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In Defense of SuburbiaIn Defense of Suburbia

In Defense of Suburbia

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Topics: Cities, Civic Core
In Defense of Suburbia January 31, 2014  |  By Doug Sikkema
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If you're a millennial or Gen-Yer, like me, there can be a lot of pressure about where you look to settle down. Well, actually there can simply be a lot of pressure about settling down. Period. We're a generation known for "failing" to tick off many of those "coming of age" boxes—steady job, spouse, family, mortgage—while we're still in our 20s. We're too busy getting that second (ok, third) graduate degree in cultural studies, stringing together part time gigs, and/or backpacking through Asia

But let's say you've got to the point of wanting to settle down; once you get out of your parents' basement, the matter of where you settle comes with a lot of conflicting millennial peer pressure.  On one hand, the older millenials have often opted for a return to urban cores, largely in reaction to those baby boomers who migrated to the American-dreaminess of suburban sprawl. Yet on the other hand, some of the newest millenials are opting for a return to agrarian ways, largely in reaction to the ever-growing urban disconnect from the land.

These two camps—urbanites and agrarians—disagree on almost everything, except perhaps their contempt for the suburbs. Yet while it might be easy to malign the cookie cutter monoculture the suburbs seem to embody, I feel the need (as an initially reluctant suburbanite) to provide a bit of an apologetic for this liminal no-mans-land between the city and the farm.

Last summer on the Cardus blog, David Greusel moderated between Alan Jacobs' take on suburbia and Aaron Renn's, and siding with Renn's anti-suburban sentiments, Greusel wrote:

Suburbs just don't have much going on in the way of sacred civic space, where a person can contemplate his or her place in the created order as a citizen, not just as a consumer.

I agree with Greusel that suburbs lack certain civic spaces, but such a reduction of people and their place is hardly a charitable reading of what suburban spaces really offer. And the idea that suburban spaces are merely spaces for consumption is a condemnation that could just as well be true for modern urban dwelling. Perhaps even more true.

Very little of my suburban experience ever revolves around consuming; rather, it involves walks through the neighborhood, stumbling upon new parks, talking with my neighbours and watching the kids skateboard of play ball hockey in the streets. It involves watching my kids play safely in the backyard, a yard where we can sit and have a small campfire, and grow a few vegetables. I can take part in community basketball camps and play in other local sports leagues. In terms of my lived experience, this is what the suburban life has afforded my family.

Is it ideal? Well there aren't the cafes and shops, large churches and civic spaces which the urban experience gives in abundance, nor are there the wide open spaces and exposures to the mysteries of nature that an agrarian life provides. So what does the suburban experience really offer? A place designed for community. This isn't to say that community is not found in the city or country, but they are not spaces as readily dedicated to this. While the urban experience allows one to dissolve into the crowd and the agrarian life allows one to find solitude quite easily, the suburbs are places where we're butted right up to our neighbours. And I've lived in downtown Ottawa and Toronto and I've lived in rural Niagara, but I've never actually known my neighbours the way I do in the suburbs. 

Of course, this isn't always the way suburbs work and I already see that this might be a bit of a romanticized portrait. Jamie Smith, in an earlier Cardus piece, wrote about the way that suburban life is structured to turn us into certain types of people, ones easily buffered from each other with our gated yards and remote entry garages. I agree, and particularly in the new developments this is the case. Yet it's not a reason the suburbs should be abandoned, it's the reason they should be done right.

Edward Casey, one of the pioneering philosophers of place, argues that our built environment must be one "in which we are able to dwell, and dwelling places offer not just bare shelter but the possibility of sojourns of upbringing, of education, of contemplation, of conviviality, lingerings of many kinds and durations."

Again, in response to Greusel's oversimplification that the suburbs reduce us to mere consumers, I'd argue that all of the above can be realized in surprisingly beautiful ways, in the suburbs.

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