Look at recent election maps, especially in Canada, and it is easy to spot a demographic pattern taking shape: vast swaths of residential land around cities voting conservative or worse while the urban cores they surround vote far more progressively. The US has similar patterns and maps like these are not difficult to find in other countries as well. Much ink has been spilled about the rural/urban divide in developed-world elections, but increasingly, the divide that matters is between urban and suburban voters, and the reality that makes it matter is that suburbs seem inescapably conservative. But why?
To understand that, we have to define the suburb. For our purposes, suburbs are low-density neighborhoods of mostly or exclusively single-family homes that, in North America, tend to occupy huge amounts of land within “urban” boundaries and sit outside built-up urban cores of cities. These places usually have a dendritic street pattern rather than a grid, with culs-de-sac and/or crescents branching from central arterial roads. If they have commercial establishments, they take the form of strip malls and pedestrian malls in very specific places with ample parking, which are often fenced to prevent access from any but a handful of authorized, usually car-oriented directions. They are leafy and peaceful, often with large, beautiful trees and space for both rear and front gardens. They may include parks, public swimming pools, and other outdoor amenities but usually don’t. Many are famous for having incomplete or no sidewalks, with lawns extending to the curb, and they are just as unlikely to have other sorts of pedestrian or cycling paths that do not follow the street plan. As communities with few or no commercial establishments within them that are often designed to be difficult to navigate, they depend on the urban core they orbit for most things, including the workplaces of most of their residents. The oldest suburbs, sometimes called “streetcar suburbs,” deviate from this pattern in important ways, but this definition holds for most suburbs today.
The conservatism of suburbs is not an accident. The entire model of suburbia is designed, from top to bottom, to facilitate, inculcate, and cultivate conservative values, and conservative organizers are acutely aware of this and doing everything they can to wield it to their advantage.
The above definition of suburbs has three key consequences:
- Suburbs are car-dependent, or rather, it is car-dependent suburbs that best match the analysis we undertake today. It is virtually impossible to perform the necessities of life in a suburb if one does not have access to a car, whether owned, borrowed, rented, or arranged via delivery services.
- Even when they are physically close to their cities (which is hardly guaranteed), suburbs tend not to be especially well connected to each other or to nearby urban areas. They are designed to discourage access by people who do not have a clear and specific reason to be in that neighborhood. It is not easy to wander into a suburb.
- For people not currently located inside a car, suburbs consist almost entirely of private space, not meant to be used or accessed by the public. A person in a suburb who is not currently inside a car or inside a home is almost by definition not supposed to be there.
It is from these facts that the conservatism that suffuses suburbs ultimately comes.
Something about American-style urban planning that people don’t always expect is that suburban and urban city planners agree, in principle, that speedy automobile traffic is bad news for places where people live. The issue is, they address this fact in wildly different ways.
Urban areas that are not themselves in the throes of car dependency typically manage the hazard of fast cars by having commercial and residential uses near each other and establishing frequent, reliable public transit, to reduce the fraction of people’s trips that require an automobile at all. They also typically have fewer parking spaces than peak demand thereof would indicate, which creates negative pressure that reduces car trips. Not all urban areas follow these thoughts to their conclusions and there are many, many tragic stories of towns that embrace cars in their urban cores and hollow themselves out into vast deserts of parking in the process, but successful urban places don’t. There is an understanding in these places that automobile traffic, as opposed to individual people who just really like cars, happens when driving solves a problem that many people have, and addressing automobile traffic requires making sure that, for most transportation problems, driving isn’t the optimal solution.
Suburbs take a very different approach. To designers and residents of suburbs alike, owning a car is both a sacred right and a civic duty. It is assumed not only that most people should have a car, but most people will. Car ownership is treated as a marker of adulthood and independence, the difference between a fully grown-up and independent human being versus a child who relies on others to get around. Instead of any attempt to reduce driving, suburban street plans handle traffic by making most streets not lead anywhere. This funnels cars away from the crescents and culs-de-sac and onto large arterials that connect the suburbs to central destinations, such as schools, churches, commercial zones, and nearby urban centers. The residential streets remain low-traffic by comparison despite everyone on them having a car because there’s no reason for most people to ever use them—they amount to extended driveways for their residents. This same street pattern makes it difficult to serve such areas with public transit, especially combined with the near-total lack of non-road public space that could otherwise connect bus users to bus stops. The result is that suburbs generate enormous amounts of traffic for their own arterials and for the surrounding areas that contain the places people actually want to go, but their residential streets rarely see any of it. This car-first social model means that suburban residents expect door-to-door automobile convenience wherever they go no matter how many cars, and how much car-related noise, particles, and fatalities this means their destinations must accept, and leads them to regard urban areas as unacceptably crowded, inconvenient, noisy, smelly, unpleasant places.
In short, the suburban solution to car traffic is to make it someone else’s problem. It is the classic, bog-standard conservative practice of insulating oneself from the consequences of one’s actions while freely inflicting those consequences on anyone who can’t and demanding to be coddled in this behavior the entire way rather than ever accepting that one might need to behave prosocially to exist in a shared society.
Similarly, maintaining a modern urban level of amenities, including traffic control, sewer access, road maintenance, and so on in such low-density neighborhoods makes suburbs extremely expensive for cities to maintain, well in excess of what they bring in in tax revenue, and suburbs (including their commercial sectors) are effectively subsidized by the rest of their associated city while, usually, complaining about having to contribute anything at all to their city’s well-being, in another proud conservative tradition.
The primacy of automobile travel in suburbs has another consequence on the entire fabric of suburbs and the cities they orbit. Cars are big and they can traverse long distances quickly. Facilities that aim to receive substantial number of people by automobile surround themselves with vast parking lots and garages, which increase the distance between nominally adjacent stores. Space that could be taken up by additional storefronts, landscaping, and paths becomes devoted to parking, whether there are cars currently in it or not, and this low density in retail space combines with the low density of the surrounding residential space to dramatically increase the catchment area required to sustain any business. Small businesses, and especially the rows of specialty shops that characterize well-maintained urban areas, cannot survive in these environments. The parking requirements are enough to stifle them, let alone everything else, and the number of potential visitors drops dramatically when each person passing by takes up a car of space rather than a person of space. (This has been empirically demonstrated on numerous occasions and is not controversial among people who know what they’re talking about.) That same low density means that going shopping in a commercial area always involves a drive, often a long one.
Add all these factors together, and the suburban landscape dramatically favors big-box all-in-one stores that can monopolize an entire shopping excursion over smaller retailers selling high-quality goods and services and maintaining associated expertise. It is too much of an ordeal to visit multiple storefronts on the same trip when they are hundreds of meters apart with busy parking lots and arterials between them. This is not an environment that encourages people to explore their neighborhood, on foot or otherwise, to see what hidden gems it contains. This is a setting in which people are encouraged to get in and get out, to reduce the experience of existing in the commercial space to raw consumerism, and where the only quality-of-life improvement available is convenience, not quality. I have literally watched people drive from one parking space to another within the same gigantic lot rather than traverse the path between two storefronts on foot.
In this model, civic life disintegrates almost entirely. Time spent not at home or at work becomes a nuisance chore to be endured and the world surrounding one’s destinations is bleak and hostile. The landscape dissolves into a series of dots on a map whose general landscape might as well be marked “here be dragons” for how much engagement this organizational model elicits. Here, the broader conservative ethos is as loud as the engine noise: trumpet the little guy, but favor the big guy with all your might and tell people this is “freedom.”
For all that car-dependent suburbs are not the well-off commercial powerhouses their advocates pretend they are and actually severely hamper the ability of people who work there to earn a living, their effect on the social fabric is far worse.
Suburbs were designed, from the ground up, to contain virtually no incidental public space. In a place without sidewalks, whose actual destinations are in distant commercial sectors thoroughly segregated from people’s homes, and where actually getting anywhere requires a car, anyone walking around is almost by definition an interloper, suspicious and confusing. There is nowhere for them to go, no place to gather, and nothing to do. Conversely, a person entering or exiting by car isn’t noteworthy, but neither are they amenable to any kind of interaction. Opportunities to interact with neighbors exist, whether directly via outdoor chores such as lawn maintenance or via the pubs and similar spaces that suburbs tend to keep at arm’s length because of “noise concerns,” but they are exceptions against the overwhelming pressure of the outdoor space to keep politely quiet. Once a person leaves the pub, church, community center, or other social venue and heads back to their car, they are again armored against the outside until they return to their residential castle, again surrounded by a world they treat as hostile. Suburbs have a reputation for boredom and loneliness and this is how they earn it: with literal walls.
In the absence of any reason for the public space to be more than an extended, shared driveway, the private space balloons. Suburban homes have been growing even as apartments in nearby urban areas shrink and even as people’s incomes stagnate to make those homes less and less affordable, and one use that additional volume finds is in private social spaces. People create outdoor table settings for barbecues, capacious living rooms for watch parties, and similar spaces they can share with invited friends. Those friends are almost certainly traveling from a long way off and unlikely to be arriving by anything other than their own armored conveyance. Socialization becomes a private affair, with casual encounters and fresh meetings rendered impossible, so social circles cannot grow, only shrink. Likewise, the near-total lack of “eyes on the street” when no one has a reason to be outside means that children spend most of their time indoors and getting shuttled around between activities, stunting their independence and sense of location until they, too, ascend to motorist status someday.
This dovetails neatly with how suburbs were originally conceived as racially segregated and, to this day, are also income-segregated. Most housing developments in the United States and Canada are built all at once at a single price point, with maybe a handful of “affordable” units included if there is a legal mandate to do so, which keeps people from different life circumstances from mingling as neighbors to even the limited degree that suburbs allow. Many suburbs also feature homeowner associations that actively work to maintain a tidy, unchanging façade across the entire development, further discouraging any kind of heterogeneity in the area.
The wider world becomes a frightening place when most of one’s interactions with it range from petty inconveniences to loud ordeals. There are few opportunities to simply exist in a non-goal-oriented way in a public space and experience the wider social fabric. The concerns of people unlike one’s own social circle become confusing and nonsensical through lack of exposure, and the concerns of people very like oneself become magnified. The suburbs are the kind of echo chamber the internet could only dream of creating, one that consumes the very landscape. No one you know cares about public transit, or poverty, or minority rights, or tenant’s rights, or labor movements, or anything else of that sort, because why would they? They’re unaffected, or worse—they’re the people who benefit from keeping those causes down. And the people who care about those things, they’re outsiders, rabble-rousers, people who want to take tax dollars away from you and your subdivision’s decaying sewer system and put it toward…what? The needs of people you barely acknowledge even exist, because you don’t have to? Never!
This is the most insidious thing that suburbs do: they isolate people. Suburbs isolate people from life’s necessities, from the broader social situation of their metropolitan area, from community, from everything but the resonant hum of their own problems and prejudices. The suburban home is a fortress on the edge of a hostile world into which people must venture to bring home groceries, income, and whatever else they seek, and everything about the suburb is designed to facilitate this grim view of existence. Suburbs get pitched as warm, pleasant places, “good for raising children” and with “room to grow,” but they are nothing of the kind. Car-dependent suburbs are, instead, where social myopia goes to fester into hatred and where people uninterested in solving social problems go to escape them. They are the domains of people whose fundamental ethos is I will make this someone else’s problem, sometimes without even realizing it, and electoral maps across North America prove that the voters of these places are holding back all manner of obvious progress in the name of their own provincial comfort. They are the dying gasp of the colonizer’s dream of a piece of the frontier, complete with the violence required to seize it.
It is not a coincidence that city-planning codes across this continent mandate that most new developments take this form, and that old developments that already have it not be changed. Conservative politicians know that these places are gardens for their voters, and they are tending the crop. The rest of us must not let them.