The end of the exurbs revisited

There is a modern view of the exurbs as these outlying areas where people move when they either can’t afford to live in the city or inner ring suburbs or can’t stand living there. But the exurbs began as a land of opulence, where the wealthy spread in order to buy up land and fill it with sprawling lawns and giant, intricate homes.

At least that is the view of the exurbs presented in John Tarrant’s 1976 “New York Magazine” piece entitled, The End of the Exurban Dream.

I have written on this blog about many of the mechanisms that built the exurbs as they are today (such as the ponzi scheme of growth) but this “New York Magazine” piece brings to light an underlying social dynamic that may have led masses to flock to the exurbs feeling as though they were achieving the American Dream.

The exurbs of New York spawned from the pocketbooks of the elite who controlled big businesses. Living in the exurbs was a symbol of being part of a higher class others wanted to emulate. It’s hard to tell how far-reaching the influence of this original incarnation of the exurbs has been. But it is clear that, even in 1976, the cornerstones of the exurbs were starting to crumble.

The article outlines the four basic cornerstones on which these exurbs were built:

Exclusion: zoning that called for large lots and kept out the densely packed developments that lower classes could afford.

Education: elite school systems that pushed children to college.

Women: homemakers who took on the majority of the parenting as well as volunteer work within the community that made neighborhoods work.

Distancing: isolation from the problems caused by neighbors, cities and even family members.

Some of these elements are still in play in the exurbs of today. In Baldwin Township, for instance, isolation is a top priority. People moved to Baldwin to have space from their neighbors and freedom from the hassle caused by the kinds of ordinances dense city developments make necessary.

But they were also looking for the same things the original exurbanites were looking for — a house and land of their own. It is as though these early exurbanites helped disseminate a hypnotic message that real success is measured by the size of your house and backyard. That making it to the exurbs is the goal in Jefferson’s pursuit of happiness.

The exurbia of the past, as described in this article, faced the same problems of not being sustainable, of not being walkable, of a desire to preserve public open space, but not being willing to shorten distances from house to house.

Some of the problems outlined in the story extrapolate issues exurbia created for cities. Many of these issues, such as cities lacking enough green space and being polluted and run-down, have seen progress since 1976. But what of the exurbs? What led to the exurbs continuing to face the same exact problems they have always faced?

And, perhaps more importantly, when will they change and what will make them change? Is this housing bust and recession enough fodder to foster a re-thinking of exurban development? Or will everything fall back into place when builders begin laying down foundation again?

After all, 1976 was the tail end of a recession that led to the first boom in Baldwin. If it was that easy to forget the faults of exurbia then, will it be again?

The last line of the article provides some food for thought: “Yes, it’s the end of Exurbia. If we work it right it’s the start of something better.”

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