Suburban Crisis, Suburban Regeneration

If you care about the suburbs — their health and future — I invite you to listen to a remakable discussion about American suburbia by some of the nation’s leading voices on suburban isssues.  It took place at a roundtable panel called “Suburban Crisis, Suburban Regeneration” on November 7, 2015, at the the recent conference of the Society for American City and Regional Planning History (SACRPH).

I put this panel together along with Andrew Wiese, professor of history at San Diego State.  Andy and I recently wrapped up work on the 2nd edition of our edited book The Suburb Reader (Routledge, forthcoming 2016).  As we were in the home stretch of that work, we hatched the idea of bringing to life some of the ideas and perspectives from our book.  We invited in a kind of “dream team” of suburban experts to discuss and debate the past, present and future of American suburbs.

This is no small matter.  Suburbia is now home to over half of Americans.  It’s crucial that we discern a map for suburbia’s future that integrates economic and social justice, sustainability,  community health, and mindfulness about the emerging needs of new suburbanites like immigrants, the elderly and poor.  We explored questions like:  is there really a suburban crisis right now, as some  claim?  is that a racist construct?  how do we work toward making metropolitan areas more equitable, successful places, that promote decent living standards and opportunities for all?  what are the crucial policy choices at hand?  as suburban demography is changing — toward much greater diversity — how should suburbs adjust to  meet the needs of these diverse residents?   are Smart Growth and social justice compatible?   This is just a start to the issues and challenges we explored, in a free-flowing conversation, full of rich insights.

Andy and I moderated the discussion, and the participants included:

You can check out the audio of the entire conversation here:

I wanted to share just the first 15 minutes of a 90-minute conversation here.  My plan is to get the whole transcript published somewhere, but for now, check this out:

Andrew Wiese: Because this is a history conference, I thought we would start with a question about the future. Does suburbia have a future? And what does that future look like?

June Williamson: Maybe I’ll jump in here, as the architect and the author of a book called Designing Suburban Futures. I take a very optimistic stance. My research as an architect and urban designer is more case-study based, so you can find specific examples of parts of the suburban landscape – dead malls, strip centers, office parks – that have been vacated… and there have been some really creative retrofitting of these places. Turning them into mixed-use new organizations from single use, only retail, only office. So that paradigm – which comes down to single-use zoning – that has led to an obsolescence or a surplus of this land, is an opportunity. We turn the negative thing into a potential positive opportunity. There are ways in which design and creative thinking about design, and capturing the intellectual capital, and focusing on the suburbs – can help create this future. We can’t not have a suburban future, because more than half of the U.S. population lives there. It’s a fantasy to think that we’re all going to somehow migrate back to the cities. We have to imagine a broader idea of what a city is, that includes suburban places. So I advocate for design. Part of the issue here is people haven’t imagined or seen – they’re beginning to see more examples – but you’ve thought the suburban landscape, it’s built that way and it’s just going to stay that way. That’s just how it is. But we see lots of selective examples where it’s been intensified, retrofitted in a way by adding new uses, making them walkable. They are little fragments, but they do demonstrate a different potential future.  And there are things we don’t know about – what’s going to happen with cars, what’s going to happen with family structures.

Andrew Highsmith: Like you said, since over half of Americans live in suburbs, it’s really remarkable that you even have to ask that question. But you do, in light of the fact that these narratives of suburban decline, or suburban death, have become so common now. They’re really almost a genre. And that’s problematic I think. It’s troubling. It’s problematic because a majority of us live in them, and because it’s a narrative that revolves too narrowly around the experiences of white people. It’s remarkable that the kind of convergence of narratives of urban decline that took shape in the 1960s and 1970s… the narratives of “urban crisis” coalesce at a moment when people of color are first gaining majorities in major cities. And now, as people of color are gaining a foothold in suburbs, we’re also being faced with this new narrative of suburban crisis and death. So it’s problematic on that level, but on a number of others as well, in particular because it circumvents the fact that now a majority of immigrants are selecting suburbs as they choose places to live. It’s troubling to me that we even have to talk about this, but I think we do, in light of this flurry of books that have trumpeted the end of suburbia.

Andrew Wiese: would you say that narrative is fundamentally a racist narrative?

Andrew Highsmith: I don’t think it’s fundamentally a racist narrative, but I think it’s been deployed that way in many instances. Some of it is also aspirational, trying to speak to a lot of the different crises that are the result of mass suburbanization — things like infrastructure, live-ability, environmental concerns. I don’t think it necessarily has to be deployed in that way, but I think the way the discourse evolves popularly lends itself to that kind of reading.

Manuel Pastor: I would say the suburbs have a future, but the future ain’t what it used to be. So we really need to re-conceptualize it. I want to say two things about that. You know the suburbs were where the American dream was born and realized. This idea of single-family homes, the working-class being able to secure a toehold in the middle-class, which is what My Blue Heaven really is about. The idea of having some control over your destiny, good schools for your children, etc. It’s also the place where the American dream is now being shattered — through the foreclosure crisis, through degradation of the quality of life because of too much driving, because of the environmental toxics that have been left behind because so many suburbs (frankly in Los Angeles) were located proximate to industry and were built as industrial suburbs. So if we’re thinking about regaining the American dream in some sense – we can complicate that later because it was racist in its foundations as well, these suburbs – we do need to do it, not the least of which why because the suburbs are the swing districts in terms of national elections. That’s the place that’s purple. That’s the place where, if you can create a different identity, a different sense of destiny, you can actually move state politics, national politics, planning, and so much else. So they are really critical to the national future.

On the other hand, there’s really a challenge in the suburbs. Shortly after the events in Ferguson, the shooting of Michael Brown, I went to a meeting in New York about Ferguson, and I began my conversation by saying, “Well, imagine a small suburb with about 25,000 people right next to a big city, formed as part of a great industrial landscape, mostly white in its origins, having gone through dramatic demographic transformation, which now has a set of city agencies that essentially prey on their own people.” And then I stopped and said, “Of course, I’m talking about Maywood, California.” In Maywood, the city fathers/authorities began preying on the undocumented, through a series of fines, towing, etc. I think what it speaks to – and this is what is scary about this future – is that the suburbs are places where the civic infrastructure is really weak. People moved there to escape the politics of the city, and in some sense to escape civic life, at least in my view. They are places where the social services infrastructure is not ready for new immigrants, for the fact more of the nation’s poor live in the suburbs than they do in the cities now. The suburbs aren’t ready for that.

The suburbs are also a place where the community organizing infrastructure is really weak, which is how low-income communities try to find a voice and a toehold, in terms of civic life and gains in social services. That organizing infrastructure is also weak. So I think if that future of the suburbs is to be secure, some part of it is planning, physical landscape, etc., but a lot of it is going to be about community organizing, about building a social services infrastructure and building a civic infrastructure that could make them good places to live again.

Willow Lung Amam: …The suburban American dream, as Manuel was saying, was born out of the industrial city and escapism from city life. And I don’t think that kind of American dream around suburbs is still the reality of why most people are choosing suburbia, or at least the new suburbanites, why they are choosing suburbia. We need to have a more diverse conversation about what the American dream really represents, and how suburbia fits into this narrative. For many immigrants who are choosing suburbs as their first destination, that American dream looks a lot different than it did for the generation of working-class and white Americans who chose suburbs in the postwar era for very different reasons. I think there is some great research that needs to be done to really understand the complexities of the reasons why people are choosing suburbs.

I would also say that the story about Millennials not choosing suburbs is a bit overblown. Millennials are not “not choosing” suburbs. I teach undergraduate classes about cities. Most of my students who grew up in suburbs, when they tell their stories about where they want to live, they still want to live in suburbs. I don’t think that Millennials are not choosing suburbs, they are choosing different kinds of lifestyles, and suburbs are increasingly coming to adapt to the kind of preferences that we are seeing, for more walkable urban-like places that June referred to. So I don’t think the Millennial “return-to-the-city” narrative is complete in the ways in which we’re understanding a new set of values that this generation represents.

… Suburbs not only have a future here, but suburban development and suburban values are also translating overseas, so we have a transnational suburbanism that is really important to take into account in the ways in which the suburbs are growing not only internally in the US, but also abroad.

Stay tuned for more details about this excellent conversation!


Criminal Minds — pick our house please!

The other day, we arrived home after I picked up the kids from school, and my daughter runs to the front door and grabs a business card someone left stuck in the doorjam.  I assumed it was one of those junk cards for tree trimming.  But no.  This card had the logo for the television show “Criminal Minds,” and I immediately knew this was good.  On the back, it said, “Please call me regarding filming at your front door.”

We ran inside, threw our stuff down, and I beelined for the phone.  We’re interested in filming on your front porch, the location scout tells me.  It’s between your house and two others.  But we really like your house.  Oh! I’m thinking, trying to keep my cool and muffle my elation, and also my slight disappointment that our house wasn’t their slam-dunk choice.  Yes, I say, we’re available on those dates, yes, feel free to come and look over the property again.  Yes, you can completely take over everything (I didn’t say that, but was thinking it.) Yes, yes, yes.

We live in a Los Angeles suburb, so this kind of thing is pretty commonplace and reflects a recent resurgence in local filming. In fact, our neighborhood seems to be a perennial favorite for location scouts.  We’re always seeing those yellow signs with the black block letters alongside the road, with cryptic messages like “DM” or “Hungry Man,” directing cast and crew to some undisclosed locale.   Our neighbor’s house is always getting picked.  But us?  never, so far.   And mind you, this is no trivial neighborly rivalry over who’s got the best Christmas decorations.  This is high-stakes suburban competition.  Because if you get picked, the payoffs are, well, let’s say — huge.  You enter the world of lavish Hollywood production budgets and they don’t hold back if you have what they want.  In our suburb, this is the ultimate lucky break.  Your house earns you immediate cold hard cash.

It got me thinking about the ways people milk value out of suburban homes — beyond accruing equity and profiting off surging real estate values. This actually has a long history.  Back in the early 20th century, suburbanites rented rooms to lodgers, grew backyard produce, or took in laundry. In the 1920s and 1930s, people in L.A.’s working-class suburbs raised chickens, goats, and produce in backyards to eat or sell, and the same was happening in African-American suburbs and blue-collar suburbs across the nation.  I surmise that these practices subsided in the 1950s and 1960s, apart from the occasional Tupperware party where housewives could generate some extra income at home.

But I think we’ve seen a boom in these home-based enterprises since then.  You’ve got your home offices of telecommuters, rentals of guest rooms, candy-makers who started out in their suburban kitchen then expanded from there, people selling home-grown produce, Etsy crafters working out of the house, meth labs, and on and on.  Zoning laws might restrict things to a degree, but I think there’s a lot of enterprising activities going on behind those suburban front doors.  Take us, for instance.  In the last few years, we’ve sold persimmons off our huge backyard tree (to the tune of about 75 pounds last year), we’ve run an e-store out of our garage, and my husband and I both work in a shared home office.

And why not?  It’s high time our houses started paying for themselves a little more, given the outsized gouging they do on our wallets. Especially in overheated housing markets like Los Angeles, the income-to-home value ratio has grown completely out of whack since 1970.  Consider these statistics on L.A. County, which I compiled from US Census data.  It gives you a rough idea of how things have changed since 1950:

home to income - use final

When my father bought our family’s suburban home back in 1966, not too far from here, it cost him about 3 years worth of salary.  Nowadays, it takes 8 years of salary if you’re lucky, and don’t hit a housing bubble, recession, and the rest.

I think this resurgence of house-based economic activity may be a direct result of this income-to-home value mismatch.  And if suburbs are going to continue their stubborn resistance to affordable housing, it makes sense for them to loosen any and all regulations on how we can squeeze the most out of our homes, and to use these domestic spaces in the most economically creative and productive ways we can (excluding those meth labs, of course).

For us, right now, it’s all about “Criminal Minds.”  After sitting on pins and needles for a few days, I got a call from my favorite location scout and — guess what?  We scored the gig!  About 20 members of the crew just stopped by to scope things out.  And next week, they’re going to film a scene where a woman gets attacked on our front porch.  Let’s just say this is the kind of neighborhood crime I love and welcome to my house anytime.

criminal minds renewed cancelled

Are suburbs dying or regenerating?

There’s been a lot of chatter the last few years about the end of the suburbs, instigated especially by journalists but pulling in academics too.  Probably the splashiest declaration came from Fortune magazine’s Leigh Gallagher, who titled her book The End of the Suburbs, an apocalyptic eye-catcher if there ever was one.  It’s interesting how it’s Fortune magazine editors who — over the years — have made some of the boldest, most sensational proclamations about suburbia.  It was Fortune editor William Whyte who in 1956 painted suburbanites as “organization men” who socialized hyperactively but lacked self-directed individuality, threatening the very soul of America.  Gallagher, in turn, sees suburbia at its end point, indicated by an emergent generational rejection of the form as well as the many wasteful, inefficiencies of suburbia itself.

As my suburban writing partner Andy Wiese points out, we’re seeing a repeating pattern here.  It’s the journalists who write — as they are paid to do — total oversimplifications of major social trends and then academics provide critiques along the lines of:  “it’s a little more complicated than that…”  Chris Sellers lodged such a critique a couple years ago at New Geography.  And we’re doing it in our forthcoming second edition of The Suburb Reader (Routledge, 2016).  One irony (or not) that we’ve noticed:  how is it that at the very moment suburbs have hit unprecedented levels of diversification — by class, race, ethnicity, family type, politics etc. — that people are declaring suburbia’s end?  Will “suburb” forever be tied up emotionally and intellectually to the white upper- and middle-class, and our minds and spirits cannot for the life of them make room for alternative realities?

IMG_7855  IMG_7846

These are questions we’ll be exploring at the SACRPH conference this week. And here’s a snippet from the preface to our forthcoming Suburb Reader 2nd Ed. which reflects some of our thoughts on this, and the thrust of our book:

“Since 2006, American suburbs experienced devastating decline and encouraging regeneration. The Great Recession (2007-2009) had deep roots in suburbia, begun with the housing boom-and-bust that concentrated in suburban communities where many homeowners rode a nauseating roller coaster from American dream to fiscal ruin.   The devastation wrought by the housing bust triggered a frenzied conversation about the viability of suburbs, even their very legitimacy. Is home ownership an obsolete, destructive aspiration, many asked? Should we do away with institutions like Fannie Mae and the FHA which supported suburban home ownership for generations? Folding in concerns about climate change and sustainability, public health, and community life, many critics attacked suburbia as a dead end, anathema to contemporary values and resources. Some declared an end to suburbia, sensing a fundamental national rejection of the suburban form itself.

At the same time, some suburbs were changing radically. New groups of people – many previously the targets of suburban exclusion – were settling in suburban homes and apartments, refashioning the feel and lived realities of these neighborhoods. Immigrants, the poor, more and more people of color arrived, remaking their communities and often bringing new vitality – not to mention new values and politics – to America’s suburbs. The energy of this influx signals to us that the suburbs are not dying. They are, instead, in a fascinating period of regeneration and redefinition, an era when suburban history is being rewritten in profound ways. And at the same time that many suburbs are upending traditional expectations, they exist alongside many, many suburbs across the nation touched lightly by historical change, persisting much as they have for decades. The suburban dream survives. And so do suburbia’s limits, its possibilities, and its challenges.

Our perspective has been deeply shaped by recent events, and the many signs of suburban crisis and rejuvenation around us. In our home region of southern California, these trends are especially vivid. We see it in places like the Inland Empire where housing foreclosures hit national highs. We see it in the Chicano poets performing in a “garage salon” in the working-class suburb of Bell, or the new citizens mobilized against anti-immigrant politics in the citrus belt suburb of Escondido. We measure the ups and downs against our own experience with traffic, schools, housing prices, land consumption, local politics, changes in family and community. Amidst the hassles and the hardships, we discern hopeful currents of adaptation and change in America’s suburbs.”

We look forward to continuing the conversation.

Halloween: don’t blow this once-a-year neighborly opportunity

If you stop and think about it, there are not a lot of explicit demands on us to be sociable neighbors.  And I don’t mean responsible neighbors, where you’re expected to pick up after your dog, keep your yard cleaned up, that kind of thing.  No.  I mean being social and friendly.

The one day of the year that seems to call for this is Halloween.  It’s the one and only holiday, for certain, and really the only day where our communities ask us to keep the lights on and willingly open our front door.

This really struck me a couple years ago when I took my young daughter out trick-or-treating in our neighborhood.  We thought we’d work our way down the hill — stopping at homes along the way — toward our friend’s house a few blocks down.  To her disappointment and my dismay, we encountered one dark house after the next, creating whole stretches that were desolate and cold.  To me, that was scarier than any fake skeleton or styrofoam gravestone.  It wasn’t just a signal of neighborhood non-participation, but a kind of rebuff of the neighbors.

I thought, how hard is it, really, to buy a $3.99 bag of candy and leave your porch light on?  This is a simple, affordable act of good will that helps build a feeling of community.  It signals that you are present and open to your surroundings, and not adverse to interacting with people you may not know — but who, most likely — are your actual neighbors.

In the course of my research and my life, I’ve encountered a lot of people who tell me they lived in their suburban neighborhood for years without ever meeting the neighbors two or three doors down.  It’s not something they are proud of, but it’s just evolved that way.. like a social dynamic on auto-pilot.  We live our lives, we are busy, we are tired, we want our peace and quiet.  Some people deliberately prefer the insulation.  But the social costs tend to add up, as they work to alienate our communities and ourselves.  (I’ll write more about this, in future blog posts.)


But back to Halloween.  One survey reported in Statista found that 67.8 percent of Americans (ages 18 and older) plan to hand out candy, and 41 percent said they are going to carve a pumpkin.  That is encouraging.  Maybe at the macro-level, things look better than they appear on the ground.  Still, even one out of three houses dark seems a little discouraging to me.  Where we live, this statistical pattern shows up like this:  whole stretches go dark, then others are teeming with elaborately festooned houses, running kids, and light everywhere.  But you have to walk through the darkness to get there.

I have to admit that I’ve never liked the ghoulish aspects of Halloween — I still cringe when I see our little foam gravestone on our front lawn, which just seems morbid to me.  But I willingly schlep it out every year, along with the orange lights, the white ghost, and other dood-dads.  And I buy that bag or two of candy.  We’re lucky if we get 3-4 groups of kids at our door every year.  But I’ll always keep that light on no matter what.

Walking and nostalgia

It’s interesting to me how discussions about walking freely in our suburban towns these days — or feeling afraid to — evoke memories of our own childhoods.  When I bring up this topic (like in my last blog post), I often hear, “when I was a kid, we always walked or biked freely.”  It was a different time then, they say.  Or was it, really?  And I wonder, what was really different about it?

These are questions that are driving my own historical research right now, so my head is immersed in understanding this.  Or at least trying to grasp the multiple forces that have changed our relationships to our own home neighborhoods and suburban public space.

But back to those memories.  Here’s mine.  I grew up in South Pasadena, in a newly built suburban development up in a hilly area.  As kids, we were all over those streets.  We played outside regularly, we biked to a liquor store over and down the hill to buy candy, and I walked or biked to my nearby elementary school on a regular basis.

And this was no Shangri-la of safety.  As a second grader, I was walking home alone one day, and an unfamiliar man in an older Chevy-type car pulled over and tried to talk me into getting in his car.  Our neighbor was watering her lawn across the street, and she told him, “leave her alone.”  I was so freaked out, I ran the rest of the way home, and was too embarrassed to say anything to my mom (who would have probably run out and smacked the guy with a frying pan, cursing him in Greek.)  That neighbor saved me that day.  And then she called my mom and told her what happened.

But the more remarkable thing about it, is that I kept on walking and biking, even after that incident, clear through my childhood.  I felt probably more threatened when, as a sixth grader, a boy at school with a crush on me constantly chased me home on his bike.   (That somehow seemed almost worse than the Chevy man.)  When I hit middle school and high school, which were a mile or two away, I often had to walk that route as well, much to my dismay since that was a long, exhausting trek up a dirt trail, and past many, many houses, schlepping books and backpacks.  My mom just made us do that.

It wasn’t necessarily a safer time.  But there was something in our heads back then that made it okay for kids to be out and owning the sidewalks and streets of these suburbs.  In retelling my own story, I see how important that neighbor was.  She was the “eyes on the street,” to evoke Jane Jacobs from Death and Life of Great American Cities.  Jacobs would kill me for using her phrase to describe the suburbs, which she hated.  But I think she missed the boat on this point.  There was a social health and dynamism in some of these suburban communities.  Or am I just waxing nostalgic?

One of my favorite authors, anthropologist Setha Low, wrote evocatively about how our romanticized memories of childhood security become tangled with our adult aspirations for home and community.  And for some, it’s morphed into a gravitation toward gated communities, which simulate a sense of childhood protection and trust.  There’s a kind of complex psychological process at work, that ultimately gets encoded in the built environment itself — and the ways we think about that environment.

There are obviously a lot of complicated, moving parts to this process, from the psychological to the social and even political.

I’m not sure I’m clear yet about any of this.  But I do feel like I must constantly take deliberate, conscious steps in my own mind to overcome the fear mentality, and realize that our home communities are as much — or as little — as we make them.

The day the cops accosted my son for walking his neighborhood

About two years ago, my then-13-year-old son and I were at home right around the beginning of summer vacation.  I was on a frantic work deadline.  He was bored and feeling cooped up.  In a frenzy of stress, I suggested he get out of the house and take a walk to our local library — about a mile and a half from our home.  He put on his flip-flops, grabbed his library card and iPhone, and set out.  He’d only done this a few times before, all within the previous few months.

The route to the library is along a pretty busy street where drivers typically speed.  And there’s one major intersection to cross.  I figured he could handle it.  He’s a bright kid, very responsible.

About an hour after he left, the phone rings. It’s my son on his cel phone.  He says, “Mom, can you talk to this police officer? He wants to talk to you.”  Say what?

Turns out, my son had been walking along, minding his own business, when a woman pulled her car over to him to ask if he was okay, if he should be out walking alone. Okay, granted my kid is short like me.  But he has a mature bearing.  And he’s white. Which seemed to put a whole different spin on this pedestrian accosting.

He told her yes, everything is under control, he knew where he was going, then continued on his way.  A few minutes later, a sheriff’s patrol car pulled up in front of him. (Turns out the woman had called the police.) The officer asked him where he was going, and could he talk to his parents to make sure he was supposed to be out like this.  Slightly dumbfounded by this unwarranted attention, my son called me and passed the phone to the officer — to confirm with me that I had actually consented to letting my child walk his neighborhood to the library.

Once he got home, it took us awhile to unpack all of this.  Here I was trying to shed my tendencies toward helicopter parenting, only to discover that we live in a helicopter neighborhood — at least when it comes to innocent-looking white kids.  Was that woman really doing the right thing by pulling up to my kid?  Wasn’t she a stranger, after all, that he probably should have run from, in the logic of her world?  In her world, yes, he should have run.  But my son inhabits a more common-sensical world, one that I’m trying like hell to instill in my kids.  I want them to feel a part of a home place, a sense of comfort and familiarity with their community. And I want them to learn resourcefulness and independence. (And for gosh sake, this is L.A. suburbia, not some bustling urban downtown.)

But I obviously stand in opposition to the fear-burdened suburbanites.  Me, with an open and optimistic sensibility about our neighborhood, and that woman who felt compelled to call the cops when she saw a young person walking alone.   Sliced another way, we were part of this larger battle between two oppositional parenting styles: the “free range kids” v. the “helicoptered” kids.  I hate to overly reduce this to a social cliché.  It was happening to us in the here-and-now, and we had to confront the implications of this incident for us, as a family.


We did take some practical steps.  My son got a California ID card to show a sheriff in case this ever happened again.  We went to the sheriff’s station to discuss the incident.  I asked the deputy on duty, what would she recommend? Let him walk? Or don’t?  She said, it’s really up to you, but if it were my kid, I wouldn’t. And then I wondered, is our neighborhood truly that dangerous?  We live in an interracial suburban neighborhood, with its upscale and modest sections.  But it’s always felt safe to me. We wouldn’t have moved here if it hadn’t.

I wondered, how are these fears and fretful perceptions shaping our very relation to public space — to the sidewalks and streets of our home communities?  Are our psyches painting these as dark and foreboding places, when in the light of day they are simply streets, lined with trees and homes housing my neighbors?

This woman — and the police power that she marshalled in her over-the-top intervention — reflects a culture of suburban paranoia, fed by vapid neighborhood “blog sites” that seem concerned only with the latest local crime or mishap. When did the public discourse about our home places get hijacked by the paranoid naysayers, who have no faith in the possibilities for well-being in our own neighborhoods?

It has historical roots.  But the sprouts and shoots that have come of this are ugly to me.  They reveal a kind of civic and social mistrust, an assumption of the worst in human nature, right in our own backyards.

My son, meanwhile, is a spark of hope.  When I asked him if he feels safe walking to the library, he answered a simple “yes.”  I’m glad he’s paying more attention to reality than the toxic fictions around us.

Is Amazon Prime undercutting all those earnest urban planners?

My latest guilty pleasure is Amazon Prime.  It’s given me this wild sense of power about shopping – totally saving me time and lots of schlepping to stores, and making the miraculous appeance of my just-purchased goods almost instantaneous.  It’s practically as fast as schlepping to buy it myself. There’s just a 2-day delay before I have that thing in my hand.  And that transport to my front porch is free.

That “free” part gives me that sense of power I just mentioned.  How easy is it to just search, peruse, and one-click your way to stuff, without having to pay an extra cent to get it in your hands?  What a miraculous logistical feat they’ve accomplished, those people over at Amazon.  But then comes the guilty part.

It’s late morning on a Saturday. I’m sitting here at my computer, and I glance out the window that faces our street, and I see some guy’s car pull up in front of my house. He takes out that familiar brown rectangular Amazon box, with the black strip on it. And he runs it to my front porch, then speeds off.  Are these Uber drivers?  It’s not UPS or Fed Ex.  It’s some guy schlepping around on a Saturday delivering a BBQ cover I ordered, and didn’t bother selecting anything but my Free 2-Day Shipping… because it’s FREE and because I could.  Way too tempting to pass up.


Then I started thinking, wow, this is so environmentally irresponsible.  That one little click of my mouse sent a whole logistical behemoth the size of some minor country into motion — the picking the good from the warehouse, the packing, but especially the transporting that box from some warehouse by god-know-what means to some distribution point, and into some guy’s car which drove its way up to my house on the cul-de-sac.

For all of the great work that urban planners and reformers are doing these days, trying like hell to educate us about the blessings of sustainable metropolitan design — building places in more compact ways, promoting mass transit, touting regional approaches, creating walkable places, reducing suburban sprawl … all in the name of protecting the environment and curbing pollution that comes with careless suburban development — I fear that a thing like Amazon Prime is un-doing so much of this, with that one-click.

The fact is, the suburbs are here, they aren’t going anywhere. We have to figure out how to soften the ill effects of this existing landscape.  Densifying things is great.  Retrofitting is fine.  But if we have a whole other set of players and their emerging infrastuctures (like on-line retailers) cooking up cheaper and cheaper — but more environmentally taxing — ways to feed our consumption habits, it starts looking like the urban planners/designers are walking up a down elevator that’s going faster and faster.  There are so many moving parts to the equation of metropolitan living these days.  I don’t envy the planners.  They have to master not only the realities of place and space, but also the hyper-dynamic pace of techno-economic change.

In the meantime, I’m going to switch over to binge-watch that new series “Red Oaks,” about some suburban New Jersey country club in the 1980s.  Thank god for my Amazon Prime.