We need to talk about Suburbia

Suburbia stalks and haunts the housing debate.  Nowhere are the suburbs more physically, economically, politically, culturally and ideologically ingrained than America.  It’s hard to overstate their significance as a symbol of how this country thinks of itself.  The idea of living close, but not too close, to the city is as old as cities themselves, but in America attempts have been made to perfect the suburbs and make them the ideal of human settlement.

Radburn, New Jersey is the apotheosis of suburbia.  I visited for the first time in 2012 , but returned yesterday to try to understand more about why it’s so revered by some.  Re-reading my post from three years ago, I sound a bit grumpy and I was again as I walked along Radburn’s immaculate, tree-lined streets and pathways which seemed devoid of life.  In the back of my mind was also, once again, an awareness that for all its laudable claims, Radburn has been an enclave of privilege and exclusivity.  Studying many photos, across several decades, in the local library, I didn’t see one non-white face.

I was all ready to get back to the ‘real life’ of the city, when I passed by a house where a couple were enjoying the sun and I met Bill and Julia.  They instantly invited me to join them, offered refreshment and we chatted about Radburn and what it means to them.  Bill has lived there for most of his life and Julia for over 30 years, although both of their families were originally from less salubrious parts of New Jersey.

As with any other place, it’s one thing to read about it in a book, another to talk to people who actually live there.  Bill and Julia clearly love Radburn and I had no sense that it was just pull up the drawbridge escapism.  They value the sense of community that was – and remains – an explicit part of Radburn’s aim and identity. In this sense it seems like the antithesis to the kind of social-isolation and atomisation that is often associated with suburbia.  The much-replicated Radburn layout is designed to foster neighbourly exchanges.  In an echo of what could be said by people from many urban areas, Julia reflected hat this community spirit is somewhat reduced, particularly as new residents arrive, but don’t stay for long and as Bill eloquently put it ‘People spend more time in their air-conditioned homes and cars’.

It’s possible to view Radburn as an anachronistic exception, but as Bill and Julia testify, some people like living in the suburbs and this doesn’t have to mean monochrome mundanity.  What we mustn’t have though, is a situation as currently exists, where the interests of those who live in suburbia are allowed to dominate and denigrate those who don’t.

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The Radburn Layout

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Neighbourly clusters

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Open Space

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Julia and Bill

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8 Responses to We need to talk about Suburbia

  1. Julia says:

    So nice to meet you yesterday, Glyn, and delighted to share our special space for a brief moment in time.

    While Radburn may have the reputation as an enclave of middle/upper class white only, we have a rich and diverse population that makes our special community that much more. Please come back for Family Day weekend in July!

    Cheers!

  2. Glyn Robbins says:

    I’d love to Julia, but I’ll be back in the UK by then. But if I’m ever in Radburn again, I’ll be calling on you.

  3. tim sanders says:

    Very interesting, a fresh take!

  4. Rebecca says:

    Interesting. I’m enjoying these posts on US housing.

    I wonder if suburbs are really what they used to be. My hometown, Portland OR, was always very racially segregated, but in the last 20 years or processes of gentrification seem to have left the downtown and inner city areas even whiter than ever. Apart from the wealthy neighbourhoods, many suburban areas seem far more mixed. In fact I know there are people choosing to live in the suburbs we used to think of as bland and monochrome, in order to find some diversity.

    • Glyn Robbins says:

      Thanks Rebecca, I think you’re right. There’s strong statistical evidence that US inner-cities are getting ‘whiter’and we’re seeing a similar process in the UK. I was brought up in the east London suburbs and they have changed dramatically in the last 20 years or so. Change is what cities do and as Bill and Julia testify, some people prefer the suburbs and as you say, there may now be more reasons for doing so.

  5. Pingback: Greenbelt | Glyn Robbins

  6. Mee Tu says:

    Radburn is not segregated, though it may not exactly mirror the population of the borough of Fair Lawn as a whole. Of course, until the 1970s, there was a country-club mentality which frowned upon engaging outside realtors. Bringing neighbors together is still a challenge, even in Radburn. People are mobile and have too many distractions, but part of the challenge is an administration which considers the property to be “theirs” and not “the community’s.”

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