Return to Suburbs (idea)
"Suburbs will eventually be the downfall of civilization"?
What a peculiar idea. After all, suburbs developed as a direct result of the development of civilization -- specifically, the development of large cities. As the Industrial Age progressed and more and more people moved from the rural farmlands into the cities to find work in factories, the cities themselves became crowded, dirty -- indoor plumbing hadn't been perfected yet -- and crime-ridden. Those who made their wealth in the cities could afford a higher level of comfort, but the majority of those living there were blue collar workers, and they couldn't.
Until one marvelous invention changed everything, that is: the train. Not the cross-country locomotives that hauled freight and passengers from one part of the world to another, but the smaller metropolitan rail networks that moved people around the city itself. Suddenly it was practical to live outside the city while still working inside of it, and the worker's daily commute was born -- and so was the suburb.
In these small cities that grew up around the large ones, people could build homes with a comfortable amount of space rather than being crowded into small apartments with poor sanitation. They could get married and raise families without being surrounded by crime, noise and pollution on a daily basis. Children could go out and run around with a reasonable assurance of safety. It offered all the benefits of rural life without the effort of maintaining a farm or the forced removal from city life. Who wouldn't be willing to sacrifice about an hour twice a day to commute in and out of the city factories, if it meant all of that?
Today, there are almost as many people living in the suburbs of any major metropolis as there are in the city itself, and a few other innovations have come along in the meantime. The automobile, as it developed throughout the first half of the twentieth century, became an efficient replacement for the intra-city train -- although that efficiency decreases as intra-city traffic rises higher and higher. As the suburbs grew larger and larger, they naturally became more and more self-sustaining. Couple that with increased telecommunications and transportation technology, and today most suburban towns can and do operate almost entirely independent of the cities that birthed them.
Why do so many urban dwellers have such a strong loathing for the suburbs, then? After all, the suburbs are the only reason they can live comfortably inside the city rather than being crowded in by their fellow workers. Even as they become more independent, they still rely on their city's airports and harbors to move goods to and from other parts of the world -- and the city relies on the suburbs to provide the demand for them. In short, everything that makes a modern city a city is dependent on the suburbs that surround it. Without them, the city would still be a crowded, noisy, polluted mess where only the richest could live comfortably and the rest would be left to their own devices.
I believe it's two things. The first and most obvious is culture, which the cities still create and the suburbs absorb. Entertainment of all kinds is created in the city, where the higher population density provides a wider audience for new types of music, visual arts and performances. New restaurants and stores can be more successful in a city, even though they are also more expensive to establish, for the very same reason. Eventually the successful stores and restaurants either attract customers from the suburbs, or are able to reproduce themselves out in the suburbs, or both -- but the city is where it all originates.
The second reason is related to lifestyle. Suburban life is generally defined by comfort -- space, health, and a lower cost of living -- while urban life is increasingly driven by energy. In a city, youth culture is constantly exposed to new music, entertainment, food, types of jobs, and each other. The decreased space and increased crowding of any city make it difficult to raise a family there, but it's ideal for young individuals and couples who like to see new things, meet new people, and try new experiences on a constant basis. Without a family, they have only themselves on whom to spend their time and money in pursuit of these things. The exact reverse is true of the suburbs. In other words, the more family-oriented you are, the more appealing the suburbs become.
This, however, is not the "downfall of civilization" -- just the opposite, in fact. Cities may be the fount of modern culture and lifestyle, but civilization itself is defined by man's ability to perpetuate itself. As the global population continues to rise, Western civilization becomes less driven to reproduce -- and the advantages of suburban family life are lost on more and more people. But without them, the relatively few families that live inside the cities wouldn't stand a chance of keeping their culture, their lifestyle, alive for another generation.
The cities provide the ideas. But the suburbs provide the people, and it's easier for those people to live without new ideas than vice versa.