The television hit Desperate Housewives tells us all we need to know about the demise of the suburban dream. Arriving shortly after the urbanity-championing Sex and the City, the new series does the opposite for its setting, poking a sneering nose into its characters’ backyards. These suburban women are what happens to fun-loving cosmopolitans when they’re put out to pasture.
In the popular imagination, city life has come to represent excitement and independence, whereas suburbs stand for obligation and dependency. When cities expand, they are flattered with words like renaissance, resurgence and renewal. Suburbs only sprawl. And in architecture schools and among policymakers, there is a powerful faction arguing that they should be replaced with higher density, “sustainable” communities.
And yet suburbia – that peculiar no man’s land located outside of town but within its general orbit – is where most of us live. Population estimates vary, but one suggests that as many as 84 per cent of Britain’s population now lives in suburban areas. In the US, suburbs have grown from accommodating 55m residents in 1950 to more than 141m in 2000, and now contain just over one-half of the population.
What’s more, their popularity on both sides of the Atlantic shows few sign of abating. A Mori poll commissioned by the Commission for the Architecture and the Built Environment in 2002 revealed that bungalows – found most often in England’s suburbs – were by far the most sought after kind of housing in the country. Confronted with images of different kinds of homes, 30 per cent of respondents plumped for the bungalow while only 2 per cent – just one in 50 – chose a modern loft apartment. Nobody at all liked the look of the tower block.
By 2024, another CABE research project forecasts, the British suburbs will have expanded because of another wave of middle class flight, “driven by factors such as increasing privatisation of public services and large increases in levels of immigration”.
It’s clear, says Tony Champion, a professor of population geography at Newcastle University who has conducted surveys of Britain for many years, that both media stereotypes and the political imagination are out of kilter with what is happening on the ground. He acknowledges that some inner-city areas have experienced a degree of gentrification and rising affluent populations over the past several decades. But people flow in both directions, and each year his research shows that more people are moving out of cities than are moving into them. He sees the same trend across Europe, with the pace hindered only by the degree to which national governments can cobble together planning regulations.
The US also follows this pattern. Downtown areas are still growing, says William Frey, a demographer based at the Brookings Institution, but only because immigrants are arriving to take the place of those who vacate cities for the suburbs. Young people move into the cities in order to let their hair down and have some fun, he concedes, but it doesn’t last; the city merely “rents” these people, he explains, in the brief period before they settle down with families.
More interesting than the alleged renaissance in city living, perhaps, is the creeping urbanisation of the suburbs and the collapsing distinction between the city and its orbit. Especially in the US, neighbourhoods once derided as quiet places for people to go into mental retirement are becoming more lively and hip. So-called “suburban downtowns”, crammed with nightclubs and leisure centres, are taking over from sleepy tennis clubs. And many economic activities – particularly within technology and information-based industries – have also moved to the suburbs.
The postwar image of suburban conformity – captured forever in the cheesy 1950s US television comedies – may have accurately reflected reality then. But the bleaker picture presented by Desperate Housewives is behind the times. “City activities are increasingly sprawling out,” Frey says, so “young people looking for activities traditionally associated with the city can increasingly find what they want in the suburbs.”
That said, it is the baby boom population that has brought the suburbs to life. An analysis of data in the US Census 2000 compiled by the Brookings Institution revealed that the number of Americans aged 35 or older in the suburbs increased by 28 per cent in the 1990s alone, compared with 15 per cent in cities. Those aged 35 to 54 accounted for 32 per cent of the total suburban population in the US in 2000, up from 26.6 per cent in 1990. These people have insisted upon making the suburbs more exciting, and even when they become senior citizens, they are likely to demand the same sort of services and culture they do now.
Another factor spicing up life outside the city is racial and ethnic diversity. According to the same Brookings research, minorities now make up 27 per cent of US suburban populations, up from 19 per cent in 1990. Increasingly, immigrants are leapfrogging the traditional apprenticeship in the inner-city for starter homes in the suburbs. So-called “melting-pot metros” such as Los Angeles, Chicago and New York have the highest minority suburban populations.
Much the same is happening in Britain. Mark Clapson, author of Suburban Century, enthuses about the Asian suburbs of south London and the “suburban Chinatown” that has appeared in Milton Keynes, and argues that the Indian middle-class is one of the most suburbanised groups in British society. He thinks media bias towards cities and political moves to change the way communities develop are evidence of “a powerful anti-suburban snobbery, shared by people who seem to think they’re superior to the mainstream”. “Postwar Britain is littered with high-density intentions of architects,” he adds.
After all, people only drift to the suburbs because they want to spread their wings and find a little stretch of grass to call their own. Small flats and small houses with small gardens surrounded by busy street life, commerce and offices are exactly what these migrators are trying to escape.
The Desperate Housewives may have it bad. But, for many, the suburban idyll still exists. And, to paraphrase political scientist Robert Dahl: if living in these neighbourhoods is to be our fate, then it should also be our opportunity.