“Suburbs provide a spatial pattern of social life that, in my view, actively erodes the interactive social foundations of everyday life, thereby, in time, leading to an erosion of democratic sensibilities and democratic life. Whereas urban environments are characterized by diversity, a density of social interaction, and a constant exposure to difference and newness capable of spawning a sense of openness and constant sense of newness, and ways of innovating and exploring what Georg Simmel referred to as “the technique of life,” suburban life is characterized by an isolation from those very activities and external forces. It is defined by the fact that one can isolate oneself from community; it is the spatial manifestation of the liberal political and cultural utopia: to be able to separate public and private at one’s own whim and be able to live unencumbered by the various obligations of public and social life.”
This is a passage from a recent piece by Michael J. Thompson entitled “How Suburbs Destroy Democracy", publish in MONU. Obviously Thompson does not write as a detached or disinterested analyst. He is pro-urban, skeptical about the benefits of an increasingly suburbanized America. He also paints with broad brush strokes here and there. Still the piece is well worth reading.
Thompson, building on the work of other scholars, describes what some are calling the rise of the “new Puritanism” in American life. The new Purtianism is less about traditional family values (although in many parts of the country the suburbs are certainly bastions of conservative cultural values) and more about a central focus on the family itself. The desire to “intensify familial relations through the simplification of social environment” is, according to Thompson, the goal of suburbanization. “Suburbanization winds up leading an erosion of diverse communities, and the emergence of the possibility for individual isolation within the framework of a uniformly homogenous society. For them, as with some other critics of the time, this was leading to an aimless and indeed empty social and cultural life which was something wholly new in modern life and individual consciousness.” The cultural effects of suburbanization bleed into political ones. “The increased emphasis on individual and family life has led to a new provincialism that becomes ignorant of other cultures even as the world becomes increasingly global and interdependent in nature. Urban areas provide increased access to newer, denser social networks and expose their inhabitants to difference and modern urban life tends to have more liberal, more tolerant political values as opposed to suburban and rural areas effects on critical political reflection and participation.”
Suburbanization undermines democratic culture in two ways. First, it decidedly tips the balance of the pursuit of self-interest on the hand and participation in civil society on the other. A lack of rich cultural institutions in the suburbs leads to a radical privatization of life. Lack of shared public space it is argued leads to a lack of a shared public life. (Unlike the city, where people sit on stoops and porches, the suburban sphere of leisure is the private and secluded back deck.) A lack of public cultural institutions, the sort that are the foundation of modern liberal democracy, results in suburbanites dividing their time between the work and family spheres, arguably the least democratic spheres in American life.
There are certainly exceptions to Thompson’s rules. My wife and I found Princeton to be a cultural hotbed that fostered values we found progressive and tolerant. And the rise of the metropolitan area often makes it difficult to discern just where city ends and suburbs begin. But generalizations aside, I’m glad I live in the city, although the city wage tax in Philadelphia might one day drive me to the cultural wasteland Thompson loathes.