Suburban Oxymoron

 

Two years ago, a tropical storm hit my home in Central Florida. I was fortunate that it weakened to a tropical depression by the time it came to my area, and it did little more than pour heavily for a night knocking out the power for the next day. That day, without cable, air conditioning, or computers, I rode my bike around my neighborhood. Many people were outside on the sidewalks and streets, more so than I had ever seen out at one time in the neighborhood. They were in the same position as me; with modern technology useless, the whole process of entertaining oneself and keeping occupied switched from a lone task to one that required camaraderie. I didn’t see people walking around alone on the sidewalks, I saw whole families strolling with each other and sharing a rare bit of family time. Neighbors talked to one another and rediscovered that in the homes next to them and across the street there were people and families just like their own.

 

 

It is fondly remembered as a moment when the entire neighborhood happily dropped their normal routines to talk and bond with one another. But eventually the power came back and things returned to normal. The picturesque image of neighborly values that had existed for such a short time had faded. I was left wondering where it went, and why.

 

The image of neighborly values had faded. I was left wondering where it went, and why.

The answer I have come to is that suburban developments work against social development. Part of the appeal of moving to a suburb is the space and privacy that it affords. Homes are most often single family, separated by streets and side lawns that give each house a comfortable spaciousness and the privacy of individual units. Yet spaciousness and privacy can become problems themselves. Suburban communities were once the solution to the problems of the cities, but now as a society we may be faced with a different set of difficulties for our new living arrangements.

 

In many sprawling communities, it is a hassle, to say the least, to get from one place to another without the often-costly personal transportation of a car. For many, especially the young and elderly, it is incredibly inconvenient or even impossible to walk to the nearest grocery store, community center, or cultural venue. Some communities lack these public spaces altogether. The consequences of this are two-fold. For one, it isolates suburban residents. Without easy access to common places, the opportunity seldom arises for social gatherings between neighbors. Often those who live in suburban communities hardly know or may not interact with their neighbors at all.  When is the last time you’ve attended a get together in a community space within a suburban neighborhood? The answer is quite possibly never. Often, the lack of free, convenient space forces the socializing to take place in private homes, which are typically exclusive. What ever happened to being neighborly?

 

Communities without these shared spaces may seek out other neighborhoods that do have them.  The lack of public transit in suburbia can be prohibitive and costly, especially for a high school student such as myself. Yet, with areas of retail and culture so far removed from residential tracts, there are few alternatives.  Often times, it’s easier to stay home alone than attempt to socialize.

 

Because developers and consumers have put so much emphasis on spaciousness and privacy, we as a society of suburbanites have put a de-emphasis on genuine community. We’ve removed our town squares and turned them into cul de sacs lined with private homes. We’ve all but eliminated “walking” communities where one could stroll to any establishments. Instead, retail, grocers, schools and post offices have become inaccessible to the pedestrian. If you drive through suburbia, you’ll realize that sidewalks are barren strips of concrete, they are paths to nowhere.

 

With each new development I have seen constructed atop a raised grassland or forest, I have become acutely aware of and disturbed by suburban growth trends. It seems to me, as a life-long inhabitant of these residential traps, that the premise on which these houses were built has backfired. We made strong gates and walls to keep things out, and we’ve ended up locking ourselves in.

 

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