Thursday, January 15, 2009

Suburban Dreams

I've been talking a lot about Scoob and I moving at some point, and while we've had some debate over where we will move to one thing we've always been in agreement on is what type of place we will move to. We know we want cultural diversity, culture and arts, open spaces, and all those wonderful things, but we also know we want to live in the 'burbs. And while we technically already live in a suburb, the Bay Area metropolitan sprawl has really engulfed it.

It seems so strange to say we want to live in the 'burbs because the suburbs have such a negative connotation. That's why when I ran across this article on subrubiphobia in the Walls Street Journal, it caught my attention. (I don't know if that's even a word, maybe I should copyright it.) The short, short version of the article is that American art portrays the suburban experience as somehow inauthentic and homogeneous, being neither urban nor rural.

When I think of suburban portrayals in pop culture I think of The Brady Bunch, The Stepford Wives, Bewitched, and the like, images typified by late-1950s and early-1960s suburbia. (So sue me, I've never seen Desperate Housewives.) But Scoob and I wouldn't want to live in that version of the suburbs. So something doesn't match here; Either our perception of the suburbs is way off, or the suburbs have changed.

After a bit of Googling, I think it's the latter. The suburbs of today are not the homogeneous cookie-cutter developments of an earlier era. In fact, The Economist goes so far as to say the 'burbs are beginning to resemble city centers.

This article at USA Today seems to think that gas prices are driving this shift in the suburban landscape. And while I'm sure energy prices are a contributing factor, these new suburbs didn't just pop up overnight when fuel hit $4.00/gallon. I think it's been more of a matter of technology and convenience. I see this with Scoob.

He's been telecommuting for a few years now and I've seen the change in his habits. When he worked at the office, he used to go out to lunch with co-workers or take break at the coffee shop. He would swing by the bicycle repair shop and talk shop with other cyclists. Or he would just hang out at the bookstore.

Since he started telecommuting, he doesn't get together with co-workers as much as he used to even though they're also telecommuting and living nearby. When they do get together for lunch, the quality of restaurants they have to choose from is much lower. Their coffee shop option is pretty much limited to Starbucks. And the nearest bookstore is another behemoth chain and is clear across town.

As more and more people telecommute either part or full time, I think they're finding the same situations and more people are pressuring city planners for multiple use developments and sustainable communities. I think we'll continue to see this as we find new ways to apply technology.

I think another shift has been employers moving out of the city cores. In the Bay Area we've seen employers move out of high real estate areas and into the suburbs as a cost saving measure. We've also seen companies, like Sccob's, outsource so many jobs that they don't need to keep as many office parks open, and those that they do keep open don't need to be in such high rent areas. In addition to seeing tens of thousands of jobs from his company go overseas, he has also seen whole departments relocated from a first tier metro area (like San Francisco) to a second tier area (like Atlanta or Albuquerque).

This new American suburb is so popular in fact, there's growing demand from overseas, which is a good thing for builders given the current slump in new home construction.

An interesting cautionary article here, on the dilemma of repurposing suburban space once the landscape changes. I'm sure we'll be seeing more and more of this issue as the housing market shakes itself out.

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