Suburbia: Suburbs in the Context Of Public Issues and Policies

Suburbs in the Context of Public Issues and Policies

The past 60 years have been turbulent ones in the nation's history, and have been characterized by increasing numbers of Americans flocking to the suburbs in a massive "white flight." In this environment, it is little wonder that this phenomenon has been the focus on numerous scholarly works in recent years. Some researchers have examined the suburbia phenomenon in terms of its impact on the nation's economy or the environment, while still others have used the divisiveness nature of the trend to emphasize the debate over the inequitable distribution of resources that has historically been reinforced by public policies at all levels. In the selected readings reviewed below, suburbs are considered in the context of public issues and policies which would affect their residents and to which, in one way or another, their residents had to respond. To make this assessment, this paper provides a review of four selected texts concerning these issues to determine what these responses showed about how suburbanites understood what living in the suburbs did or should entail, followed by a summary of the research in the conclusion.

Review and Discussion

In the United States today, there are suburbs, and then there are suburbs. In an increasing number of instances, American suburbia is being shaped by gated communities where residents can withdraw in their relative safe zones, secure from the numerous threats, both real and imagined, that await outside their mental and physical walls. According to Low (2003), "Gated communities first appeared in California, Texas, and Arizona, drawing retirees attracted to the weather. Currently, one-third of all new communities in southern California are gated, and the percentage is similar around Phoenix, Arizona, the suburbs of Washington, D.C., and parts of Florida" (p. 15). Such exclusive residential areas are not restricted to a given region of the country, but are rather the rule rather than the exception in many parts of the U.S. today. For instance, Low also notes that, "In areas such as Tampa, Florida, gated communities account for four out of five home sales of $300,000 or more. Since the late 1980s, gates have become ubiquitous, and by the 1990s they were common even in the northeastern United States" (p. 15). This author even mentions.".. futuristic suburbs as entirely gated, where the only escape is through the Internet" (Low, p. 15).

From this perspective, suburbia is becoming almost synonymous with paranoia, with the response of many American citizens apparently being the overwhelming need to withdraw from the larger social sphere and the perceived dangers that lie within in which they otherwise live and work to these secluded and exclusive pockets of their like-minded fellows. According to Low, "The gates, walls, and guards are thought to deter crime by keeping whose who are potential criminals out. It is of little comfort that the crime statistics suggest that they would be quite safe in traditional, ungated suburbs" (p. 122). Despite this misperception concerning the relative safety afforded by a gated or otherwise exclusive and restricted community setting, the fact remains that these are powerful factors in how and why people live where they do today, assuming they can afford to live where they want.

In the past, and to a large extent today perhaps, the harsh reality was that the primary factor involved in these distribution patterns within and without cities was the desire for one race (e.g., whites) to get away from another race (e.g., blacks et al.). As Low points out, "Racism is a major contributor to patterns of urban and suburban separation and exclusion in the United States. Cities continue to experience high levels of residential segregation based on discriminatory real estate practices and mortgage structures designed to insulate whites from blacks" (p. 18). While racism continues to play a large role in where and why people live today, things are changing and there are signs that such segregated living arrangements are going to depend on factors other than race in the future.

Although American communities differed - and continue to differ -- in how they addressed these issues, there is ample evidence in the literature and empirical observations to suggest that blacks were not made to feel too welcome if they did move to the suburbs, and given the harsh reception that awaited many of them, it is not surprising that the exclusion of these outlying regions by virtue of white flight to the suburbs was amplified by the fact that many blacks did not want to live there after getting a taste of the radical reactions that characterized many such instances. In this regard, Low adds that, "Blacks are less likely to move to the suburbs in the first place, and then more likely to return to the city. Residential proximity to blacks intensifies whites' fear of crime, and whites who are racially prejudiced are even more fearful" (p. 18). This shift from race to other factors such as education and affluence is described by Low as being an inherent part of the response from suburbanites to threats to their perceived mutual interests: "Whiteness in the context of the suburban United States, however, is not only about race, but is a class position and normative concept. Whiteness is defined by a person's 'cultural capital' -- that is, the ability to have access to and make use of things like higher education and social graces, vocabulary, and demeanor that allow one to prosper or at least compete within the dominant culture" (Low, p. 18).

The retreat to gated communities today, then, may be based on factors other than race and blacks or any other minority member with the right credentials will likely be welcomed in a growing number of these otherwise-exclusive communities. At the risk of appearing as a hypocritical "oreo," even the most exclusive suburbs can be regarded as becoming available to blacks and people of all races, provided that they are sufficiently affluent and well educated, and meet the other criteria established by the local community for inclusion. Indeed, as Low points out, "It is also a sense of entitlement to certain privileges that are out of the reach of others. Thus middle-class whiteness is defined as much by mainstream acceptance of norms, values, and life expectations as by race or ethnicity" (p. 18).

In reality, though, there are several forces at work that tend to encourage this division of humanity into different pockets of economic and educational status. For example, according to Low, one force at work is the resident themselves: "Residents of middle-class and upper-middle-class neighborhoods often cordon themselves off as a class by building fences, cutting off relationships with neighbors, and moving out in response to problems and conflicts" (p. 18). In addition, there have also been public policies that have directly encouraged this division: "At the same time, governments have expanded their regulatory role through zoning laws, local police patrols, restrictive ordinances for dogs, quiet laws, and laws against domestic and interpersonal violence that narrow the range of accepted behavioral norms" (p. 18). Finally, there have been some public policies that have encouraged these divisions in less apparent ways. In this regard, Low notes that, "Indirect economic strategies that limit the minimum lot or house size, policing policies that target nonconforming uses of the environment, and social ordinances that enforce middle-class rules of civility further segregate family and neighborhood life. The gated community is an extension of these practices" (p. 18). Likewise, Haynes (2001) suggests that the suburban sprawl that took place following World War II was not a haphazard occurrence, but was rather the product of public policies that actually encouraged this growth in both intended as well as unexpected ways. The response by suburbanites to these public policies would therefore depend on how well these policies supported their own interests.

According to Rome (2002), though, the move to gated communities by millions of suburbanites has created an untenable situation for the country today that will not be solved by such public policies. The energy-hungry housing that exists in most of these communities, Rome says, is a direct result of the short-sighted public policies that were implemented following the end of World War II in the rush to provide housing for the boomers who were to quickly follow. Indeed, it was during this period in the nation's history that conspicuous consumption became especially pronounced, and the commute to and from the cities served by the suburbs required enormous amounts of fuel. These constraints, though, were considered to be worth the trade-off in convenience and cost because energy was abundant and cheap, and the country, by virtue of federal legislation, media attention and the corporate world, was becoming increasingly accommodative of this extravagant and energy-costly and environmentally irresponsible suburban lifestyle (Rome).

While exclusivity is now the hallmark of exclusive gated communities, then, and public policies have been used to encourage their development in many cases, it is also…