Hell or New York City
A debate about the relative desirability of city and suburban living is spreading through the blogosphere at a surprising clip, given the timelessness of the topic. It began, as best I can determine, by Duncan “Atrios” Black (a PhD economist) explaining that there are tradeoffs to having a big yard.
[I]f everyone has a big yard the community ceases to be especially walkable. That isn’t to say that you can’t have developments with yards relatively near to retail, so that there is stuff within walking distance. You can still have corner shops or similar, but having sufficient residential density to support significant neighborhood-serving retail isn’t really compatible with everyone has a big yard.
Because I’ve always lived in cities, I don’t even understand the utility of the big yards I see in the suburbs. I get the purpose of a yard for children and dogs to play in, and summers on the patio. But I don’t get the point of the vast expanses of lawn that lie fallow in the more upscale suburbs. They require vast upkeep for the benefit of . . . looking at green, empty space. And the tradeoff seems to be a world where you can’t get anywhere without driving and your neighbors are distant apparitions. Am I missing something? Or do others perceive features where I see bugs?
Alex Massie, a journalist with, so far as I’m aware, no academic degrees in economics or business, observes that suburbia is the best real-life choice for many people:
[L]ife in suburbia is in many respects an attempt to split the difference, combining the fresh air, space and privacy of the countryside with the convenience and access to amenities of city life. (Plus, of course, in many American suburbs, better schools than are to be found in the inner-city).
Sure, there are trade-offs, especially for those of us with commutes. But having grown quite accustomed to the space and privacy suburban living affords, I can’t imagine making the sacrifices required to live in a city full time.
There’s nothing quite like being in your own back yard — especially if it has a nice, high fence. Neighbors as a distant apparition? Unless you live in a mansion somewhere, that doesn’t exist in the suburbs. But, yes, having the next residence 100 feet away — as opposed to sharing walls with them or, worse, having their floor as your ceiling — is definitely a feature.
Much more living space for your buck? Feature.
Guaranteed parking space? Feature.
Having to drive everywhere? Occasionally, a bug, although driving is itself much more pleasant in the suburbs than the city. I enjoy having the ability to walk easily to a wide variety of restaurants and so forth and miss the fact that I don’t have that at home. Then again, it’s mighty hard to go grocery shopping on foot even in the best downtown areas, unless one wants to shop every day. And it’s almost impossible to drive and park in most urban centers. And don’t get me started on the trade-offs of public transportation. (Let’s just say that knowing that everyone who’ll be commuting with you has bathed that day is a definite feature.)
Lawns to mow? That’s a personal preference. My dad always enjoyed coming home and working out in the yard; I never did. When I had my first house, I mowed the grass mostly out of courtesy for my neighbors. Now that I’m older and can afford it, I outsource it. But, yeah, I’d rather have a wide expanse of green vegetation outside my window than, say, winos.
Hank Williams, Jr. captured the sentiment nicely a quarter century ago: “Just send me to hell or New York City, it would be about the same to me.”
UPDATE: Two excellent points from the comments. First, Charles Austin wonders, “Why do some people insist that we all have to enjoy and value the same things?” Absolutely: This is simply a matter of personal preference, not a value judgment, and one that I suspect largely depends on what one is used to.
Second, my colleague Dave Schuler points out that all “cities” aren’t Manhattan, Boston, or DC.
I live in a single family home in the city of Chicago (in the city) in the Sauganash neighborhood. I have a nicely sized front yard and back yard. I’m within walking distance of my bank, a Whole Foods grocery store, a drug store (mom and pop, not a chain), one very decent restaurant, two hot dog stands, and a dive.
I suspect the same “best of both worlds” possibilities exist in Minneapolis, Portland, and many other cities.
Photo credit: Urban Habitats