Two choices: Suburban Sprawl Or High Rent

18 August 2021

Urban or suburban sprawl is characterized by low-density residential housing, single-use zoning, and increased reliance on automobiles for transportation.

Sprawl is an area where houses and structures are spaced apart, separated by lawns, landscaping, roads or parking lots. This is in opposition to cities, which are densely packed full of people, multiple families living in the same building most of the time.

I grew up among suburban sprawl. The only place I could walk within a mile was a park. After a mile, there was a grocery store (which is now abandoned) and a small strip mall with a Chinese food place, a Mexican food place, a bagel place, and a veterinary office. If I walked along the highway, I could cross four lanes of traffic (two going one way, two the other) to visit a convenience store and a Dunkin Donuts.

Before I was old enough to work, I didn't have money to spend at those places. Sometimes my friend and I would loiter inside of the grocery store, in the freezer aisle on a cold day.

Suburban sprawl leads to the isolation and restriction of car dependence.

A city is typically designed like a grid. This is important because it allows public transportation, such as subways, trains and busses, to more efficiently. A suburb, however, is typically designed with winding roads, some of them leading to (literally) nowhere. Lack of consistency with the layout of the roads makes it difficult to design and lay track for trains. Buses need to travel longer distances to pick up a smaller amount of people. Taxi services price gauge their services.

Growing up, my best friend's mom didn't have her license. When his dad moved out, they had no means of transportation and no one else in his family was of age to drive yet. I hung out with them a lot, but I also was young, so we ended up paying a local taxi service to take us places, like to restaurants or to the mall. A trip to our local indoor mall was about 15-20 minutes and it cost $65 round trip, $30 each way - not including tip. If there had been no taxi service in town, my friend and his family probably wouldn't have gone anywhere other than the supermarket.

Living in a town like this drastically changes how social life works compared to a city. Like any community, you have neighbors, but far fewer ones - spaced further apart. A arguable 'benefit' of spaced apart houses is that each household has more space to themselves - and that's what people living in a suburb (at least here on the East Coast) value most, not community-building with neighbors.

The 'American Ideal', often depicted in movies, is to spend one's youth/college in a city, and then 'retire' to the suburbs with a partner to start a family.

This 'Ideal' leads to car dependency and consequences, like:

  • Increased traffic fatalities
  • Increased traffic jams
  • Increased levels of air pollution from traffic
  • Increased runoff into rivers
  • Loss of agricultural capacity
  • Higher rates of obesity
  • Loss of natural habitats and wildlife
  • Increased flooding
  • Higher taxes

When suburban neighborhoods were developed outside of the big cities, high-paid workers from cities moved out to the suburbs. This led to the lower paid workers being stuck in the city - and because poverty is the leading cause of crime, crime rates went up.

The problem we face today, however, is how expensive it is to live in a major city in the US. Rent prices have been rising everywhere but cities are being hit the hardest.

As a city grows and develops hubs of entertainment and commerce, real estate value goes up. The many who rent in NYC, for example, have seen this reflected in rent prices. NYC is so big in fact, that it's an hour away from me and housing listings always are sure to mention the incredible value of being only a one-hour commute from the largest city in the US.

All housing listings tack on walkability to their evaluation of how much the dwelling is 'worth'. The increase in rent needs to make up for how much you're saving by not needing a car - and if you do have a car, you'll be charged extra for the parking spot.

There are areas near my suburbs that are small 'cities' that rent apartments at NYC rates. One city in NJ made a point to build the majority of their housing as luxury rentals which include rare amenities like a pool, communal grilling areas, an indoor theater, a gym and a sauna. It's interesting how nobody I know can afford to live there.

This is mainly a result of gentrification, something that's been going on in cities since the term was first coined in the '60s. It's when the character of a poor urban area changes by wealthier people moving in, improving housing and attracting new businesses, which typically displaces current inhabitants in the process when the rent goes up.

The isolating conditions of suburbia and the wallet-sucking air-polluting terror-machine that is the automobile  are terrible options, and in many cases, hardly an 'option' at all.