Barren American Suburbs
A Norwegian perspective on the problem with American suburbia. What makes it different from a Norwegian suburb.
Some time ago I answered a question online about why us Nordics where not flocking to the USA. Why did we not go to the US to escape our oppressive taxes, enjoy a larger job market and international companies? Curious minds wanted to know.
I admit my response was perhaps a bit snarky. I do believe in being nice online, but having heard rants about how America is the greatest place on the planet for too many years, there are just times when a fuse blows in my head. I could write a whole story on the stuff people have told me over the years, but that is for another time.
Anyway this question caused me to write a point about why I preferred Nordic cities:
Cities are not massive subdivisions divided by multi-lane highways, where life only exists at the strip mall or in empty suburbia. There is actually a diverse urban culture, with nice walkable downtowns. And even if you live in the suburbs, there is something there. You may find train stations, subway stops. A square with stores and restaurants. Parks, playgrounds. Hiking areas etc.
The response I got made me realize, that what me and perhaps many other Europeans think about the American suburb is simply not apparent to a lot of Americans. We simply talk straight past each other because our reference points on what a city means is a so profoundly different. Here is the response for clarification:
Oklahoma City has many excellent museums, amusement parks, an excellent riverfront and hiking area, but we are also only just an hours drive from several lakes where we enjoy boating, hiking, or just to set and look at the (small) mountains. Or if we wanted larger mountains, a few more hours and we could visit the Colorado Rocky Mountains, and hike through ancient Anasazi ruins.
What this American describes is he ability to get into a car and drive to different activities. But that has really nothing to do with my concept of what an urban life is. Nor does it capture what I find so soul crushing about the American suburb. So I decided it has to be shown with pictures. What is better than simply picking a arbitrary neighborhood in the US?
Here you can see my issue with American suburbs. Sure these places look pretty, but all you got is endless rows of houses neatly arranged, each one spaced at exactly the same distance from the road. Where are the local stores? The playgrounds, the little parks? The benches to sit on. A local pre-school? I mean just give me anything, besides yet another house with a front yard and a back yard. Here is what one of these streets would look like from Google street view.
Pretty much every American suburb street looks like this. Lines of houses, well kept front lawns and drive ways with garages for the cars. It just keeps going like this one street after the other.
If you drive to the closest main road you may find some kind of strip mall. Some arbitrary store by the road.
Okay so I have kind of set the scene. These places are desolate for lack of a better word. You drive along a wide street, find the store selling what you want, park in front and walk in. You don’t know whether you are looking at the post-apocalypse or not, because you cannot actually see any people around or about.
Now let me pick a rather arbitrary area not far from where I live in Oslo, Norway, because I was recently there shopping.
This aerial shot is not from downtown Oslo. You are still very much in the suburbs. While it may not be entirely clear from the picture you can see labels showing an optician, toy store, cafe, two restaurants, pharmacy, optician, two different grocery stores, a fast food place, a bank, a tram stop to take you downtown, a park and right outside this picture a skateboard rink.
In other words there is stuff going on there. But let us look at how it looks different from a strip mall dotting the outskirts of American suburbs.
I am not claiming any of this represent some kind of architectural pearl. This is Norway and not Venice. However I will claim there is a very different urban vibe and sense of space. Notice you don’t have a big parking lot in front with a bunch of cars parked. Instead there are actually people out and walking. There is a square between the buildings where people can actually meet and hang out. The cafe Kaffebrenneriet has outdoor seating to enjoy the sun.
This is an example of stores in the neighborhood. But what about the neighborhood itself. What I complained about is how American suburbs don’t really have public spaces. Here is an example of what I mean close to where I live in Oslo.
This is just one of many small playgrounds and public areas dotting the neighborhood where I live. There is also a slide which you cannot see. You may also notice an absences of car roads so ubiquitous in the American suburb. In fact large tracts of my neighborhood is connected by footpaths. Car traffic is kept outside. I can take my kids walking all over the neighborhood with their scooters, stopping by different playgrounds, without ever being close to a car road. In fact my kids can walk to school on these footpaths from our house. The bridge below takes them across the car road from our house to their elementary school.
If it is hard to imagine exactly how you would arrange a neighborhood this way, I give a more detailed explanation here: Organization of Norwegian Suburbs.
Or read about an entirely different style of neighborhoods: American Sprawl and Dutch Neighborhoods.
I am not writing any of this to suggest one kind of suburb is superior to the other. American cities are very well designed for car driving. It is very easy and convenient to get around, more so than in Norway. However if like me, you want a suburb to be more than just a long line of houses with drive-ways then American suburbs simply don’t have an appeal. Yes, there are exceptions to the rule. There always is. I am just talking about what the suburbs are like in general.
If you want a suburb where you can easily bike or walk to do you activities such as shop, meet friends, go to school, go hiking etc, then I would argue Norwegian suburbs are better designed for that purpose. Not to mention giving children autonomy. Here they can travel on bikes, scooters or their legs to various playgrounds, sandboxes, slides or their friends.
And it is not just about kids. Teenagers also want some space. My neighborhood is actually among the poorer ones in Oslo where the majority are immigrants. Many like to have some time for themselves away from parents and crowded families. In this neighborhood there is plenty of public areas and space to hang out. You can go walking in the evening and find teenagers hanging out on one of the benches along the footpaths.
It is one of the things that surprised me about living in America observing teenagers. Their lives seems very controlled by parents. And it is kind of obvious in a car oriented society where going and doing anything requires a car ride.
Teenagers in Oslo don’t need a car e.g. to go hiking or go to the beach. They can walk, bike, take the subway or a bus. There is a rich network of public transportation. I don’t have a car in fact, and I am regularly hiking in the forrest as that is only 10–15 minutes walk from my house.