment to Gwinnett County and could not care less about having their own newspaper. County residents have no common attachments beyond the impersonal, homogenized ones of shopping in the same malls, rooting for the same mercenary athletes, consuming the same metropolitan media, and living standardized managerial/ professional lives hardly different from those lived in Fairfax, Virginia; Orange County, California; northern New Jersey; or scores of other similar places.

One reason suburbanization tends to depress community life is because of the sheer giantism it encourages. "Where the leading metropolises of the early twentieth century—New York, London, or Berlin—covered perhaps 100 square miles, the new suburban city routinely encompasses two to three thousand square miles," notes Robert Fishman. "Developments of cluster-housing are as large as townships; office parks are set amid hundreds of acres of landscaped grounds; and malls dwarf some of the downtowns they have replaced."

It isn’t only the physical territories that have become massive in the era of suburbanization, but the institutions as well. At the end of World War II, the average local school system had fewer than 250 students. Today it has more than 2,500. There are lots of big suburbs with single schools containing 3,000-4,000 students. This fosters neither individual character nor civic unity.

Suburbanization has created megalopolises that sprawl indistinguishably across vast territories of southern California, New Jersey, and Florida. It has turned separate cities like Washington, D.C., and Baltimore, or Dallas and Fort Worth, into huge octopuses. This is alienating, and not even efficient. Just as our bloated federal government now needs downsizing and decentralizing, so too would our metropolitan areas benefit from being broken up into smaller local communities (see pages 59-64 for more on this). But to increase local self-determination we must stop thinking about our home communities in the way suburbanization has taught us to—as cogs in a much bigger metro-area machine, as waystations to be moved through as we trade up the income ladder, as commute endpoints.

Suburbanization and Children

Young singles and the elderly may do fine in anonymous suburbs—they have time to motor about the à la carte city, grazing on its sprawled choices, and they may actually appreciate suburbia’s exaggerated privacy and absence of neighborly involvement. But for child-rearers, the typical tract suburb can make life miserable.

More than any other human beings, parents and children need human attachments. In his study of American ethnic groups, demographer William Petersen analyzes the unusually low child delinquency rates of certain nationalities, particularly Asian Americans, and says their secret is that "parents’ responsibility for rearing their offspring is to some degree borne by the whole ethnic community." In traditional communities, neighbors watch out for trouble and offer aid and encouragement to families. Children are expected to take direction respectfully from all adults. Relations between parents and offspring, and between husbands and wives, are subject to informal social regulation. If mistreatment or neglect occurs, ostracism and sanctions will come from the whole community.

This kind of community-wide interest in the young still exists in certain settings. Studies show, for instance, that kids growing up in small towns get to know far more adults well, and in more varied ways, than do metropolitan children. Urban children can receive the same benefits, says historian Jane Jacobs, if they have "the opportunity (in modern life it has become a privilege) of playing and growing up in a daily world composed of both men and women...on lively, diversified city sidewalks." These days, though, only relatively few children experience either small-town streets or secure city sidewalks.

While home life is the foundation of a healthy upbringing, a child’s world needs to extend further than one quarter-acre. "It is an uncommon family which can provide all of the things a complete and well-rounded community could offer—facilities, a sense of participation in ongoing community activities, places where teenagers and adults can spontaneously meet, and a chance to observe life as it is lived outside of living room and yard," writes Rutgers University professor David Popenoe. Good mothers and fathers know there are times when children need to be shooed out of the house and toward the sandlot, park, or pond.

If community life is sparse, even the best mothers and fathers will have trouble rounding out their child’s personality. "In this respect," asserts author Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, "families living in today’s richest suburbs are barely better off than families living in the slums. What can a strong, vital, intelligent 15-year-old do in your typical suburb? ...What is available is either too artificial or too simple." There are no nearby stores, or bustling workshops, or true natural areas, nor even any ice rinks, libraries, or barber shops that can be reached without a car and chauffeur.

In suburbia, writer James Howard Kunstler observes, school-age youngsters have little public realm to explore and place themselves in. Turn to "The City Life We’ve Lost" on page 51, and read the childhood recollections of cruising sidewalks, window-shopping downtown, walking to gyms, and lazing in parks. Contrast those activities to a typical childhood in suburbia today—where often the only "public realm" easily available to older kids is television. Which is why TV has become such a childhood addiction.

Suburbanization and Parents

Suburbs also lack support systems for parents—the reason so many suburban childraisers show signs of exhaustion today. Civilizing the barbarians we call children is tough work. Parents of preschoolers in particular need sympathetic ears and slaps on the back. They need people next door who can watch Junior in a pinch. Yet suburbanization has cut families off from the relatives and neighbors who used to be nearby to help with these things.

Suburbanization also finalized the separation of homes from workplaces and businesses. This is now partially reversible, thanks to technology that opens up fresh possibilities for work at home (as I know from personal experience). But old ways of thinking, zoning and labor-law prohibitions, and other barriers need to be broken down.

In separating homes from worksites, suburbanization accelerated the disconnection of men from home life. Right from the beginning, suburbs became daytime ghettoes for women and children. Moreover, those mothers have had to carry out their duties in isolation. Often the only way for them to escape their suburban quarantine is to get in a car—a discouraging prospect for people who already feel as if they are "half woman, half station wagon" from chauffeuring children to distant schools, doctors, and lessons. When the Wall Street Journal recently asked one harried "soccer mom" what single social reform would do the most to improve her quality of life, she replied, only half facetiously, "If they lowered the driving age to ten." This particular woman has put 40,000 miles on her minivan in the past 18 months squiring her three girls (ages 11 to 16) to events.

That isn’t a great prescription for enjoying parenthood. No wonder lots of new mothers feel like climbing the walls. Too many find their suburban residences strangely unnatural places to nurture children and make a home.

For an early picture of this, consider David Riesman’s description of an interview with a mother living in an upper-middle-class suburb of Chicago in the 1950s:

Her husband had been transferred to Chicago from a southern city and had been encouraged by his company to buy a large house for entertaining customers. Customers, however, seldom came, as the husband was on the road much of the time. The wife and three children hardly ever went downtown (they had no Chicago contacts anyway), and after making sporadic efforts to make the rounds of theater and musical activities in the suburbs, and to make friends there, they found themselves more and more often staying home, eating outdoors in good weather and looking at TV in bad. Observing that "there is not much formal entertaining back and forth," the wife feared she was almost losing her conversational skills.

Is it surprising that women eventually revolted, and that the family boom which began with so much optimism after World War II petered out rather quickly? The kaffeeklatsches, block organizations, and neighborhood social groups that so impressed early suburban chroniclers had mostly disappeared by the time the first generation of suburban kids left home.

The loneliness of average suburbs poisoned many Americans on the possibilities of life at home. In 1963 Betty Friedan published her anguished, angry cry from the heart of suburban Westchester County—complaining in The Feminine Mystique that suburban mothers felt painfully abandoned and out of the mainstream. Her book struck a chord among influential upper-middle-class women, sold well nationwide, and launched a zealous feminist reaction against the very idea of home-making and child-rearing as occupations. Friedan hit upon a real problem, and one still with us: the trivialization of domestic life as it was shunted into sterile suburban camps. Americans who would prefer that their wives and daughters not follow Friedan down the path to now-style feminism would do well to think hard about how the current structure of our suburban communities feeds this problem.

The emergence of an alienated feminism wasn’t the only warning of popular dissatisfaction with the suburban formula. A more concrete bit of evidence was the way our childbearing rate fell, like a marble off a table, from 3.8 lifetime births per mother in 1957 to 1.8 in 1975. Next, parents of infants and toddlers began to leave home during the day in droves. Instead of raising their preschoolers themselves, mothers and fathers have been handing them over in record numbers to hired caregivers. No longer even nurseries, lots of suburban homes have turned into little more than evening leisure centers and weekend crash pads.

Suburbs are Modernism in Bricks and Mortar

Though they began with the idea of bolstering family life, suburbs offered little protection when "self-fulfillment" became the cultural fashion in the 1960s. Judged by its practical effects, suburbia’s most enduring products were, in swift succession: the absent working father, then a feminist backlash, followed by the absent working mother, all leading to today’s unnerving legacy of daycare centers, split families, and childhood pathology. A heck of a lot more than suburbanization went into causing our family troubles. But suburbanization’s erosion of neighborly supports and sanctions dumped a whole lot of straw onto the camel’s back.

When the first suburban runaways set up their little arcadias out at the end of the paper routes, they had fantasized that they were migrating to close-knit towns where precious antediluvian values remained intact for them to recover. Actually, they were decamping into the perfect vacuum of commandeered corn fields, and importing all the transitory, impersonal, busy modern habits they imagined they were fleeing. Their new neighbors were all fellow émigrés, and together they permanently enshrined the most rootless aspects of twentieth-century life in a powerful new physical arrangement.

Suburbs didn’t counter the defects that industrialism had introduced into our communities, they institutionalized them on virgin ground. The solitary commute, the ever-glowing boob tube, the TV dinner, the mall-based vacation, the Nintendo/ Walkman childhood, the three-car family schedule, the no-fault divorce—these are all hallmarks of suburban life today. Suburban high schools are plagued by sexual misbehavior, cheating, and drug use, just as inner-city high schools are, and with less excuse. The suburban insulation against social decay has proved to be thin indeed.

Are There Alternatives?

So: Contrary to popular belief that suburbia is a bastion of traditionalism, it actually grew directly out of the social engineering mania that hit high tide in this country between the 1930s and 1970s. And the processes by which suburbs were formed pushed much of their competition out of the running. By vacuuming the most productive citizens out of established small towns and urban neighborhoods, suburbanization made alternate residential forms less viable. Our rural areas grew that much ricketier, and our cities got even colder and crueler. As a result, many families now feel they have no alternative to life in suburbia. So they make do, living their lives and raising their children with much less social support than families have traditionally enjoyed.

Even against their damaged competition, though, suburbs aren’t the people’s choice. When the latest Gallup poll asked Americans what kind of place they would most like to live in, only 25 percent chose a suburb. An equal number chose a farm. Just 13 percent said a city. The largest number by far—37 percent—wanted to live in a small town. People accept suburbs, but they aren’t particularly enthusiastic about them.

In the essay before this one, Allan Carlson asks if there is any reasonable alternative to suburbs for average families living in the 1990s. That is the crucial question. We sometimes assume today that the only alternative to tract living is to be stacked up in apartment towers in grim inner cities. But that, thankfully, is not the only other choice. The natural community where humans have lived for most of their 10,000 years of history is the village. Sometimes the village has been a small town surrounded by wheat fields and forests. Other times it has been an urban village, a fairly self-contained 15-minute-walk community located within a larger city.

These kinds of villages still exist in America today—in towns and small cities, in a few lucky places within large cities, even within the more sensibly arranged parts of suburbia. These well-knitted, family-friendly communities are threatened, but they have hardly disappeared.

Surely conservatives and liberals alike can agree on the benefits of preserving and reviving these village-like communities. With the benefit of new technology, fresh services, expanded wealth, and other wholesome aspects of modernism, we ought to be able to encourage the rise of towns that have more of the traditional virtues of cohesive old-style neighborhoods. In the fascinating material you will find on pages 41 to 50 (and elsewhere in this magazine), there are concrete suggestions as to how communities might be built and rebuilt in the future so as to make this happen.

But first we must get beyond the idea that our current patterns of suburban living are paradise for children, families, and local patriotism. For the truth is, when we shifted from the gritty but distinctly communitarian life of rural small towns and tight-knit city neighborhoods to life in scattered houses, malls, and "bedroom communities" (an oxymoron if there ever was one), there was a sharp falloff in the connections among Americans. Mostly by accident, our flight from dangerous cities and stagnant rural areas became mixed up with the modern retreat from family and civic obligations. And the tragedy is that, while no one intended it, suburbs made both kinds of flight remarkably easy.

We’ve recently begun to correct errors of modernism in many other parts of American society—by recovering our respect for traditional families, for instance, by re-emphasizing personal responsibility, by retreating from the hubris of the Great Society. Our isolating suburbs need fixing too. And good alternatives do exist.

Karl Zinsmeister is DeWitt Wallace Fellow of the American Enterprise Institute
and editor in chief of The American Enterprise.