Suburbia sucks! 

Naomi Hancock, Opinion Editor

The cul-de-sac is killing human nature and the planet.

I spent the first six months of my life in a small two-bedroom house in Burien. It was cramped but suitable for a then-family of three, but it wasn’t practical. So my parents looked eastward to the Renton Highlands and settled in a developing neighborhood. 

We built our house in 2005, and this is where I have lived ever since. It’s a two-story, three-bed, three-bath with a large backyard overlooking Maple Valley and two slightly growth-stunted trees in the front yard. I live fourteen minutes from the nearest bus stop, but you must traverse a series of hills and a busy intersection prone to accidents to get there. 

I was close with my neighbors when I was young, and my childhood memories smell of hose water, freshly-cut grass, and bike tires burning on hot pavement. But the summer approaching fourth grade was spent mainly indoors under the careful eye of a babysitter as we watched Psych reruns. And that was that.

And while the sudden disconnect from my neighborhood was partly owed to the rise of the Internet and my recently-acquired iPhone 5, it wasn’t the technology alone that allowed for the sudden regression in childhood socialization.

The suburbs can take some credit. They are, after all, a physical representation of the American Dream composed of disconnected communities whose primary purpose is to give us a quiet, safe place to sleep at night. The fact is, we are so far from a community space that the only practical and efficient mode of transportation is a car. Do you need an easy dinner? DoorDash it or hop in the SUV. Work is in thirty minutes? Drive or spend half of that time just walking to the bus. 

After all, accessibility is the largest problem with suburban living, alongside environmental harm. Despite its size and self-appointed position as the greatest country in the world, the United States lacks the planning and organization to develop a quality public transportation system. With the exception of New York, Boston, and Chicago, public transit has been systemicly underfunded on a national, state, and local level, resulting in inefficiency and general unsafety. Because of single-use zoning, a practice used to restrict the development and planning of new areas, citizens living in single-family zoning are restricted in their accessibility. Everything they need is outside of this radius. 

Through this, we encounter a few new problems. Urban sprawl (rapid and uncontrolled development ) is accredited to single-use zoning. As we built further outwards in low-population density areas, residents were forced to travel further. In response, urban engineers and engineers invented “smart growth,” a development approach focusing on multi-use zoning, diverse housing, and better public transportation.  

This rapid expansion and lack of smart growth introduce a new subset of problems. The further away you live from work, school, and food, the longer your drive time. For most Americans, even getting groceries can be a challenge. Food deserts occur when there is a need for more nutritious and affordable food exacerbated by inadequate transportation and few retailers selling products.
Urban sprawl creates a pattern that produces more pollutants and environmental degradation. The further you have to drive, the higher your carbon output. On the homefront, maintaining lawns can inject chemicals into bodies of water through fertilizer and garden-care products that seep into storm drains. Not to mention that the actual building of these neighborhoods destroys natural habitats. 

Beyond the measurable impacts, suburban living has fundamentally changed the way that we interact with one another. By nature, suburbia is isolated and removed from cities. Until the 1950s, suburban living was saved for the white elite defining the American Dream, who sought larger, cleaner land and refuge from the minorities in the dense, dirty, and smelly cities. It wasn’t until post-World War II, with the introduction of the G.I. Bill (a program to help veterans find work and education), that banks began giving out home loans that the emerging middle class could use to afford living outside urban areas. 

The “millionaire’s rows” of the old time steadily disappeared in favor of the cul-de-sac. As the years passed and we entered the Age of the Internet, our lives have gotten smaller. Our interactions are limited to our immediate surroundings and handheld devices. On a very basic level, the suburbs have changed our social habits. I can’t remember the last time I saw my younger neighbors playing outside. 

It’s downright depressing what happens when we stray from community-oriented thinking. We detach from one another and are living increasingly virtual lives. I don’t see any way to move past technology’s grip on society, but we can address other consequences of the suburbs. 

Developers and municipalities can work on improving and expanding existing public transit to allow for greater mobility, accessibility, and sociability. On the other hand, the government can provide more incentives to buy electric vehicles (although that has its problems; see page 22). And as the global population climbs further and further north of eight billion, governments can offset residential demands by expanding upwards. 

On a personal level, we can redefine the American Dream. It’s still ingrained in our minds that we’ve only “made it” when we have the picket fence and two-and-a-half kids and the minivan. It’s just not the reality for the majority of the world. Our metric for success should not be the cul-de-sac.