a suburbanite responds

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<vent>Having just returned from a several-day stay in smog-shrouded, traffic-clogged LA, I have to admit to a bit of irritation reading about Molly's upcoming presentation at Design Engaged: "All Hail the Vast, Conforming Suburb of the Soul."

I happen to be one of the "commuting parents in minivans" she's referring to, and I find her somewhat condescending tone quite troubling. It's not just Molly--I see the same thinly-veiled contempt in the comments of many urbanites. (I was equally put off by danah's post on the "wal-mart nation" some time ago.)

I live in a suburb, own a minivan, and don't fit many of the stereotypes that city-dwellers want to ascribe to me. I love cities, but I have two small kids and a single income. In the suburbs of a small city, I get the following advantges:

  • Beautiful 1800sf four-bedroom colonial house with large yard, two-car garage, swimming pool, full basement, sidewalks for bicycles and excellent public school district--for a whopping $114,000 (8 years ago; it hasn't appreciated by more than about $20K, I'd guess)
  • Streets and sidewalks with limited traffic and alert neighbors, so my kids can ride bikes and explore nearby creeks
  • Friendly neighbors who help each other out in crises, wave to each other while mowing lawns, and keep an eye on each other's homes
  • A six mile, ten-minute 'commute' to work, which means I spend more time with family
  • A neighborhood school with a mix of socio-economic levels where the principal knows us all by name, and where most of the parents are actively involved

It's also the case that interesting culture isn't limited to major urban areas. Rochester has a wealth of good music and art--from an excellent philharmonic orchestra to the Eastman House.

Reading posts like these from women I generally respect and enjoy makes it easier for me to understand why those awful "Back to Vermont" ads from the Republican Coalition for Change were so appealing to people in the "red states." It played right into the backlash that urban contempt for suburbia creates.

I'll tell you what...you stop labeling me and my lifestyle as boring and homogenous, and I'll refrain from labeling you as effete and out-of-touch, mmkay?</vent>

2 TrackBacks

Liz revisited my Walmart/Starbucks Nation piece. In doing so, she reminded me that this piece failed to make its point. So i thought that i'd retry. 1. Both rural areas and cities have brands that they ascribe to; these are very different brands. There... Read More

Liz Lawley thinks I'm being condescending. Perhaps the J.G. Ballard quote does indicate that. But I'd like to clarify, because I'm putting a lot of thinking into this. Her response comes from what I'm talking about at Design Engaged: "I... Read More


Suburbs and minivans are, like television, "big dumb targets." They're easy and safe ways for people to take a shot at something and feel superior. Weirdly, you can feel like a rebel for asserting an opinion that few people will bother to argue with.

(A lot of modern consumer culture is based on this too -- look how many commercials tell you that you will be a rebel by buying an SUV, or be unique by wearing mass-produced jeans).

Such criticisms are derivative and repetitive -- who hasn't heard them a million times? But they're also safe, because they criticize something that everyone in a person's peer group uncritically believes even before the critic starts talking.

I haven't read danah's post, so I won't say that this applies to it. She's pretty smart, I believe it's entirely possible that she said something new about Wal-Mart.

Yes; stereotypes — and the objectification of the individual that it promotes — are pernicious. Liz: have you lived in a city? If so, what was your urban/suburban view then compared to now?

I held negative stereotypes about suburban living prior to leaving NYC for Raleigh, NC. My principal stereotype was the notion of a constricting homogenous culture that would ostracize an oddball inhabitant like me. Back then, I loved big-city living and I couldn’t fathom suburban life and in fact ridiculed it. (And its denizens. Manhattanites generally don’t use “bridge and tunnel people” kindly.) One fateful day, my wife filled my heart with dread when she announced that “I’m moving and you’re welcome to join me.” Ten years later, I still love and visit NYC but I love my suburban community. I now know there’s no reason for this to be exclusionary. I love it not because it’s “suburban,” but, like you point out, for what it affords one’s family. For that matter, I’d never trade the suburb I’m raising my family in now to the suburb in which I grew up. (I’ll refrain from identifying this suburb to avoid provocation.) Yes, signs of homogeneity are more common here but it’s not coercive. In fact, individuality and its symbols flower more obviously here than they did in the city.

I do have one beef about living here: I miss bicycle work commuting. I didn’t realize how much so until I left the metro NYC area. One would think that road bicycling in the ’burbs would be safer — but sadly that’s not true here. My guess is the city traffic is more used to diverse road vehicles. Here, road bicycling is too hazardous to endure on a daily schedule, although there are such brave daily commuters.

i always believe the ideal place for kids to grow up is suburb because it has all the advantages as you mentioned which we couldnt find in cities. kids need space and time to grown up wisely with a good neighbourhood to have a good interaction. i don't big cities are so ready for a young kids but for youth age >20 must go and explore the world not only the cities but also the rural area. they got to know everything.

Kyle, what a bummer that the bike commute is too hairy. That probably surprises people, that a cyclist would find NYC less scary than a burb, but I know what you mean. Big, wide streets that people use at highway speeds, unfriendly intersections, etc.

I hope you find the time to still get out there.

I live in Watertown, MA, which shares a border with Boston. I don't know if people would consider it a suburb or not; it's very dense, we have public transit, I can walk to 12 restaurants from my house, ditto the butchershop, post office, ethnic food stores, hardware store. When I was working downtown I rode my bike there daily.

Here are two more “bumps in the road” for road cycling or bicycle commuting in North Carolina:

1. No extra margin. The road ends exactly at the right edge where they paint the white line. It's the darndest thing. This is not hyperbole.

2. Unleashed dogs. I agree: unleashed means unloved. I have also seen my share of dog carcasses as well. (That was not a threat!)

But my guess is we’re WAY off topic now…

Actually, Liz, you miss the point, though in all fairness, I didn't go into the level of richness or research that I do on suburbia, on its history, and on the different types of suburbs there are. Suburbs play heavily into the notion of what we consider urban. Consider Dolores Hayden's important work in the history of the suburb, outlined in her book Building Suburbia: there are seven historical eras of suburban development, the early types of which are now parts of our cities.

-- 1820: building in borderlands
-- 1850: picturesque enclaves
-- 1870: streetcar buildouts
-- 1900: mail-order, self-built
-- 1940: mass-produced, urban scale, sitcom burbs
-- 1960: edge nodes
-- 1980: rural fringes

Moreover, the entire Garden City movement and its German variants (another huge area of interest for me) were designed as satellite cities and predecessors to the current notion of suburbia.

If anything, I'm wondering why there's a dichotomy between this concept of pervasive computing in the urban context, like Eric Paulos' work at Intel: urban-atmospheres.net/ . I recently talked to Peter Lunenfeld from Art Center, and he pointed out that his students are working in the suburban context, which is much more akin to LA, where most of the rest of the work in this area is happening in the urban context (San Francisco, New York, London, Helsinki).

The key thing I want to look at is this:

So what needs to go into a study of suburban computing? Where do we need to start, what should we consider, and why haven't we gotten around to it sooner?

I find it really curious that our notions of consumer culture and user research tend to be based not on urban families, but the suburban ideal. Frequently, when I do user personas and scenarios with my clients, this is the underlying assumption of the people we're showing.

I think that teens exploring third places that did not exist when I was a teen (e.g., Starbucks, or the Minnesota variant that 2004 grads of my high school visit, Caribou Coffee), and using mobile technology, are a really vital group to research. They are a part of a suburban phenomenon, and they are pushing technology adoption and new uses. I also think that issues like mobility -- and yes, things like minivans and carpooling exist especially where there are not other public transportation options -- are vital in service development, especially where mediated through pervasive technology.

I'm sorry that you felt offended by the stereotype. I admit: the J.G. Ballard quote is snarky. In addition, I had a downright terrible experience living in a suburb in high school -- in a suburban housing development that's not a picturesque enclave (ala Hayden, see above), but rather an edge node or rural fringe. The richness that Liz describes is the type of situation I grew up in in St. Paul, Minnesota, before my family moved to Shoreview. This awful experience I had makes me want to understand what was wrong with it. That's a different thing, and if anything, I'm trying to burst through these stereotypes to understand what the possibilities are.

And above all: if 46% of the US population lives in suburbs, if multinational corporate environments like suburban Delhi (like Gurgaon) are the face of the new economy in India (can't wait to see Reinhold Martin's book, Multinational City with a value set both appropriating other models -- like the gated community -- I think there's a lot of value in studying and understanding suburbia, especially to fight stereotypes, preserve meaningful ways of living, and smartly develop the suburbs of the future.

As someone who grew up in Rochester, and lives on another side of the country now, the term "suburb" takes in a lot of territory. Certain places there, like Irondequoit, for example, are practically urban in parts. I've noticed a definite line drawn between the "old suburbs" and the "new suburbs" in America(the latter being remote housing developments , walled tract housing, for example).

But yeah, on the whole, Rochester has a LOT to offer. It's had some economic hardships, though.

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This page contains a single entry by Liz Lawley published on October 27, 2004 9:30 AM.

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