Anyone who knows me knows my strong feelings about suburbs versus urban city centers. And anyone who knows me also knows that my avoidance of the former (unfortunately most of my close friends in SoCal moved to the burbs with their families) and search for the latter are why I left Santa Monica in November 2017.
The irony is that after leaving my wonderful beach-town life and amazing apartment location in hip, bustling Santa Monica (which was actually quite “urban” within its small bubble), I spent most of the following 13 months in the suburbs.
My mom’s house in the suburbs of Denver was my home base, and I frequently stayed with my sister and her family who live outside the city center (definitely not urban, but hipper and more central than suburbia). What’s more, the majority of my travels in 2018 were domestically to visit friends in their suburban locales. From the suburbs of Long Beach and Orange County to Saint Louis and Austin to Canada’s Ottawa, my friends who have opted for suburban lifestyles are plentiful. I enjoyed the time with my friends, which was the point of each trip – not to sightsee in their sprawling, cookie-cutter, commercial landscapes – and I’m incredibly happy for the beautiful families and lives they have built. But by the end of each trip (often earlier), I definitely had my fill of the burbs.
While visiting these suburban friends often meant my own guest room in their often larger homes, it also meant:
- little offerings/activities/resources within walking distance
- no accessible coffee shops for me to work at
- no bars or restaurants to walk to at night
- so basically we had to drive everywhere
- anything within walking distance was a commercial chain
- access to public transit or Lyft/Uber was limited and expensive
Sure, I could go for a run without being held up by traffic or myriad stoplights, without having to dart through crowds or around homeless people, and without breathing in smells from overflowing dumpsters, streets of ethnic restaurants or exhaust in high volumes. But I otherwise felt pretty isolated and bored.
These trips helped confirm why I do not want to live in the suburbs, but it also got me thinking about why someone would.
After World War II, people – read: white folk, educated and higher-income earners, and families – flocked to the suburbs in search of space, something new and locales where only the privileged could access. City centers became neglected, while suburbs flourished.
But “as money, education, political influence and emotional connections moved away from urban centers into the suburbs, we created a culture of cars and sprawl with the attendant problems,” explains author Peter Kageyama in his book For the Love of Cities. “We lost a strong sense of civic identity as our suburbs became generic at best, shockingly dull and ugly at their worst. We created vast places not worth caring about.”
He continues: “Sprawling developments that require cars to maneuver reduce our connections to each other, and we make it so much harder to care about anything beyond our front door. Our car has become a prophylactic that prevents us from connecting with our places.”
Meanwhile, “in dense, walkable urban areas, the public realm was more important if for no other reason than the citizens were more connected to it. Public space means very little when you are in your car at 45 mph. It means far more when you are walking through it.”
It was only a coincidence that the book I was reading last year touched on the concept and expansion of suburbs. While things are very different than post-war America, I understand how the suburbs developed and why they may work better for families or people who “need” more space and material things.
Before I left California, I had a mild debate with one of my girl friends about suburbs versus urban city centers, and she was adamant that families (i.e. adults with kids) could not live in the latter. Of course, I challenged that notion: the 1.67 million people living in Manhattan are not all single folk or couples without children. Same goes for all major cities around the world. Whether by necessity or choice, many families live in the “downtowns” of big cities, and they make it work. Heck, I’d wager that many of them enjoy it. Sure, getting groceries for a household of four may not be the easiest, pushing a stroller onto a crowded subway may be annoying and forgoing a backyard to play in isn’t ideal. But having a family in the city is not impossible and, thus, an eventual move to the burbs is by no means necessary let alone destined.
But at this juncture in my life, one where the energy of a bustling city excites me, my belongings are minimal (by choice), and I prefer to have quick access to resources without dependence on a car, the suburbs won’t cut it. Urban city centers have retail stores, restaurants, coffee shops, bars, banks, parks, entertainment and various services at every corner. I can walk, bike or bus to all of them. Meanwhile, my car can stay put, which means less money spent on gas and a smaller carbon imprint on the environment. (Note: I understand that parking is not free in most city centers; fortunately I live in a part of urban Seattle that street parking is free and easy to find close by.)
In fact, I currently work for two families in urban Seattle who don’t even own cars. They always have a kitchen stocked with food, we venture to the Children’s Museum by bus, and we play outside at one of the many nearby parks or the communal rooftop instead of a backyard.
Unfortunately, those aforementioned friends who flocked to the burbs with their expanding families become harder and harder to see given their physical distance from me and their thinner capacities as family members and responsibilities expand in tandem. They rarely come into the city and I don’t have a strong desire to take a road trip to the burbs. Hence, another reason I decided to leave SoCal.
So, after more than enough time in suburban Denver, I finally made my move to the urban city I had decided on and the urban lifestyle I had been dreaming of. Even though my neighborhood in Seattle is almost a mirror image of my beloved neighborhood in Santa Monica, downtown is only a 20-minute walk or a 5-minute bus ride. I have a multitude of shops, restaurants, parks and other resources within close proximity. I bus, bike or walk everywhere, so my car stays parked most days (except for day hikes and road trips). And I’m connecting with and seeing way more of my city than anyone who is buckled behind a glass window going 60 mph down the highway.