Segregation by Suburbia

The United States of America is famous for “Suburbia” – the low-density quasi-urban areas that span around cities. Suburbia consists of privately developed residential areas mixed with some commercial areas that make-up small (incorporated) communities – suburban towns.

Suburban developments are strikingly homogeneous.

Residents of each suburban development are very similar in terms of social class (income) and everything that correlates with that: race, education, immigration status etc.

The striking uniformity comes from how these residential developments come to exist. For real-estate developers it makes perfect sense to build a “suburb” that targets a certain income-based consumer segment. Simply put, for real estate developers it makes sense to build 100 homes each of them around X00,000 USD. The striking homogeneity of American suburbia is the outcome of marketing strategy.

There are areas with products (houses) for people who can pay 3000,000 $ and there are other areas for people who can pay 600,000 $ etc. The huge majority of suburban developments don’t have much variety – in the same development to have houses of 200,000 $ and houses of 1,000,000$.

While the situation makes perfect business sense, its implications for society and politics are huge.

Most American residents of “suburbia” move to these developments around the time they have children, because they want their children to grow-up in safe environments and because living costs in large urban areas are prohibitive once you have to have more than 1-2 bedroom houses.

Try to imagine the world through the eyes of a small, growing-up, white, upper-middle-class child.

You have been living in “suburbia” since before you were aware of your own existence. The huge majority (all?) other children and their parents are strikingly similar to you and your parents. You have similar (the same?) toys as the other children you know and you are driven in a car that is strikingly similar to the ones other children are driven in.

You see people who are different from you and your parents only seldom: on TV, at the supermarket etc. At school, you see some “different” people, but most of them are not your peers or your teachers.

As far as you know, this is how the world (reality?) is and, even, how it should be. Moreover, from your caring and protective parents you learned the famous “stranger = danger”.

Later in life, you come to interact with a more diverse crowd, but your comprehension of “the different people” lacks the deep-understanding of their background and their up-bringing. This is not to say that you’re lacking knowledge and even empathy. It is to say that you needed to learn consciously about their background and not through directly witnessing their “reality”.

A personal note:

Some of our American (white, upper-middle-class) friends don’t understand why my wife and I don’t move to “suburbia” and we continue to pay a ridiculously high rent on a one-bedroom apartment in the city.

Aside from the facts that we like city life and Old Town Alexandria being a charming area, there is another reason:

Cities bring diversity much more than “suburbia” does.

The area in which we live is generally rich (house values between 600,000 and 2,000,000 USD), but it also includes some blocks of social housing populated by poor African-American families. The area also has lots of restaurants whose kitchen staff is mostly Hispanic.

A few months ago, there was a deadly shooting literally 3 streets from where we live. About a year ago, there was another deadly shooting 4 streets away. Both victims are African Americans.

I don’t enjoy living in an area where people are shot dead, but by living in this area, I don’t have the illusion (delusion) that gun-violence is something that happens somewhere far-away and it doesn’t concern me directly.

One day, as I was walking to the supermarket (another benefit of city life), I saw the utter grief of people who came at a memorial service held at one of the shooting sights. Another day, passing by the same spot, I over-heard two African-American school-girls casually talking about the shooting; one of them mentioned someone’s brother being in jail.

The blocks of social houses aren’t only about negative and bleak episodes. There’s one old lady who sits in front of her house and always says “hello” when I walk by. There are children playing in the communal playground and, around 4-5 PM, school buses drop off joyful children.

Once, when I was walking on a larger street, a Hispanic gentleman complimented my shoes and told me that they must have been very expensive to buy. I thanked him for the compliment and told him that they costed $80. His facial expression showed surprise and he nodded his head confirming that the shoes were expensive. I have to admit that, in my view, $80 isn’t very much for a pair of shoes, but I suddenly became very aware of my privileged status.

As we were both heading in the same direction and walking at the same speed, we ended up chatting for a few minutes. I learned that he is from Honduras, works as a cook at a restaurant nearby and has 6 children. He asked me how many children I have and I told him that I don’t have any. He then asked how old I am and when I answered 33 (at the time) he was very surprised and even a bit baffled that a 33-year-old man doesn’t have children.

Such interactions and exposures to the lives of people who are different from you are virtually impossible in “Suburbia”.

In my talk at the AMSRS conference in Melbourne, I mentioned that in order to solve the big, complex societal problems we face in XXIst century, we need BIG Design. The USA lacks big(ger) and diverse communities and this is part of the problem when it comes to building a cohesive society.

Whether you enjoy “suburbia” with its white fences, perfectly aligned drive-ways and enormous living-rooms or you find it appalling, you have to think about its broader effects.

In my view: Suburbia Segregates.


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