Suburbia Makes Relationships More Difficult

Harping on suburbia can get tiresome, but I guess I’m consistent. When I saw How our housing choices make adult friendships more difficult I couldn’t help but link to it:

Our ability to form and maintain friendships is shaped in crucial ways by the physical spaces in which we live. “Land use,” as it’s rather aridly known, shapes behavior and sociality. And in America we have settled on patterns of land use that might as well have been designed to prevent spontaneous encounters, the kind out of which rich social ties are built.

There’s a huge difference between your primary mode of transportation being walking versus the personal automobile.1 Under the former, running into someone means a chance to catch up, a wave, or maybe a chance to make a new friend with someone you’ve seen around. Under the latter, running into someone might kill you and/or them. Walking seems to meet the needs of community development, so why are we developing most of our cities after the suburban land uses that all but guarantee car fatalities and loneliness? Contrast school years with later years:

Why do we form such strong friendships in college and form so few afterward? …The key ingredient for the formation of friendships is repeated spontaneous contact. That’s why we make friends in college: because we are, by virtue of where we live and our daily activities, forced into regular contact with the same people. It is the natural soil out of which friendship grows.

And, if you’re cursed to live in the suburbs, answer this:

Those of you who are married with kids: When was the last time you ran into a friend or “dropped by” a friend’s house without planning it? When was the last time you had a spontaneous encounter with anyone who was not a clerk or a barista, someone serving you?

Where would it happen? What public spaces are there in which you mix and mingle freely with people on a regular basis? The mall? Walmart? How about noncommercial spaces? Can you think of one?

The problem is how the “normalcy” of suburbia has stunted our ability to articulate what’s wrong with it:

[M]ost Americans only know single-family dwellings and auto-dependent land use. They cannot even articulate what they are missing and often misidentify the solution as more or different private consumption.

I can look at most things and see sets of pros and cons leading to a flawed, but reasonable decision. I can see some of that in the initial decisions that led to the development of the suburbs 60 years ago. But today I can only name the continued development of suburbia as willful ignorance at best, and genuine hatred of humanity at worst. Only the shortest term thinking possible can make a case for this historically irresponsible use of our resources. We all need friends, even if everything else sucks. Suburbia gives us neither.

  1. These are obviously not the only two options, but public transit still necessitates some walking, while biking affords similar social opportunities as walking. 

2 responses to “Suburbia Makes Relationships More Difficult”

  1. I dunno, parks? :)

    We have parks and public spaces in suburbia. Beautiful ones. We take our daughter there at least once a week and chat with other parents all the time. But because it isn’t within walking distance of a city center, that’s not valid? Also, not all suburbs are created equal. Some much more close-knit and “open” than others.

    Also, we live in a huge beautiful housing development where we know many of our neighbors. We have a beautiful public space in the development where we all meet during our walks and chat. Also not valid because we can’t see a akyscraper while we’re mingling?

    Not sure what’s wrong with running into folks at the mall (we have the second largest one in the country – go commerce!) or the local grocery store or Target or local diner on a Sunday morning while we’re all shopping with our families. Also, church?

    Because we’re living in the suburbs and not the city, my daughter has access to one of the best public school districts in the entire state. And we’re forming relationships with the families sending their kids to the same school. More relationships, oh my! Opposed to any of the worst schools in the entire state in the city.

    And I feel perfectly connected to the community members around me. We have relationships that we maintain by just “running into people”. But what do I know, I’m just a suburbanite. ;)

  2. My main issues with suburbia are are environmental and economic unsustainability, but I’m always interested by other aspects of this recent, soon-to-be-failed experiment in human habitation. I’m glad to hear that you’ve managed to carve out a fulfilling, non-lonely life there, but the studies cited in the article I linked indicate that that your experience is atypical.

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