Musings of a programmer, musician, photographer, and Christian.

Why Suburbs?

I’ve seen a number of pieces over the years questioning why people want to live in suburbs. Most of them seem to indicate it’s because of better schools or because suburbanites don’t like brown people or any number of other reasons. As a lifelong suburbanite, I’ll give my viewpoint.

Just to give my qualifications: I’ve worked in New York City for something longer than a decade at this point. I’ve also spent a decent amount of time in the San Francisco area, and have spent time in the other major cities in the US (LA, Seattle, Chicago and Boston). In contrast, Boulder is pretty nice, but it’s barely a city in my book – it’s a city like Poughkeepsie is a city. More like the dense part of town. Actually that comparison is somewhat unfair. Poughkeepsie is more city-like than Boulder, but Pough-town is a hole.

In short, I hate being in cities. I hate working in one, and would never want to live in one. I work in one mostly because my desire for a reasonable salary exceeds my dislike of the city.

Cities smell bad. They’re crowded. They’re loud. They’re hideously expensive. They’re miserable in bad weather (NYC is just horrible when it rains). People ask why anyone would want to live in a suburb, I’d like to turn the question around. Why on Earth would you want to live in the city?

Some answers I hear of are:

  • convenience – everything is within walking distance, so you don’t need a car
  • culture – there’s stuff happening all over the place, so there are things to do
  • public transportation – so you don’t need a car
  • character – cities are more interesting

Convenience is nice, but basically a non-issue if you can plan more than 5 minutes ahead – since the stores that carry the necessities are only about 10-15 minutes away.

As for culture, most of the things I’ve seen in the cities don’t do it for me. Buskers may be skilled, but at the end of a long day at work, I just want quiet. Playhouses are good, but we have those in the suburbs and maybe they’re not quite as good as a Broadway, they’re still plenty good enough (and cheaper!).

As for public transportation, I’d argue that being able to go where you want to go, when you want to go is much nicer than having to contend with a schedule and a list of routes that don’t really go where you want them to.

As for character, yes some suburbs are notably lacking, but many aren’t and are in historic districts. In any case character is only important if you value it, and many people don’t care about the character of a town.

I’d rather be able to stare at the sky at night and see stars, instead of the orangy-pink haze of reflected city lights. I like that it gets dark here. I like that I can have a private ool (because it has no P in it). I like that I can fence in my front yard and let the dog run. I like that I can make a racket in my house and not disturb the neighbors. I like open spaces and trees. I like not having to be so creative about storage since I can economically have about 2,000 square feet (185 square meters). I like nature, forests and hikes. I like that traffic is so much less so I don’t have to worry about getting hit by an errant taxi. I like that the suburbs are much nicer in the summer than the cities which turn into boy-scout tin foil ovens. I like that it’s really quiet. I like that just about everything is cheaper here than in the city. A run in just about any suburban neighborhood beats a run along Hudson River Park or Venice beach by a country mile (pun intended).

Yes, in the suburbs, you need to have a car. So what? All of my car expenses, even if I had a car payment, which I don’t, would still be considerably cheaper when you factor in how much I’m not paying for my residence. For where I live though, I actually could get around on public transportation if I chose to as there’s a bus stop about a five minute walk away, and many things are reachable with about a fifteen minute bike ride.

In the city, you need stuff outside to do, because staying in is like locking yourself in a closet. In the suburbs, staying in can be quite comfy and nice. I don’t have to deal with other people if I don’t want to. I like that I can be left alone when I want to be.

As for schools, yes, the statistics also seem to bear out that these generally are better. The same goes for crime – even though statistically, we have more guns per capita than city dwellers.

There seems to be an impression that “you must be rich to live in the suburbs” that I’ve picked up from some people over the years. Let me dispel that: you don’t have to be rich to live here, that’s part of the appeal. Yes, if you want to work in the city and live out here, there’s a commute, but it just depends on how you value things. I suspect you’re more likely to get “rich” out here, just because of the relative cost of things allows you to save a ton of money.

My parents grew up in a city, and it was funny when the relatives would visit us and say things like “I don’t know how you sleep with it being so quiet and dark,” to which we’d be mystified, because we have no idea how you guys sleep with it so bright and loud.

So why do people like cities? I think some of them have never really experienced anything else and don’t know, but if not, then it basically boils down to this: people who like the suburbs don’t value the same things that people who like cities do. Neither is evil, wrong, or broken. We’re just different, and that’s ok. Modern culture tries so much to define the “other” and vilify them, but we can agree to disagree on this – even though I think city dwellers are nuts (just kidding).