The End of Suburbia As We Know It

This was the year I crossed my personal Rubicon and became a vehicular cyclist.  All that is left of the metaphorical bridge is ashes. There’s no going back for me…only forward.

Most change is incremental and when we’re in the midst of it we sometimes lose sight of how huge and truly significant it is.  This is one of those times.  I realized this yesterday as we flew over the subdivision in the picture below.  It was a rare and elusive moment of clarity for me.

This, too, shall pass.

This, too, shall pass.

It’s not very attractive.  In fact, it looks like some sort of corporate or military installation…maybe a holding pen or a prison camp.  How do people live like this?  Where do they shop, work or go to school?  There are no public spaces….no opportunities to mingle.  That might be a park in the middle but it looks more like a pipeline or power line easement.  It probably is.  I’ll bet they call it a greenbelt.  The primary purpose behind the design of this community is to provide automobile access to every building.  Everything else is secondary.  Who chooses this and why?

Then it occurred to me that I’ve spent most of my life in neighborhoods just like this.  The streets might curve a little more, but fundamentally they’re no different.  This was sold to me as the American Dream but as seen on final approach it looks more like a hellish nightmare.  Now that I no longer live this way, I can’t believe I ever did.

It was James Howard Kunstler who first presented to me the argument that suburbia is not sustainable.  Kunstler posits that cheap oil is what made the suburbs viable.  When I first read that, I scoffed, but then I discovered that (even though he approached it from a different perspective) Frank Lloyd Wright felt much the same.

Many people are threatened by such radical beliefs, but I have come to realize that it is what it is.   I no longer question any of it.  My suburban commute and my suburban lawn consumed a tremendous amount of time, oil, energy and money.  Now I use that stuff to bike or walk where I’m going.  My decision was prudent and economic and had everything to do with my quality of life.

The Woodlands Texas is not your father's suburb. This planned community sits on the edge of the Houston metropolis.

The Woodlands Texas is the anti-suburb.  It sits on the metro fringe, but is an urban core in its own right.

I don’t think the suburbs will go away completely.  I tend to believe that Joel Garreau was right in “Edge City:  Life on the New Frontier.”  Those places on the fringe of our big cities that urbanize and make it easy to live close to home will thrive.  The Woodlands, not far from the picture I snapped above, comes to mind.  The Woodlands looks more like a city than a suburb these days.  It has a downtown and 30 story buildings.  It also has bike trails and a high level of walkability.  You can bike most places in The Woodlands with minimal inconvenience.

Looking forward, I am certain that I will never again live in a place where I can’t bicycle to wherever it is I need to go.  I suspect that as time goes on and the cost of driving spirals ever upward, more and more of us will come to the same conclusion.   That’s a good thing.


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