Suburbs Could Have Been So Great

Screen shot 2015-05-07 at 11.14.41 AM
In the idyllic suburb there is no place for cars. Screengrab from The City

If American suburbs had been built to match the aspirations of some of their early proponents like Lewis Mumford or Catherine Bauer Wurster, they could look very different today.

Originally conceived in response to overcrowded conditions in cities, suburbs were seen as an escape from unhealthy tenements into peaceful small cities in the countryside. But the suburbs of reality rarely, if ever, come anywhere near fulfilling those early promises.

A short 1939 propaganda film, The City, pushes those early promises hard. Marni Epstein posted a link to it on Curbed, and talks about the history of the “Houser” movement and its efforts to create better living conditions for city dwellers. She describes the film as

Part social plea, part “Houser” propagandist film, The City warned of the dangers of industrialized city dwelling, such as those famously documented by photojournalist Jacob Riis a few decades earlier, and extolled the virtues of suburbanization and well-planned communities.”


The film is ridiculously sentimental about the prosperous rural life Americans supposedly enjoyed before the evil cities gobbled them up, and it’s racist and sexist, reflecting its time. But it also features some amazing footage, even if it is presented in such a heavy-handed way. Scenes of life in the frantic city are juxtaposed with the bucolic rural life and the idyllic suburbs.

In this film, it’s the city that causes traffic jams, not the commute to the suburbs. Long lines of the huge, heavy cars of the 1930s cram the streets and highways, many of them crammed with families. Ominous music and some unintentionally hilarious voiceover narration make it clear that cities are just awful places, especially for raising kids. “Smoke makes prosperity, they say,” intones the narrator. “But there must be something better. Why can’t we have it?”

The film’s answer is that we can—by creating small, contained “garden cities” out in the country, where the air is clear, the laundry machines need only a stir now and then, and the kids grow up healthy.

Maybe those kids are healthy because they grow up riding bikes. In this film’s idealized suburb, there isn’t a car in sight. In fact, there don’t seem to be any for cars. What you do see are kids on bikes, lots of them–well, all boys, and all white, but still–riding from their front doors along curving paths through the woods and to the local watering hole. Unsupervised, safe, and free.

They also line up outside the store on their Radio Flyer wagons, ready to take the groceries home for mom–car free living.

Add in some excellent transit connections so no one needs to drive to work and a more diverse population–and take out the women doing all the housework–and it still seems idyllic. Just keep cars out of it.

  • Gezellig

    Nice! Looks like CU2030 is coming along nicely. When I left the Netherlands in early 2012 it was still mostly that depressing and inexplicably car-centric 1960s mall at…the train station. In the middle of medieval Utrecht. It made no sense and made you want to flee the immediate area as soon as possible.

    I’m also waiting for the vestiges of Amsterdam’s 1970s-era plan for an inner-city freeway (which only got partially built) to be retrofitted:

    http://a.disquscdn.com/uploads/mediaembed/images/1104/7662/original.jpg?w=600&h

    This stretch is very close to the dead center of Amsterdam and it rudely and bizarrely bisects formerly connecting centuries-old neighborhoods. I noticed because this freeway-lite lay between my neighborhood and the center and forced many awkward workarounds traversing the area by bike or foot.

    The first time I came upon this area I looked ahead on Google Maps and assumed the small street I was on would continue at what looked like a normal arterial. Then I got there and realized…oh…wait…this has a guardrail and is basically a freeway where cars speed like crazy (again, so much for angelic Dutch drivers. They behave just like Americans do when given Cars First infrastructure). I initially ran across to the median and waited…then darted Frogger-like to the other side.

    I remember thinking right after, “why did that feel so weird?” and then I realized ohhhh…that’s because I’d never had to “jaywalk” like that in the Netherlands. It’s completely out of place and inappropriate to the neighborhood.

  • Yes, I completely agree: suburban/exurban status doesn’t have to mean that biking/transit are impossible and that driving is the default as long as they’re not marginalized in the planning. But if they are, all hope is still not lost. Part of the impetuous for my month-long visit in February to The Netherlands was to both see how biking occurred in the winter with my own eyes and also see how stuff happens over time. I was not disappointed, especially since Utrecht is in the midst of their massive CU2030 construction project.

  • Gezellig

    Great piece!

    I think the good news is that American suburbs are retrofittable:

    It’s just that too many of our postwar suburban spatial fabric looks more like the increasingly archaic-looking image on the right and not the lively and inviting setup on the left:

    http://construction.com/CE/CE_images/2011/Nov_GSedit_4.jpg

    And it’s not just the low-density areas. Many postwar areas of American cities have been designed with suburban-like arterials that don’t serve them well and could be retrofitted in similar ways:

    One of the things I realized living in the Netherlands is that low-density suburbs don’t *have* to suck, per se. At least in terms of being able to get around carless:

    https://a.disquscdn.com/uploads/mediaembed/images/1680/2733/original.jpg

    Lower-density areas *can* be designed in a way that still makes walking/biking/transiting a viable option for some (or even all) trips. Take, for example, this residential street above with single-family homes (note to protected bike lane skeptics–each house has its own driveway and the bikeway still works just fine!) in Amersfoort. It allows safe and speedy biking to the nearby train station whose regular trains get you to major Dutch cities within about a half hour.

    Living somewhere (as opposed to briefly visiting) also exposes you to the everyday, mundane, even ugly parts of daily life in another country. So, not to romanticize things, either, make no doubt–not all Dutch suburban areas are charming. But even in the sprawliest scene of wide arterials leading to wide freeways next to seas of parking for gas stations and fast food, there is infrastructure for bikes:

    http://peopleforbikes.org/page/-/uploads/GLP/guess%20where%20this%20is.jpg

    http://peopleforbikes.org/page/-/uploads/GLP/much%20more%20like%20this.jpg

    http://peopleforbikes.org/page/-/uploads/GLP/anywhere%20north%20america.jpg

    To those who haven’t been outside the charming cores of Amsterdam or Utrecht they may be surprised, but the above scenes are all from the Netherlands–they represent a reality for a large number of people who don’t live in the small medieval centers of the Netherlands. And it’s still possible to walk and/or get around by bike (often linking to nearby transit).

  • neroden

    The “streetcar suburbs” (the ones which still have streetcars) are still quite a lot like this.

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