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Editorial: The Negative Effect of Suburbanization on U.S. Infrastructure

Suburbanization: a very complex topic, one quite literally at the heart of every city around the world

By Joel Smith

Suburbanization; a very fancy word whose meaning is split into two parts: one, what a suburb is. Suburbs in the U.S. specifically are described by the U.S. Bureau of Census as,

“...the portion of a metropolitan area that is not in the central city.”

Given that information, suburbanization is, in its simplest form, the expansion of more spread out communities that traditionally only formed on the outskirts of larger cities. Suburbs usually are more spaced out and less rigid than densely populated urban areas, or sparsely populated rural communities. So, the process of more spread out communities primarily traversable by cars so that they make up a greater portion of cities is the essence of suburbanization.

In essence, suburbanization has had a very negative effect on U.S. cities and infrastructure, seen primarily in increasing economic stratification between the social classes in the U.S. While suburbanization isn’t the only cause of the increasing wealth disparity, it plays an obvious role, considering infrastructure is necessary for today’s cities. The other main detriment of suburbs is the quality of life, considering things like insomnia, obesity, car accidents, and accidental backovers in driveways are all far more likely in suburbs.

The process of suburban sprawl as it is recognized today could be generally placed at the beginning of the 1900s, when Ford’s Model T car turned cities into much more car-centered places. Roads set up the structure of major cities, and cities started to be split into specific districts (i.e. “industrial”, “financial”, and “residential, to name the most common).

The prevalence of suburbs only increased in the late 1940s, 50s, 60s, and 70s, since in the decades following the end of World War 2, the U.S. was one of 2 world superpowers left financially and industrially intact, along with the now-broken USSR. This led to increased wealth for the average person in the middle class and increased property sizes as well as overall growth of decentralization in cities and growth of suburbs.

The increase of suburban populations also increased due to the ever-present issue of racism in the 20th century. This is discussed by the University of Maryland, Baltimore County (UMBC),

“ the number of African Americans found in northern cities increased due to the continued Great Migration of southern blacks north during the Second World War, many whites fled to the suburbs to avoid integrated schools and neighborhoods.”

This pulls right into the primary problem with suburbs: wealth. Just like any other system in civilization, building and planning cities both costs money and can change the way wealth is gathered or lost by individual citizens and whole communities. This issue of wealth can also be viewed from the lens of racism and the effect things like redlining and the movement against racial integration in the 20th century had on minorities, and the financial troubles seen widespread in minority communities today. Suburbanization’s negative effect on the finances of individuals can also be seen through a class lens, such as the still-widening gap between the middle- and upper-middle- classes and people in upper financial classes.

In fact, both lenses intertwine and demonstrate the overall issue with suburbs: almost everyone is losing money to suburbs. Minorities have faced the harshest effects of this, like redlining. While obviously racist policies like that have been repealed for decades, only for the past few years have efforts to fix the economic gap minorities as a result of the discriminatory infrastructure gained momentum.

However, most people living in cities of 10,000 people or more have faced problems because of suburbanization. Take things like higher risks of car accidents, longer commute times (Forbes), and decreased overall health (Slate).

Additionally, longer commute times because of the more maze-like structure of suburban roads increase the chances of experiencing psychological issues like anxiety, depression, burnout, and overall exhaustion, with the risk increasing over time. Slate editor expands on the overall problems with longer commutes,

“A survey conducted last year for the Gallup-Healthways Well-Being Index, for instance, found that 40 percent of employees who spend more than 90 minutes getting home from work “experienced worry for much of the previous day.” That number falls to 28 percent for those with “negligible” commutes of 10 minutes or less. Workers with very long commutes feel less rested and experience less “enjoyment,” as well.

Now, while this study suggests that longer commutes cause more problems, it’s just that: correlation. However, Brown University researcher Thomas James Christian found, in a study published in the Social Science Research Network, that the results from the aforementioned Gallup poll are more likely specific to commute, rather than the other obvious external factor of the length of a workday, which has its own effects. He elaborates,

“ Take a worker with a negligible commute and a 12-hour workday and a worker with an hour-long commute and a 10-hour workday. The former will have healthier habits than the latter, even though total time spent on the relatively stressful, unpleasant tasks is equal.”

Now, the problem with suburbanization in the U.S. isn’t isolated to the U.S., but it isn’t seen on as large of a scale in many other nations. This is partially because most other nations around the world are geographically smaller than the U.S., and may literally not be able to afford that kind of square footage, like Austria or Germany for example. However, they pose examples of possible ways to move away from suburbanization.

This is because, in the end, when you combine suburbanization’s contribution to increased economic stratification and overall deterioration of mental and physical health of its denizens, it’s not worth the extra land and decreased property value.

However, like previously mentioned, there are ways to change how cities are structured. Obviously, we can’t just demolish entire neighborhoods and leave tens of millions of people homeless. On the other hand, though, allowing suburbanization to continue at an increased rate is demonstrably unsustainable.

One of the best ways to increase the liveability and finances of cities is to focus on making them walkable. In a good scenario, you could live anywhere in cities small to large and not be more than one or two miles away from work, stores, and everything in between. This would mean slowly redistricting cities so that there weren’t clear “financial” or “residential” zones, but still having cities mildly decentralized.

Mariela Alfonzo, the founder of an organization working to make cities more walkable called State of Place, has proposed several ideas for achieving her goal. One way is building what’s called mixed-use downtown development. This includes revitalizing city centers, as well and diversifying the types of buildings, businesses, and homes in a town so that they aren’t in street-specific districts.

There are multiple benefits to doing this kind of building. For one, property values would skyrocket. When buildings are more condensed, but not so much that overcrowding is an issue, there is more value per square foot of a place. Second, being able to walk or bike to nearby stores, workplaces, and friends is quicker and healthier than driving. This also translates into more business for businesses, especially local. More people would now be able to just walk to stores, and would likely have more money to spend considering they are saving a ton off of not having to pay for car-related costs as much or at all.

The biggest problem with making cities more walkable lies in the budget. It’s not cheap to redesign cities, anywhere from a 10,000 person rural community to an 8million person metropolitan area like New York City.

Alfonso discusses how to tackle this problem,

“We set priorities within a neighborhood itself and identify the types of walkability interventions—such as pedestrian amenities, traffic safety, and parks and public spaces—that are most likely to give cities and investors the biggest bang for their buck.”

When it comes to anything related to money- especially things like architecture and infrastructure that are insanely expensive- you can’t just throw money away. You have to think through what the most effective use of money is.

Hopefully in the future, if we keep pushing for more walkable cities and healthier lives, the U.S. will see a boom in money and happiness.

Photo of Times Square in New York City, New York. One of the most famous examples in the U.S. of a walkable place where people walk and drive. A potential example for other large cities in the U.S. on how to make cities denser. Photo courtesy of Wikipedia.

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