City Mice and Suburban Mice

CITY MICE AND SUBURBAN MICE….Atrios, after wading into the suburbs vs. cities argument, wonders why suburbs are all so….suburby:

What puzzles me is the fact that there are relatively minor changes to how we construct our suburbs which would both allow some people (not everyone probably) to reduce their degree of auto dependency while simultaneously adding a bit of nearby “small townness” for the rest of the nearby residents. One can transform an absolutely tiny piece of land into something more resembling a town ? build a few blocks of mixed residential/commercial development with street level shops ? without fundamentally transforming the way most people live….Many of the early suburbs already have this (and many such earlier suburbs tend to be incredibly pricey, and not just because of their proximity to the urban core) pattern of development, but it’s rarely replicated these days.

Good question. Why are suburbs so relentlessly chopped up via single-use zoning into antiseptic checkerboards that separate living from shopping from work?

I don’t think it’s the fault of developers. After all, if you could build a shopping center on a piece of land, and then in addition build some apartments (or co-ops) on top of the shops and maybe some commercial office space as well, that would be a gold mine, wouldn’t it? Landowners would love it.

Is it the fault of city councils? That doesn’t really make sense either. It’s common knowledge that residential developments are money sinks, using up way more in services than they pay in tax dollars. That’s why most cities are so hellbent on letting commercial developers build anything they want. Without them, most cities would go broke.

That pretty much leaves one option: residents of suburbs themselves don’t like the idea of mixed-use development and they let their planning boards know it in no uncertain terms. What’s more, since developers don’t seem to be fighting residents very hard about this, I have to assume they’re skeptical that they could rent out all the space. If they really thought they could make a buck off developments like this, they’d be bribing city councilmen left and right.

In other words, I suspect that just because people visit Downtown Disney on their vacations, it doesn’t mean they’re pining away for small town life. They aren’t pining away for roller coasters in their backyards, either. In the end, some people like cities and some people like suburbs, and it’s just a matter of taste. The people who like cities whine about gentrification and white flight, and the people who like suburbs whine about anything that increases noise or traffic congestion. Both sides seem pretty dedicated to keeping their own patches of land just the way they are.

Which is too bad, because those mixed-use “community oriented” developments that Atrios is talking about always seem sort of cool to me. I must be in a pretty tiny minority, though, because most people seem to loathe either suburbs or cities and fight to the death against any encroachment from whichever living pattern they hate. I have a feeling the reason those mixed use communities don’t exist is because instead of being the best of both worlds, most people think of them as the worst of both.

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