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What a Fool Believes...
by Todd Ziebarth : Editor, Terrain.org

How Far is Enough?

One of the more memorable moments from my days in graduate school occurred during the final gathering of my History of American City-Building class.  This particular discussion was focused on the history of suburbanization, and the fact that most Americans have usually lived amongst those who are most similar to themselves.  If you are white, you typically have lived around other whites.  If you are black, you typically have lived around other blacks.  From my perspective, this was not a profound observation, but still a troubling one, especially given the relationship between race and class in this country.

Near the end of the discussion, a classmate spoke up, and her comments revealed the less than flattering side of the phenomenon of suburbanization in America.  She iterated something along the lines of her right to live around folks similar to herself.  In this case, other wealthy white Americans.  As the rest of the class attempted to read between the lines of her comments, the professor indirectly challenged her position by reading a handful of ordinances and covenants from several suburban developments from the middle of the 20th century.

Ordinances and covenants can be quite explicit about many things, such as the height and length of fences and the color of paint on a house.  The ordinances and covenants that the professor read were also alarmingly specific about who could not live in these suburban developments.  Based on the Federal Housing Administration's admonishment, in its Underwriting Manual from 1939, that "if a neighborhood is to retain stability, it is necessary that properties shall continue to be occupied by the same social and racial classes," these municipalities had enacted ethnically and racially restrictive subdivision regulations.  In a few cases, Irish people were prohibited from living in the development.  In many others, such prohibitions applied to blacks.

These historical records of prejudice and discrimination didn't seem to trouble my classmate, and she responded with even more vigor about her right to freely choose to live in a neighborhood of other wealthy white Americans.  A few other classmates began to question her statement in the face of the ordinances and covenants that our professor had just read, particularly regarding how these regulations constrained the rights that she was defending, although they were the rights of Americans from different social, ethnic and racial classes.  Just as the discussion was heating up, though, the class period and the semester ended.

Since my class's brief journey into the social, ethnic and racial complexities of suburban development, I have often thought of the underlying dilemmas in that discussion.  Why did people choose to live, and continue to choose to live, in suburbs?  What are the social, economic and environmental consequences of these choices?

A cursory reading of the squalid living conditions for many people in urban areas from the late nineteenth until the mid twentieth century lends weight to the appeal of the suburb.  As Peter Hall notes in Cities of Tomorrow, for these people, and for many since, suburbs have many advantages, such as safer social conditions, greater privacy, more freedom from noise and greater freedom to make noise.  Most importantly, suburbs are particularly appealing places to raise children (or so I am told).  To this mix, add the Interstate Highway Act of 1956 and the Federal Housing Administration's pro-suburban development policies beginning in the 1930s, and one has many of the key ingredients of the American dream.

It is obviously a good thing that many people were able to move out of the awful living conditions in many urban areas, right?  If not suburban developments to provide them with a better living alternative, then what?  In addressing these questions, it is important to remember the consequences of the suburban phenomenon.  Simply stated, many Americans abandoned the inner city, and, as Kenneth Jackson notes in Crabgrass Frontier, stripped automobiles, burned-out buildings, boarded-up houses, rotting sewers, and glass-littered streets have become common in many American cities.  In addition, the alarming disparities between suburban and urban areas regarding unemployment and poverty are in part attributable to the departure of industries and jobs from the inner cities during the suburban development boom.  Given these harmful consequences, then, do we have the absolute right to choose where we want to live?  Is it acceptable to place certain constraints on people's choices about their living environments?

On the list of ideals that Americans hold as sacred, freedom of choice is near the top.  The modern consumer culture implies that it is our inherited right to freely choose from the increasing numbers of goods and services on the market.  For example, to take the two items most central to the suburb, each individual can freely choose the model of car and the style of house of his or her preference.  We are constrained in our choices amongst cars and houses on the market, however, by various government laws and regulations.  Cars need to meet certain safety regulations, and planning and zoning laws and regulations affect the kinds of houses, and housing developments, that people find when they are "house hunting."

Still, governmental constraints can only provide a certain amount of protection to society from the harmful consequences of an individual's decisions.  In addition to these institutional constraints, a healthy society is also dependent on the wise choices of its citizens.  In the words of Adam Smith in The Theory of Moral Sentiments, ". . . what institution of government could tend so much to promote the happiness of mankind as the general prevalence of wisdom and virture?  All government is but an imperfect remedy for the deficiency of these . . ."  That is not to say that government is unnecessary, just insufficient.  What is more important are the internal checks and balances affecting each individual's choice.

What is increasingly troublesome to me, then, is the apparent erosion of checks and balances in our individual decisionmaking on these matters.  In my opinion, this erosion is best exemplified by the record number of sport utility vehicles and exurban houses purchased over the last couple of years.  The cultural consumer mantra appears to be:  If I want it, I will buy it, regardless of its effects on the environment and other people's lives.

Suburbs, then, appear to represent a movement both toward and away from something.  For example, as my classmate's comments appeared to illustrate, safer social conditions are one advantage of the suburb.  Unfortunately, this often translates to social, ethnic and racial segregation within many metropolises.  What are we moving away from, then?  Are we moving away from certain people because they are different from us?  Are we moving away from our collective responsibility for the welfare of our fellow Americans?  Whatever the answer, if we are not careful we may continue to move away from the ideals and intentions of the first two hundred years of the American experiment, toward a point in which equal opportunity for all becomes a faint glimmer on the horizon of the suburban phenomenon.


Todd Ziebarth is a policy analyst at the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools. He is also a founding editor of Terrain.org. In addition to his regular Terrain.org column, Ziebarth sometimes reviews books and CDs for the journal. He has a master's degree in public administration and a master's degree in urban and regional planning.
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