Duncan Rawlinson/Flickr via Creative Commons license

Leave it to the Economist, just about the smartest and most well-written general interest magazine (or “newspaper,” as it quaintly calls itself) around, to make the case for the continued vitality of, problems with, and possible future forms for suburbia much better than I ever could. In a few thousand words, they have surveyed the globe, counted up the numbers, and come to the conclusion that: “Wealth fuels sprawl. The process is happening apace in the developing parts of the world. In the developed parts, where cities and suburbs combined expect only 160m more people by 2050, it is largely over.”

The Economist’s anonymous writer (or writers) points out that, while it is true that the cores of many cities in the Western world are growing again, and that American suburbs saw a dip in their expansion during the Great Recession, suburbs are still outpacing central areas:

“The fastest-growing parts of the country are now nearly all suburban… Between 2012 and 2013 the areas that the Census Bureau calls ‘principal cities’ absorbed 3.3m migrants from elsewhere in America—but they shed 5.4m people, leaving a net loss due to the in-country migration of 2.1m. Foreign immigrants and babies saved them from outright depopulation. The suburbs, meanwhile, added 5.8m domestic migrants and only lost 3.2m, suggesting their pull remains enormously strong.”

Maryvale, Ariz.
Doc Searls/Flickr via Creative Commons license Maryvale, Ariz.

The reasons for that attraction are, first of all, as noted in the first quote, space. There is no better way for most people to translate their wealth than into personal or family space—whether at home, in an office, or in an airplane seat. Beyond that, schools, says the Economist, are the main attractor. Until this country can create better inner city schools, they will not be able to compete with suburban systems. Then there is safety. The Brookings Institute also has noted, the article continues, that, “violent crime has dropped steeply in principal cities since the early 1990s—but only to a level twice as high as in either old suburbs or new ones.” They note that on the whole even the inhabitants of one of Phoenix’ most crime-ridden and impoverished suburbs, Maryvale, “are probably better off there than they would be crammed into tower blocks.”

Maryvale is typical of a class of suburbs that does not fulfill the ideal of what a caption in the piece calls a “reasonably green, reasonably pleasant land.” Ferguson, Missouri has become the byword for such socially and economically troubled, usually inner-circle suburbs. Nor is all well with suburbia, even if they are more well-to-do: its inhabitants have higher carbon footprints, and social divisions are stronger. Yet, “an often overlooked aspect of suburbia is variety, within reason; many cities (though not the largest) boast suburbs as variegated as their central neighborhoods.” Meanwhile, cities have fixed and inherited costs that suburbs have avoided, leaving them struggling to provide services.

We are moving, the Economist points out, towards “consumer suburbs and consumer villages” just as we have moved from cities as centers of production to “consumer cities.” As that happens, it will become even more difficult to do anything about a hierarchy of space and amenities set by how much you can buy—whether it is in the city, whether the rich live in luxury high-rises in downtowns that are unaffordable to anyone else, or in the suburbs, where they live in gated communities. This, not whether people live in urban cores or in peripheral settlements, is the core problem.

Bill Liao/Flickr via Creative Commons license

The only thing we can hope for is that, as the distinction between the city and suburb is becoming more and more difficult to find, we will realize that what creates a livable environment is a neighborhood or village: A definable, variegated place in sprawl. The Garden City model is based on that scale. Now, cities such as Barcelona are trying to carve out such knowable space in their cores, while suburbs are trying to make downtown-like cores and clusters of shopping, culture, and education. So, in the end, the distinction might be, the article concludes, moot: “As suburbs come to seem more urban, the distinction between central cities and their suburbs is blurring. In time, the two may be almost impossible to tell apart—and the final victory of the compromising, humble suburb will be at hand.” How to make that suburb work—in an environmental and social sense—will be the task of architects and planners.

Aaron Betsky is a regularly featured columnist whose stories appear on this website each week. His views and conclusions are not necessarily those of ARCHITECT magazine nor of the American Institute of Architects.