Stop Eulogizing the Suburbs

Condo Advertising: The suburbs are not for me

Christopher Sellers, an urban historian, takes suburban doomsayers who are eulogizing postwar neighbourhoods to task in an article in newgeography. Commenting on the reams of new books and articles predicting the end of the suburbs, Sellers asks:

“When you declare the “ending” of a place where you acknowledge over half of Americans now live, just what does that mean?”

It appears that most writers mean not the end of a place, but the end of an ideal and stereotype. New economic trends, social values and ideals are transforming every community in North America and hitting ageing postwar suburbs particularly hard.

Changing demographics, growing income inequality, and ageing infrastructure and housing are hurting older postwar neighbourhoods in the same way similar factors hurt central neighbourhoods in the 1950s and 1960s.

As a result, many urbanist see a narrative of prospering and growing cities, in contrast to one of declining suburbs and conclude that as a result the suburban dream and the postwar neighbourhoods are doomed.

While discussing many of these issues, Sellers ends the article on a positive note. He imagines that suburbs that are more diverse will also be more inclusive and open to progressive politics. I am not as optimistic.

Our neighbourhoods and cities reflect the growing inequality and poverty in our society.  Cities like Toronto are becoming more segregated by wealth and income. Poverty is concentrating in the postwar neighbourhoods, while the centre of the city is becoming wealthier, and the middle is melting away. In my opinion, the rhapsodizing about the end of the suburbs is really masking a far more real concern about the decline of the middle class. My fear is that will lead to less inclusive neighbourhoods, not more inclusive as Sellers argues.

The allure of the suburbs may be fading, but does this call for the end of the suburbs? No, but it does mean that postwar communities need greater investments to adapt to a new time. These communities need new social services, transit, better housing, and jobs as they age. Our suburbs and the people who live in them deserve much more than eulogies.