Tuesday, November 1, 2005

Suburban Unrest

In Planning in the USA, Barry Cullingworth and Roger Caves point out that suburbs in the United States before the 20th century tended to be places of poverty, substandard living, and degradation.

Even in the early 20th century, my Dad used to tell me, shantytowns lay at the outskirts of midwestern towns in Illinois.

At some point, though, that pattern was reversed in the USA.

Not in Paris, though. CBS News reports that Paris's poor, immigrant, suburban population is rioting.

Suburbs that ring France's big cities suffer soaring unemployment and are home to immigrant communities, often from Muslim North Africa. Disenchantment, and anger, run high.
Why is it that unemployment, anger, and and racial/ethnic ghettoization are characteristic of the USA's center cities, but of Paris's (and Europe's?) suburbs? Why did the European middle and upper-middle classes stay in town?

12 comments:

Anonymous said...

Different levels of adoption of the car, highways, and public transportation. Also the historical availability of large tracts of cheap suburban land in the US. In places where that is running out, we are seeing a turn back to the cities.

Joe Guarino said...

I can't speak to the situation in Paris, but here is my understanding of the history in this country. David, I feel certain you are aware of this legacy.

Court-mandated racial desegregation, and affirmative efforts to bus schoolchildren and re-draw district lines in center cities to achieve racial balance, led to white flight. Urban renewal destroyed older functioning neighborhoods and replaced them with dense, concentrated, vertical pockets of crime. Failures of family formation and the effects of the welfare state had more acute impacts in the center cities.

It seems we had a number of well-intended initiatives in our nation that had paradoxical effects on the center cities.

David Wharton said...

A BBC story that Ed Cone linked to this morning says that the affected suburbs are poorly served by public transit (much like ours), though I'm not sure what sense to make of that. Cheaper suburban land in France seems to have attracted the lower classes.

I've also been reading that US exurban development is now also attracting more people at the lower end of the middle-class scale.

Public policy had something to do with white flight, Joe, but some of it was also due to old fashioned racism, too. It wasn't that long ago when a single black homeowner could clear all the whites out of a neighborhood within a very short time.

I'm inclined to think that European patterns of urban growth are partly related to the quality of city life there, and the degree to which Europeans love it. There's just so much good food, architecture, music, art, and interesting things to do, that they don't want to leave.

Americans have tended to put more value on the kinds of things you can do in the suburbs.

Anonymous said...

Americans seem to place a greater value on large homes and yards, perhaps an extension of our frontier mentality, whereas Europeans have had many centuries to adapt to crowding.
In larger cities like New York, the center city is more affluent and the outer reaches of the boroughs are less so. This seems to follow the "european" model. Certainly the quality of city life in our great cities is on par with anything in Europe in terms of "good food, architecture, music, art, and interesting things to do."
Major American cities that were largely developed before the dominance of the car like New York or Boston come closest to the European cities (which were formed well before the car). Newer American cities were developed for the car. I think this is the biggest factor, whether it is a pre or post car city.
If suburbs have neither good public transport nor the ability to car commute in a reasonable manner (because of a lack of highways or city parking), then it should not be a surprise that the affluent stay away. I think this is why the exurbs are mostly attractive to the lower middle class. The commute has finally gotten so long that people with other options will not live that far out.

David Boyd said...

I have no idea what I'm talking about on this subject (What's different you say? Ha.). But some of it has got to have started with the American notion of individuality and being king of your castle. Something that is attainable via a car and the suburbs.

Son2 said...

It's certainly ironic that those Europeans are so bass-ackwards... just kidding.

American suburbs really have to be seen as a uniquely American phenomenon, tied into the history of American archicture. There's actually some historical context when you say, 'Americans have tended to put more value on the kinds of things you can do in the suburbs.'

Specifically, the notion of the idyllic and picturesque suburban domicile was popularized in the middle of the 19th century by, among others, Andrew Jackson Downing, writing for the magizine Horticulturalist, Frederick Law Olmsted (Central Park), Sarah Josepha Hale, etc. This was a period of time before the real industrialization of the U.S. economy, the bulk of architectural building was residential, and domestic tastes were dominated by Downing and his contemporaries, editors like Sarah Josepha Hale and designers like Calvert Vaux, Andrew Jackson Davis, and Frederick Law Olmsted.

These people influenced popular culture at a time when the country was ripe (econonomically) for this kind of change to a private family residential mindset, where everyone had separate rooms and the family had separate rooms for separate functions (not cars yet, though).

It's interesting to note that the two earliest (successful) planned residential communities, Llewellyn Park near West Orange, NJ (designed by A.J. Downing in the 1850s and 60s) and Riverside, Chicago (designed by Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux in the 1860s), established some of the defining characteristics of what many people imagine when they think of suburbs in the U.S.: the streets that meander in a haphazard way, the roads named 'Elm St.' and 'Walnut St.', the landscaped yards.

All of which is to say that our conception of 'the Suburb' at the present time is largely the conscious stylistic effort of an influential group of designers in the 19th century, with whose work we are still familiar, and to whose design principles we still adhere. It's not just an adaptation to the car, or a flight from urban crime.

Kim said...

One of the biggest problems I see with suburbs is the lack of gathering spots. When I lived in a small village, we had a centralized park and shopping area that was easily within walking distance to village residents. We all gathered at the park, or at the coffee houses or bars and we talked. We all knew each other, at least enough to say hello to, and we knew each others names. We had places to go, to hang out and to gather. Where I currently am, we don't have any real gathering places. There is a playground, but not many people seem to use it, and there is a pool, but it's only open certain hours during the summer. Other than that, the neighbors don't know each other that much. My neighorhood tires in that we do have neighborhood parties from time to time, but they don't happen that often and people still don't know each other. Basically, everyone drives into their garages and then they vanish into the homes. The neighbors don't often talk to each other. Nobody gathers. It's sad.

David Wharton said...

Chris, no doubt the influence of Olmstead et al. is huge and still influential, especially regarding the nature-based aesthetic they introduced. The heavy landscaping we love in the USA never really caught on in Europe; if you look at the new urban village promoted by Prince Charles, it looks almost barren to us.

But Olmstead's emphasis on public parks and other democratizing public spaces was pretty much abandoned by suburban developers, and even though his streets were windy, they still formed a kind of wavy grid instead of branching dendrites.

Charlotte's Dilworth was designed by the Olmsteads (not by F. L. O., though), and it shows.

It's interesting that such neighborhoods are now considered more urban than suburban, and I don't know whether that's just because cities have grown up around them, or because of something in their character.

Anonymous said...

David comments:
But Olmstead's emphasis on public parks and other democratizing public spaces was pretty much abandoned by suburban developers.


I don't know if you read the article about a Pennsylvania based developer in the Times magazine a few weeks ago, but I think that the developer was probably truthful that they would like to build more cluster developments where there are parks, etc., but in most cases zoning doesn't allow it and requires 1+ acre lots (of course they can still throw in parks but aren't going to if they have to build on 1+ acre lots). All those old neighborhoods had much smaller lots. So it is the fault of the municipalities and not just the developer. They get what they ask for when they set the zoning policy.

In the town where I grew up they pretty much require 2 acre lots now and they do not allow for cluster zoning. The single exception is adult active living communities where they have allowed cluster zoning because the town gets the double advantages of expensive houses added to the tax base without the possibility extra kids will be placed in the schools. My parents live in one of these adult neighborhoods now, and it does have more of a neighborhood feel than the street I grew upon (with no open space and no sidewalks).

David Wharton said...

Yes, municipalities have done it, too.

I should probably take the opportunity to point out that Greensboro's newest big development, Reedy Fork Ranch, has provided a huge park for its residents, and is promising "pocket parks" in its radio advertisements.

Greensboro's new development ordinance may allow for cluster development; at least some of us on the advisory team will be pushing for it.

Jim McCullough said...

These Paris 'suburbs' have almost nothing in common with what we mean by the word. They are much closer to what we mean by 'ghettos.' And they are that, and are starved for public transportation by deliberate and long-standing public policy of the French government. Not until the end of this article in City Journal from 2002 do you realize exactly what has been described...and it will chill you.
http://www.city-journal.org/html/12_4_the_barbarians.html (It is worth the trouble)

Kim said...

Ummm, where is this huge park in Reedy Fork? We have a playground, but it's rather small and a pool that is only open during the summer, and a tennis court that I never see anyone using. That's it. We have some walking trails, but I almost never see anyone on those, either! I'd love it if there was a large park here, but really, there isn't one. Unless they're hiding it from me. :-o