The Lonely Suburbs

David Roberts at observes how our land use patterns contribute to adult friendlessness:

[W]hen we marry and start a family, we are pushed, by custom, policy, and expectation, to move into our own houses. And when we have kids, we find ourselves tied to those houses. Many if not most neighborhoods these days are not safe for unsupervised kid frolicking. In lower-income areas there are no sidewalks; in higher-income areas there are wide streets abutted by large garages. In both cases, the neighborhoods are made for cars, not kids. So kids stay inside playing Xbox, and families don’t leave except to drive somewhere.

Thus, seeing friends, even friends within “striking distance,” requires planning. “We should really get together!” We say it, but we know it means calls and emails, finding an evening free of work, possibly babysitters. We know it would be fun, but it’s so much easier just to settle in for a little TV.

Those of you who are married with kids: When was the last time you ran into a friend or “dropped by” a friend’s house without planning it? When was the last time you had a spontaneous encounter with anyone who was not a clerk or a barista, someone serving you?

Where would it happen? What public spaces are there in which you mix and mingle freely with people on a regular basis? The mall? Walmart? How about noncommercial spaces? Can you think of one?

One of the best parts of a walkable environment is the ability to have frequent, random social interactions with people.  It gives you a sense of community and a better quality-of-life.

I wouldn’t want to over-emphasize the point though.  Cities can still be lonely places, and suburbs, particularly centered around school activities, can be pretty social places, albeit in private spaces rather than public ones.

But there’s no denying that cultures with vibrant, walkable places always seem so much happier and more joyful than places where everyone is stuck in a house or car.  We’re social animals, and we can’t escape that recipe for happiness.  Our car-oriented suburbs unfortunately wall us and our kids (and especially seniors) off from that reality, and we can only overcome the structural barriers with a lot of effort and persistence.


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