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Monday, February 20, 2012

City vs Suburbs

No Strip Malls in My Neighborhood
I have said on countless occasions that what I think is one of the most important things in our existence is our living environment, something Howard Kunstler called “man-made geography.”  I have made no secret of the fact that what I believe is the best way to live is in a dense urban setting—not to mention the most sustainable.  I feel that it is my duty to inform others about the details of my lifestyle with the hope of convincing them that city living—at least for me—is far superior to the suburban model.  Whatever I my sacrifice in the way of personal living space I more than make up for in convenience and choice.

I think that when we talk about the merits of Urban/Suburban life we need to first talk about “The American Dream.”  This idea means a lot of different things to a lot of very different people but I think that many people would agree that at least part of this dream is a house with a yard and possibly a picket fence. I think it’s safe to say that when asked to define the American dream very few people would describe a small inner-city apartment surrounded by shops, theaters, and restaurants. I think that the challenge for me as a writer is to convince people that it’s time to redefine the American dream, to move it from suburbia to a densely-populated urban metropolis.

People who live in the country or suburbia would be surprised to hear me say that one of the big advantages to city living is its simplicity.  Simplicity isn’t generally associated with the city but life couldn’t be easier for me in my urban neighborhood. I live without a car. Most of my daily transportation needs can be effected on foot.  Within a block of my house I have three supermarkets, two green grocers, about a dozen cafés, a couple of pharmacies, and a host of shops.  For longer trips I only need to walk to the corner of my street and take out a bicycle from the bike share system that we have here in Valencia—a fairly common thing in European cities.  I can get almost anywhere in the city by bike in less than 30 minutes.

If bikes aren’t your thing (which would be unfortunate because they probably should be) you can take the bus or use the underground metro system. The metro services most of the city and the surrounding villages. It also goes to the airport for about $1.80 one way (or much less if you have a ten-trip metro card).  For most people here a car is unnecessary or a luxury. This isn’t to say that no one drives in Valencia; it’s just that they probably don’t have to drive if they choose not to. In Seattle, where I lived in the downtown area, my car was more like a recreational vehicle than something I depended upon, more like a jet-ski or a snowmobile than basic transportation.

For many Americans who live in a country or suburban setting, walking is not an option in their transportation model. The distances are just too great to get anywhere on foot. I happen to think that if walking has been eliminated from your daily routine, a grave mistake has been made in the design of your living environment. Period. I also believe that most people who live in this sort of environment have never lived in a city and don’t know the joys of having everything within a few minutes’ walk from their front door.

Another complaint suburbanites have about the city is that life there is impersonal. I would disagree strongly with this notion.  I have always found city life to be incredibly personal. As I walk around my neighborhood I am constantly greeted by people who I may not know by name but see on a regular basis: people who watch football in my bar, shop and café workers in the area, and many other people I see here and there. Suburban people spend lots of time in cars where there is no chance of any sort of human connection.  Not only do I meet a lot of people in the city I would say that urban life fosters a level of cooperation and compromise unknown in rural and suburban settings. This may explain why urban voters in American are almost overwhelmingly liberal. This may be because liberal people tend to move towards city life or it could be the result of many other factors. I am just speaking anecdotally here, from my own experience.

Non-city people often say that cities are dirty and unhealthy places to live. This is sort of ironic because it’s suburban drivers that cause a lot of pollution in the city. I don’t even have a damn car so you can’t pin it on me. City people walk a lot more than suburbanites and are therefore—on average—about 12% thinner than people who don’t live in the city.  I am lucky to live in a city that isn’t plagued by pollution.  If only more people in other cities rode public transportation, walked, or rode bikes perhaps life in other, more polluted cities would improve.  As far as the pollution problem of cities is concerned we are facing a problem that we have already answered: get people out of individual automobiles and into mass transit.


  1. Totally agree.

    I live in Brisbane- Australia, which like all Australian and American cities is a dense central business district surrounded by well populated and diverse inner-city suburbs which are in turn surrounded by sprawling suburbs.

    People are shocked when my wife , child and I go to a gathering and talk life. They are shocked that we walk everywhere, shop for fresh food daily and use public transport more often than our car. Like you I have everything I need within a 20 minute walk of my house. And as you correctly point out, all the congestion in inner-city areas is caused by fat bastards from the 'burbs who can't get their arses out of a seat behind a steering wheel.

    In the coming years (next 2 to 5 years) anyone living in dense urban areas will be finally seen as 'smart' when fuel prices go through the ceiling thanks to peak oil.

  2. I live in Denver, CO now, but I was born in rural America (Iowa), just outside of a small university town (Iowa City). For me, small and medium-sized urban areas have always felt more comfortable (for all of the reasons leftbanker mentions) However, it might seem ironic to some people, but many of those communal tendencies are found well outside the urban suburbs and exurbs too, even though the amenities are not -- at least observed them 30 years ago (or so) in Middle America. In the rural regions of the world, rugged individualists often die by going it alone. People with practical wisdom and actual experience know better. Of course, we forge social and economic relationships, sometimes for noble reasons, but quite often, simply for practical ones. Many of us have forgotten that in an age of affluence. I certainly love the amenities of my dense, walkable, urban neighborhood (Highlands) in Denver. It's rich and hip, which makes it easy to like. But given a choice, I'd probably return to a small town or city, nearer to water and farming, and closer to people who have both practical need and idealistic desire to build a community where diversity of economy, culture, and creativity aren't just a buzzwords that sell real estate.


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