The Suburbs Will Thrive or Fail on Their Own Terms

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Basically, if you’re young, well educated, looking for a high quality of life, and committed to staying in Wisconsin rather than migrating away to a big city or the Sun Belt, you tend to move to Madison. Madison is also attracting migrants from places like Chicago and Minneapolis, who are looking for a similar environment at a more manageable scale and reasonable price point. Madison is expensive by Wisconsin standards, but cheap compared to larger places.

Architect Kevin Klinkenberg in Kansas City, Missouri, describes the four kinds of suburbs: rural exurban sprawl, master-planned communities, standard or “late” suburbia, and pre-interstate suburbs. Of these four, the only one that lends itself to a modicum of mixed use and walkability is the pre-interstate suburb, referring to the Federal Aid Highway Act of 1956. These tend to be closer to the center of a metroplex, so they are geographically more accessible, and since they were among the very first auto-oriented developments, they still retain at least some of the qualities of older pedestrian neighborhoods. Since I couldn’t have the kind of older house in the place I preferred, this was a pretty good fallback position.

And here’s where I’m going to be blunt and rub some urbanists the wrong way. I spent years in other parts of the country attempting tiny projects in classic Main Street locations, where I hit a wall of cultural and regulatory friction. On the one hand, there are suburban-style building codes and zoning regulations that make small-scale construction or modifications illegal and/or exceptionally difficult on small city lots. On the other hand, the desire to maintain the historic character of the existing neighborhood results in committees and restrictions that squeeze out all but the most advanced participants. I don’t have the technical skills, political skills, social skills, patience, or desire to navigate the endless layers of institutional complexity required to do even the simplest job in that environment. I’m out.

The society that built Main Street is long gone and isn’t coming back. America is a profoundly suburban nation and will remain so for the duration of my lifetime. The suburbs are going to thrive or fail on their own terms. I’ve surrendered and moved on to Plan B: Do what’s socially and politically acceptable and easy. This house is my pragmatic sweet spot because it doesn’t fight me every step of the way.

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