In the typical war of words over the positives and negatives of suburbanization we’re left with the binary of “cities v. suburbs,” where the fractured, isolated, idyllic suburban life is compared to the dense, plagued, teeming urban environment.
This is problematic because it ignores the real problem with suburbs, which is that they don’t hurt our cities nearly as much as they hurt our towns.
Specifically, the towns they’re nearby and sucking the life out of by pulling away residents and draining civic worth away from and into disjointed geographic spaces. College towns are particularly magical because they’re often survivors in terms of places where real small town America still exists.
The Bedford Falls of It’s a Wonderful Life exists in our cultural consciousness as a cute and magical place. But our sentimentalism is rooted in the knowledge that those kinds of towns really were the norm rather than the silver screen exception—places where the owners of the local shops lived in town, and where the banker, policeman, and taxi driver were best friends in no small part because they lived down the street from each other.
Suburbs kill dynamism because they fragment people, families, and communities that could have existed as towns. Cross pollination, randomness, and locality aren’t possible in these physically stretched out places.
The Millennium Science Complex at Penn State University was put up a few years ago as a flagship research center. It was purposefully designed so that scientists, researchers, etc. from different areas and with varying focuses would “run into each other,” as a former trustee describes it to me a while ago. It was designed specifically so people and their ideas would intermingle and cross-pollinate, hopefully bearing research fruit as a result. This is what small towns once did that suburbs cannot—provide space and context for chance and relationships.
American cities are thriving. But our small towns that are evaporating, and suburbanization is a driving force.