What's Wrong with the 'Burbs?

June 26, 1993

Boring. Lifeless. Cookie-cutter. Selfish. Escapist. Polluting. Consuming. Wasteful.

Recognize the place? It's the suburbs.

Of course, we don't believe all that, but many people do. At a recent seminar at the Maryland Institute in Baltimore, Andres Duany, a noted architect from Miami, contended that the suburban model that has evolved over the past four decades conflicts with everything that worked about communal living in the hundreds of years prior.

"Suburbia is an awful place to be young and an impossible place to be old," Mr. Duany told the gathering of architects, developers and government officials. "Why do you think we have so many retirement communities now? Because once you lose your driver's license, you can't exist in suburbia."

Mr. Duany may be saying it most abrasively, but he's not the only one wondering about what suburbia has wrought. In this region, Harford County Executive Eileen Rehrmann has set up a panel to explore ways to ensure that her rapidly growing jurisdiction becomes a community, not just a commuter bedroom. The Carroll County commissioners, too, have raised concerns about their new residents, who have long drives to work. Will they have time and energy at the end of a workday to invest themselves in civic functions?

Solutions? More job opportunities in the suburbs will help. So will improvements in mass transit, such as the Central Light Rail Line that now runs from Glen Burnie to Timonium.

Many land-use planners also suggest a redesign in the suburbs to encourage communalism: better parks, narrower streets to slow traffic and a return to back alley parking to de-emphasize the automobile in subdivisions. The suburbs "have the highest quality private realms in the world -- biggest homes, best insulation, best shag carpet -- and the lowest quality public realms," Mr. Duany says.

Developers have no more precious resource than time, and government officials must use that commodity to reward builders whose projects are an asset to the community.

The rub in the whole debate, however, is that the public hasn't caught on to the professional sentiment yet. Architectural traditionalists condemn the suburbs, yet people keep moving to them. Purists declare the cul de sac an abomination, but developers maintain that's what buyers and investors demand. And though Mr. Duany and others declare the suburbs unfit for pleasant living -- with some justification -- many suburbanites see their children playing outside without fear, note the problems of crime and noise in cities large and small, and wonder what the fuss is about over the livability of the 'burbs.

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