Do Americans Seek Out a Velvet Rope of Status in Suburbia?

Why do so many Americans choose to live in the suburbs, despite the increasingly long commute times and lack of community often associated with these places?

Benjamin Ross, a Washington D.C.-based transit activist whose grass-roots lobbying efforts led to the planned Purple Line in Maryland, argues that suburbia has a persistent allure because it is a great “velvet rope” separating those of means from the rest of us.

Status-seeking, Ross says, is the psychological underpinning of suburbanization, leading Americans to seek out the cachet purported by suburbia’s bigger houses, bigger lots, and bigger SUVs. Ross makes a convincing argument to this effect in his new, meticulously-researched book, Dead End: Suburban Sprawl and the Rebirth of American Urbanism.

Regarding status-seeking, Ross writes:

“Suburban construction is not the only sector of the economy where status sells. Nightclubs, like neighborhoods, thrive on exclusivity, and both employ gatekeepers to maintain the desired aura. These functionaries – bouncers, doormen, and planners – bring diverse credentials to their work, but they all have the same task. Their job is to keep the riffraff out while carefully trading off revenue against cachet. The balding hedge fund manager with the taste for champagne gets seated in the VIP section for the same reason the office building is allowed to go up along the interstate.”

The problem, of course, is that housing and jobs, unlike nightclubs, ought not be reserved only for those with clout. Yet Ross demonstrates how status-seeking is built into the DNA of suburbia, through the zoning codes and private covenants that enable them.

Dead End details how the legal foundation for modern zoning ordinances lies in a 1927 Supreme Court case, Euclid v. Ambler. In this case, the view of apartment buildings as “lower class” was upheld by the court, which described apartments as a “mere parasite” on the single-family neighborhood. Coupled with private covenants (primarily homeowners associations), which historically did not just impose architectural standards but racial and ethnic restrictions as well, the result is an entire system based on exclusion and favoring single-family housing over all others.

Despite this dubious history, many Americans moved to the suburbs with the best of intentions, seeking safety and security for their families. The suburban oasis has proven to be a mirage, though, says Ross. For example, in present-day suburbia, children do not play throughout the neighborhood. Instead, play dates must be arranged in advance by “helicopter parents.” Walking or biking to school is anathema. The desire for safety has warped into a reality of isolation and disconnectedness.

The biggest problem with suburbanization, though, may be the unintended consequence of a segregated, dispersed land-use pattern – better known as sprawl.

Sprawl, the process of separating land uses – houses from offices from shopping – has resulted in a suburban landscape in which even the simplest errand requires a car. It’s no wonder, Ross argues, that Americans have fallen out of love with sprawl, if not with the suburbs themselves.

Ross’s book covers a great deal of ground. There is clearly no love lost between Ross and the suburban land form he deconstructs. He takes on opponents of smart growth as well, recognizing that behind most of their arguments lurks the culturally-biased premise that “the single-family suburb embodies true Americanism, under attack by an alien cultural elite.”

At its core though, Dead End is optimistic. Ross points out that demand for walkable, transit-accessible housing far outweighs the supply. In regions that have strong transit networks – New York, Washington D.C., San Francisco, and Los Angeles, among them – the central cities are gaining in population faster than the suburbs.

This is good news for smart-growth advocates, but the supply-demand discrepancy remains an issue. Ross says that in order to address the supply side of the equation, we need:

  • additional construction and density in existing walkable, transit-accessible areas, and
  • extended transit to create new places that fit this criteria.

Dead End has received praise from publications such as the Washington Post, which noted that the book “casts light on the cultural forces at play in major disputes gripping our region over affordable housing, the ‘war on cars,’ [and] the Columbia Pike streetcar in Arlington.” If the suburbs really are an exclusive, velvet rope-demarcated pattern of development, then like at any party, it’s important to recognize when it is coming to an end. Many Americans are doing just that.

Ross will speak at Mobility Lab on September 24 as part of our ongoing Lunch At the Lab speaker series.

Story photo by Lilywhite Collection on Flickr.

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