The inertia of the suburbs

The Girlfriend and I have been watching The Wonder Years lately, and it’s striking how generic the setting is — if not for references to news events in the late 1960s, it could be any time period from 1965 to the late 1990s (and I only posit that cut-off point because of the advent of the internet). The suburban model that was built out starting in the immediate postwar era has proven to be remarkably resilient, and even now it has a kind of self-evidence as the “mainstream” American approach to family and community life.

In the immediate postwar years, it seems as though there was a level of “buy-in” across the population, as the prospect of one’s own house, a car, etc., seemed like wonderful luxuries. By now, however, the suburban model has shown itself to be costly, environmentally destructive, and in many cases isolating and community-destroying. Further, the concentration of good schools in the suburbs perpetuates an ongoing vicious cycle of “white flight” that reinforces the systemic racism of our society. And as the financial crisis revealed, the aspiration to suburban middle class status increasingly carries the risk of financial ruin.

More and more people are realizing all of this and don’t want to buy into the suburban model — yet except for the very wealthy, there seems to be no real choice for middle class people if you want to have children. And the reason for this surprising persistence of a model that no one really wants anymore is the power of state planning. Even if the population could be initially convinced to want suburban-style development, the decisive factor was a concentrated effort on all levels of government to create all the necessary conditions for that lifestyle, through physical and legal infrastructure and often through explicit subsidies (such as the mortgage interest tax deducation, which seems to be invulnerable). All of the stuff they created in that heroic era of American urban planning is still in place. The roads and schools have been built, and the legal structures for expanding suburban development if needed are already in place and ready to go. All the incentives for middle-class families still point outward into the suburbs.

While reading about the ongoing disaster of education “reform,” I once thought: “What if cities stopped trying to attract tourists and started trying to gain permanent residents by creating awesome schools?” As I thought about what that would entail, however, it became clear that no one city has the resources to fully reverse the trend — to really work, it would have to entail a complete reshaping of the school funding structures, a build-out of public transportation infrastructure to support the expanded population, etc., etc. In other words, it would take forceful state planning on the model of what created the suburbs in the first place.

Unfortunately, it appears that the U.S. only had one relatively brief window for such forceful state planning, extending from FDR to Nixon (only 40 years out of the 200+ of the Republic’s existence) — and it wasted it on the suburbs. Barring a new FDR, we’re probably stuck with it. The bright side, I guess, is that The Wonder Years will remain legible and relatable for generations to come.

7 thoughts on “The inertia of the suburbs

  1. I just finished a Master Plan process that gets at what you’re talking about. You send out surveys asking if people would welcome changes that might make a community greener, more vibrant and livable. Approval ratings for these changes come back through the roof. Then when you actually go to implement a change as minor as adding a bike lane (something the survey said 78% of people Strongly Agree is needed!) you’d better dig your heels in and prepare for online petitions and four hour council meetings.

  2. There is nothing special about suburban schools. If you have good students, any school will do well. Private schools and suburban schools are just ways to game the student population that your kid goes to school with.

  3. Well, those exact words are avoided, but the effect is the same.

    The unfortunate thing about this minor battles, though, is they can fatigue a Council to even take on more significant changes that fight the inertia detailed above.

  4. What do you think of Chicago’s selective enrollment public high schools, which to the best of my knowledge were begun largely as a way to keep wealthy, educated whites in the city?

  5. Another thing that is done is to have high schools with multiple tracks. A college prep track and a non-college prep track. Students on the different tracks hardly interact with one another.

  6. Shifting around the resources at the disposal of an urban school does not change the fact that the underlying dynamic shifts resources away from urban centers and toward the suburbs. Tracking and magnet schools may make a difference on the margins, but simply annexing the suburbs and equally dividing up all the school funding is the only real answerto the more fundamental problem that urban schools are set up to fail.

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