Suburbia Is Swell

by Kerry Dougherty

There are at least two groups of babbling fools that have been mercifully silent during this emerging pandemic: anti-vaxxers and the so-called New Urbanists.

No one wants to hear from the nuts who refuse to vaccinate their kids right now. The world is praying for a COVID-19 vaccine and these crazies don’t even get flu shots.

The New Urbanists have also slunk away somewhere. To their high-rise co-ops, I suppose, where they’re trying to figure out how to ride the elevator while staying six feet away from their neighbors.

You remember the New Urbanists, don’t you? They were the urban planners who polluted Virginia Beach’s strategic growth office and tried to foist a billion-dollar light-rail system on us, insisting that the only way millennials could be persuaded to stay in our fair city was if we provided them with ant colony living.

The rail stops would become dense hubs of “mixed use” activity where people could live in tiny boxes above high-end stores and markets. While these visionaries praised sardine life, they also scoffed at the suburbs.

In 2016 I noted the foolishness in all this:

I hesitate to point this out, but millennials sound exactly like we baby boomers did when we were in our 20s. We got out of college, headed to big cities and sneered at our parochial parents driving the family station wagon to the supermarket.

‘“I love walking to things,” we crowed.

Then we got married, had kids, bought minivans and moved to the suburbs where the schools were good.

Has it ever occurred to these researchers that millennials are just ordinary 20- and 30-somethings who will eventually grow up and buy lawn mowers like the rest of us?

I can’t be the only one thankful that I live in suburbia as The Great American Lockdown gets underway.

Unlike city dwellers, suburbanites can walk out of their homes, wander the yard or their leafy neighborhoods without violating any of the 6-foot perimeter guidelines. We can safely get in our cars and drive. Meanwhile, those who live in cramped high rises use shared elevators, common entrances and communal hallways. They don’t dare ride public transit at a time like this.

There’s one reason epidemics tend to spread fastest in cities: density. In remarks this week, Gov. Andrew Cuomo of New York was adamant about the need to reduce density to curb the spread of the Coronavirus.

Yes, yes, we know the virus will likely reach all corners of the country eventually. But a map of the earliest outbreaks shows clusters mainly in large cities, where people live cheek to cheek and use buses and subways that are crawling with pathogens.

That great Virginian, Thomas Jefferson, railed repeatedly against urban life, claiming it led to ignorance and bad health. “I view great cities as pestilential to the morals, the health and the liberties of man,” he once wrote in a letter to a friend.

And, a non-profit concerned with urban planning, conceded this in a recent piece:

A pathogen seems to turn everything good in cities into a problem. We want international business and tourism travelers. We want streets, public spaces, festivals, theaters, bars, and restaurants full of people. We want packed public transit. We want tight, socially-connected communities, in which people see friends and family all the time. The things that make cities vibrant and prosperous all involve human connections, and that’s also precisely how the virus spreads.

Yep, for decades dreamy social engineers have ridiculed suburbia as places where only the unimaginative and uncultured live. Smart people live in cities.

But I’ve seen the photos of desperate Wuhan residents trapped on their tiny balconies and Italians singing and shaking tambourines on theirs.

No thanks.

If we must stay home, let it be far from the urban centers.

While city dwellers are stuck in their high-rises, let us shout it from our pressure-treated lumber decks: We love the ‘burbs!44

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22 responses to “Suburbia Is Swell

  1. Green Acres is the place to be –

  2. So the suburbs are a great place to live … because of an epidemic? Is this sarcasm?

    Well we all can’t be awesome suburbanites.

  3. No response, Bacon? This is your issue…(even though you and I live in a neighborhood of row houses, but otherwise quite the expansive suburban setting.)

    The Anti-Vax morons were all over the Capitol Monday March 2, protesting the legislation expanding the list of mandatory pre-school vaccinations. They lined the underground passageway from Bank Street up the Capitol itself, and the challenge was to walk the whole 100 yards without drawing a breath.

  4. Well, all I can say is that claiming age – young or old , as what makes one stupid…

    ummmmm… not convinced that the stupid were not that way all along and simply “aged in place”… but I digress… especially now days with conspiracy theories and scams that seen to draw older folks into them.

    yes… there is gonna be a whole lotta talk about the “benefits” of dense urbanism.. at the end of this and I’d be more than curious to hear Jims and Richard Florida’s “take” on it.

    Finally, I’m NOT CONVINCED that suburbia is a whole lot better than urban in this contagion.

    For instance, you’re STILL going to go to the grocery store… your doctor’s appointments, and no doubt will use public restrooms… in all their fetid glory.

    And think about it – if we are on the front and all the experts are telling us that a whole bunch of us will eventually get infected – aren’t the WalMarts and doctor offices and such going to be virtual infection machines?

    I think we’re all gonna learn a whole lot more than we think we know now – even the stupid ones .

    And fiscal conservatives – lord, lord, it’s gonna be tax & spend hell for a long, long time and guess who is going to pay for all of this after it subsides?

    one guess …. bend over and assume the position…

  5. “the so-called New Urbanists.”

    Guess that includes me, a title I am proud of, one that does not exclude various other hats I wear with pride too, including New Suburbanist, New Ruralist, waterman, too.

    We Americans need to get beyond our greatest plague today, our dropping back onto tribal times, stereotyping, labeling, hating and judging harshly other people by where they live, where they were raised, who birthed them, or what their traditions, beliefs and native cultures are. Lets stop acting like fascists, rabid leftists, and or cult members. Lets become responsible, caring adults again.

    • You’re a waterman? Given we’re all cooped up for the foreseeable future … do tell … how are you a waterman? I know quite a few watermen. You may well be one. I mean no disrespect but I am genuinely interested in your efforts as a waterman. Very tough way to make a living.

  6. “You’re a waterman? Given we’re all cooped up for the foreseeable future … do tell … how are you a waterman? I know quite a few watermen. You may well be one. I mean no disrespect but I am genuinely interested in your efforts as a waterman. Very tough way to make a living.”

    Of course, I am not a waterman by the terms you with your special knowledge use, one who earns a living on the water, and of course that is not the way I was using the term, but instead talking about various places we live and inhabit, and using that as a basis to judge and categorize people, and along with that nobody owns names and terms, which have whole varieties of different meanings to different people.

  7. Well Kerry,

    I’ve long been a defender of suburbia on this blog. If all of the tax money taken in Virginia’s suburbs was spent in Virginia’s suburbs there wouldn’t be a transportation problem – at least not in the suburbs. But the same leeches who suck up the money from the suburbs are the same people who can’t go a day without criticizing the suburbs. Odd.

    But here’s the quandary – in today’s world wealth comes from the cities (and the suburbs). The opportunities are in the cities and the suburbs. The population growth is in the cities and the suburbs. So – how do we account for this growth in a sensible way? Virginia’s economically distressed geographies continue to falter. They continue to want more and more money from the more densely populated areas. If the suburbs don’t continue to grow (into effectively “cities”) where will the economic growth occur?

    Virginia has no real cities. Yes, there are legal entities that are called cities. Some are counties that adopted a city charter but are still basically counties. Others are undersized mid-density affairs like the so-called City of Richmond. These may be great places to live but they lack the economic power of an Atlanta, a Charlotte, a Nashville, an Austin &tc. For the last century Virginia has followed an Old South approach reminiscent of Mississippi or Alabama rather than a New South approach like Georgia and North Carolina. In Virginia (and Virginia alone) cities are not in counties. This kills regional cooperation. Annexation is banned. This fosters the suburban sprawl that the anti-suburban crowd loves to decry. Virginia has a strict implementation of Dillon’s Rule. This kills local initiative in favor of autocratic rule by that cadre of part timers we send to Richmond. You’ll constantly hear our politicians complain about our dependence on a fickle federal government but you’ll never see those same politicians make the changes necessary to actually encourage city-scale development that is the basis of non-federal growth around the country.

    Virginia needs real cities from an economic viewpoint. Otherwise, we need to start telling the “welfare geographies” to de-populate or get used to a lesser standard of living. The dolts we in the suburbs elect to the General Assembly will never acknowledge these realities. They are too busy stuffing their pockets with Dominion’s money. Meanwhile, we the suburban voters, are really the ones to blame. We elect the politicians who are in the pockets of developers. We elect the politicians who gleefully ship our money elsewhere in order to try to get more votes for their political parties outside the suburbs. We elect the politicians who lack the intellectual capacity to understand how modern effective cities are encouraged by sensible government action. The General Assembly members elected from the suburbs are failing their constituents. In the end analysis we really need to throw the bums out.

  8. I’m a big fan of New Urbanism, although I acknowledge that it’s not for everyone.

    But Kerry raises an interesting question. Do certain human settlement patterns — in particular, dense settlement patterns reliant upon elevators, mass transit and crowded sidewalks — lend themselves more readily to the spread of epidemics? Does a disease like COVID-19 spread less rapidly in the “suburbs” — e.g. low-density, auto-dependent areas?

    That’s an interesting empirical question. I don’t know the answer. But I’ll keep my eyes peeled for evidence.

    • The spread of respiratory diseases likely has a lot more to do with your household setup than the density of your neighborhood. If you live alone in the city, you likely are at lower risk of catching a virus than if you lived in the suburbs with family members who could spread the virus to you.

      Group quarters facilities, such as nursing homes, dorms, barracks, are the ideal breeding ground for viruses because residents not only come in contact with each other regularly but also each resident has different contacts outside the facility that can introduce the virus. During the Spanish Flu, the hardest hit areas in Virginia were counties with military bases but also those with coal mines. Some Virginia cities fared better than some rural counties.

    • Where is Ed Risse when you need him? Cities? Suburbs? Ex-urbs? Hard to have a productive conversation until these terms are defined. I’ll put forth my definition of a city – a single legal jurisdiction with a population of at least 500,000 with a density of at least 3,000 per sq mi. By that definition nowhere in Virginia is even close. So, we should expect less pain from COVID-19 than places which fit that definition.

      • I am with you to a point, but Virginia cities generally aren’t comparable with cities in other states. Virginia has several urban areas meeting your definition but they cross county boundaries, the way for example Austin or Houston do.

        The combined populations and overall density of Chesterfield, Henrico and Richmond is larger and more dense than Nashville City. The Nashville metro area is bigger than Richmond in population but the density level of the two metro areas is about the same. The difference is that the Nashville metro area is just bigger in area.

      • The Virginia statute hat prohibits parts of counties from forming independent cities expires at the end of fiscal 2024. I know a number of communities within Fairfax County are exploring the complicated issues related to breaking off from the County. Fairfax County has become bloated, inefficient and ineffective. Lots of people from the left to the right would like to be part of a smaller city that can control its own destiny.

  9. Let’s see. We can select our gender without regard to our DNA. We can select our pronouns. In at least some places, I could exhibit my privates in a woman’s locker room or shower if I deemed myself to be female despite male genitals . And vice versa. (I don’t care where a person goes to address nature’s call. But first ask my wife what she thinks of the cleanliness of uni-sex bathrooms.) But I’m intrinsically evil because I live in a generally suburban county.

    I’ve been trying to take a walk everyday. I see a number of other walkers. (Damn it’s a great time to be a dog; they are getting lots of extra exercise and time for sniffing.) I say hi and sometimes chit-chat from a respectful distance. It’s easier to social distance in the suburbs I suspect.

    • There’s definitely a density dimension to epidemics. It’s hard to be socially distant in an elevator. However, James City County (with a density of 370 / sq mi) isn’t doing very well at the moment.

      Yes, you are evil for living in the suburbs. In fact you are so evil that Virginians living outside the suburbs should refuse to take any of your filthy money for their schools, jails, roads, SNAP, Medicaid expansion, &tc.

      • I’m sure the circumstances in James City County can somehow be traced back to Tommy Norment and his funding from Dominion. All that dirty money is just so unsanitary.

  10. Cities changed the way they grow and develop when limited access highways came along.

    Prior to I-95 – almost no one living in Fredericksburg and worked in NoVa and commuted on Route 1 that had a traffic signal every mile or two. It was not feasible.

    There were no “exurbs”. The “suburbs” were western Fairfax and Prince William.

    Only when major limited access roads with interchanges came along was it feasible to commute from 50-60 miles away.

    These places will NEVER become part of urban NoVa or if they ever do, it will be a long time.

    The commute to exurbs is both infrastructure and energy intensive.

    The people who commute from these places pay nowhere the real cost of maintaining the infrastructure to enable their commute. The last upgrade to I-95 cost more than a billion dollars for the folks who commute from the Fredericksburg Region.

    In the meantime – all those schmucks who live north and south of DC trying to get through the DC area are pretty much toast because the commuters basically own the road system except at 2am or so.

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