Suburban Utopias?

This article from the Guardian argues that despite years of derision, suburbia is gaining a more positive reputation as "utopia in a big way".

Writer Rupa Huq offers her own transition from suburbanite to urbanite and back again, and looks at a variety of new arguments calling for suburban respect.

"Planners and architects have been among suburbia's biggest critics, accusing it of breeding ugly buildings and featureless uniformity, so it is significant that the Royal Academy of Arts recently hosted an event celebrating London suburbia as part of its architecture lecture series.

It seems that old prejudices are being displaced by the realisation that the suburban semi is the epitome of flexible living space with scope for knocking through walls, extending outwards and upwards – modifications rendered impossible in, say, the riverside penthouses of Manchester, Newcastle and Liverpool, where residents are unhappily trapped in negative equity to a higher degree than their suburban counterparts."

Full Story: Suburbia: the new utopia?



Oh, for God's sake, how

Oh, for God's sake, how biased can this Rupa Huq be? She hated suburbia, like all teens trapped there without entertainment and mobility, then fell in love with the ease and vitality of urban living as a single twenty-something, then rediscovered the suburbs as she built her family and wanted to protect them in relative peace and quiet, and THIS is her reasoning behind her declaration that surburbia is some sort of utopia? That's even worse than bias. It's dangerous propaganda during this sensitive, transitionary time, when the whole world is in economic chaos from our over-building of the suburbs and over-reliance upon the automobile.

For the two-thirds of people who aren't married with children, suburbia is not, I repeat NOT, utopian at all. It is quite hellish, in fact, and deserves every bit of the criticism it has gotten, especially lately.

Those of us who are single, students, professionals, retired, empty-nesters, older, gay, poor, minorities, lower middle class or even civic-minded liberals, and who avail ourselves of urban living, are tired of the mid-20th century, car-addicted mindset that claimed---as Rupa Huq does---that suburbia was the end-all, be-all. We are also quite tired, frankly, of being forced to subsidize it. Suburban sprawl, after all, costs ten times what urban development does.

At the end of the day, I don't necessarily begrudge the desire of young families to want to live in the suburbs. I just want them to pay for it, themselves, and for low rise suburbs not to exceed, say, one third of the total area of a given city.

The remainder, quite rightfully, should be what urbanites want it to be: compact, walkable, high rise, densely-populated, mass transit-rich and fun FUN FUN!

British And American Suburbs

Note that the British suburbs she is talking about are not like post-war American suburbs. She says:

"There are also differences in form and function across the pond. In the US car culture has always ruled supreme, whereas in the UK suburbs have been defined more by public transport links,"

and she talks about "the suburban semi" (a semi-attached house, very different from today's American suburbs).

I think the denser, more transit-oriented suburbs that she talks about are a good model for us in America, as we try to find less destructive ways of housing the one-third of people who you admit do want to live in suburbs.

Incidentally, I have never found that highrises are fun, fun, fun. I prefer a compact, walkable, densely-populated, mass transit-rich city designed at the scale of traditional European cities, and I think that would attract far more people. Lots of people go to Europe as tourists precisely in order to sit out in cafes and enjoy the traditional urbanism; not many people go as tourists to enjoy sitting next to highrises.

Charles Siegel


I've been to England. The suburbs are virtually the same: one-and two-story buildings, quiet, bland and boring.

As for the term "high rise," I find that you reacted the same way American suburbanites do when I've debated with them about the issues of low-rise suburban sprawl and high rise urban development.

For the record, I don't mean Manhattan-style, 50-100 story buildings on each and every block, I simply mean more than two measly stories up to, say, 20 stories, and intermingled and spread out in such a way as to avoid a dark, skyscraper canyon effect.

Suburbs and Highrises

Please don't lump me with NIMBYs who think everything over two stories is a highrise. I spend decades battling NIMBYs and fighting for higher densities, because I want to get up to the 5 and 6 story scale of European cities. Now, I also have to spend time fighting high-rise fanatics to get them down to 5 and 6 stories.

20 stories intermingled and spread out is bad urban design, in my opinion. For good design, you need a consistent urban fabric, rather than having the fabric disrupted by occasional 20 story buildings. I very much like the upper west side of New York, which has many streets with a consistent urban fabric of about 15 stories. But my ideal is a consistent urban fabric at the European scale.

Your personal reaction to English and American suburbs may be the same: "boring." But if you looked at their actual environmental impacts, you would find that the English are superior.

Charles Siegel

Bringing suburbs to life

There are a lot of improvements that can be made to modern American suburbs, including aesthetic, social and environmental improvements.

Improvements can include the installation of walking trails in and around neighborhoods (including through existing green space) and the designation and planting of new greenspace (trees, forests, meadow etc.)

Neighborhoods can replace existing streetlights with attractive, downward facing "dark-sky" shielded fixtures, instead of the ugly unshielded gooseneck style fixtures. They can make sidewalk improvements such as adding decorative pavers.

There is even the possibility of buying an existing home in a subdivision (when there is a resident who plans to sell) and making it the community common house/clubhouse. This is something I have been thinking about recently.

Many intentional, co-housing communities feature a common clubhouse of sorts where neighbors come together regularly to share a meal. The common house also features music rooms for concerts and play rooms for kids- imagine one tv with a video game player that kids can share, instead of every kid in the neighborhood having their own Wii at home!

These improvements can greatly improve quality of life in suburban communities.

More On Improving Suburbs

And I'll add some more ways of improving suburbs :

- convert auto-oriented shopping malls and strip malls into traditional town centers and shopping streets by building shopping with housing above.

- convert the street system into a walkable street grid.

- build new regional transit lines to the suburbs with housing and shopping town centers clustered around the transit stops, and with feeder lines from other nearby shopping districts.

These things can convert auto-dependent suburbs into something more like the old walkable streetcar suburbs.

But they apply largely to older suburbs that have relatively high densities. There are lots of extremely low density sprawl suburbs that will always be completely auto-dependent; I hope that they will be converted back to farmland and open space some day, after population peaks.

Charles Siegel

Community Owned Department Stores

Another exciting development is the creation of community-owned department stores located in former big box stores whose chain retailer left town. Visit for more info.

Preference for low to medium rise and green spaces

I do not want high rises, I want to see the skyline. My preference is also for plenty of green spaces to air out the constriction of densely built and populated spaces.

Low-rise, mid-rise and high-rise

(With apologies to Stealers Wheel)

I've got low-rise clowns to the left of me,
high-rise jokers to the right,
Here I am,
Stuck in the mid-rise middle with you.



More thoughts re high rises

Regarding high rises, there are some that were designed beautifully- stone facade with pitched rooflines and interesting detail. Think of church steeples.

But far too many in our modern cities are nothing more than sterile, vertical rectangles ruining our beautiful skylines. They present a loss for communities- visually and culturally.

Twenty stories are being promoted by planners in at least one small city in the NE. The argument for this is that the developer won't buy in without the density.

Five or six stories is reasonable- as long as it matches the scale of the majority of other buildings in the community.

England's Suburbs =/= American Suburbs

England Surburbs are NOT the same as American suburbs. The suburbs I hate deserve my hate. They may have potential for some dramatic and creative solutions and changes, but as they are, they are ugly and car-centric. The ones closer to downtowns are often okay, proving that there are different levels and ideas of "suburbs."

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