Why the sprawling suburbia in America is failing

Santa Rosa Avenue (seen here) is a classic example of a stroad, which combines the wide lanes and high speed of a road with the traffic lights and exits of a street, resulting in a hectic and unsafe environment. (Photo: Evan Jackson, The Puma Prensa)

By Evan Jackson, staff writer

Suburbs are everywhere in America, and they are terrible for society in various ways. This style of civil design is responsible for our society’s dependence on cars, un-walkable cities, and various other issues. If you live in Santa Rosa you most likely live in a suburb, and the impact of this style of city planning is unavoidable.

There is no specific definition of suburbs, but they share some general characteristics. Usually, suburbs are made up of single-family homes with large yards, and these neighborhoods usually have low population densities. Locally, Maria Carrillo is surrounded by suburbs—Rincon Valley is almost entirely made up of suburbs.

The primary issue with suburbs is the low density of buildings. Single-family homes are far less space efficient than other forms of housing. This creates extremely wide and sprawling metro areas, leading to many other issues, such as a dependency on cars, inaccessible neighborhoods, and lack of physical activity. 

The reason suburbs are built this way is because of zoning laws. Zoning is a system where different areas of a city are designated for certain usages, such as industrial, residential, and commercial. In particular, Euclidean Zoning, where areas of the city that are zoned by type, such as residential, commercial, and industrial, is very common in the U.S. This means that only houses can be built in a residential-zoned area; further, you cannot open stores or standalone businesses in these areas. Since the U.S. is particularly strict with zoning this means that you will rarely see houses and stores nearby to modern residential developments. 

In addition to zoning laws, cites have other requirements, such as maximum building height and minimum parking requirements, which require extra features that encourage suburban development styles. In contrast with mixed-use developments, which are where various types of land usage such as residential and commercial, exist side by side and even one on top of the other. 

Single-family zoning is a common feature of many U.S. cities. Of the land zoned for housing in the U.S., according to the urban planning website Planetizen, 75% percent is zoned for single-family homes. This means that only single family homes can be built in those areas. The difficulty of getting land that is not single-family zoned also encourages developers to create extremely dense apartment buildings in the small areas they can access, which has led to an absence of any middle ground between small apartments and sprawling single-family homes. If you drive around Santa Rosa you will see many single-family homes and apartment buildings, but almost nothing in between. 

This system of neighborhood design also leads to high housing prices. Single-family homes are expensive, and the lack of other, more affordable styles of housing has led to extreme housing prices. This has contributed to the homelessness epidemic in Sonoma County and across California.

U.S. zoning laws create large, sprawling neighborhoods of single-family homes with shopping centers and large stores in small pockets and clusters within. Due to the large distances, it is very difficult to access stores or places of work without driving. Because trips to stores are time-consuming and often out of the way, people make fewer trips to buy groceries but buy in bulk. This encourages wasteful behavior and overbuying. According to New Hampshire Public Radio, an insane 40% of food in the U.S. is wasted.This is due to several causes, but among them is the tendency to buy in bulk. 

Due to long distances that need to be crossed to go anywhere, cities are designed for car transit and car transit only. Walking or cycling is frequently impractical due to long distances and lack of infrastructure. This is particularly unfortunate, as many trips taken by car are over short distances, with a Sonoma County Transportation Authority study reporting that 29% of car trips in Sonoma Country being less than two miles and 60% being less than five. In a world where cities were more compact and alternatives to driving more accessible, these trips could be done by walking, biking, or public transportation.

This particularly impacts children and anyone unable to drive. Without a car, you are effectively stranded in your house and immediate area, which puts a large burden on parents, who become responsible for driving their children to school and extracurricular activities alike. This is probably the origin of the soccer mom stereotype. This set-up is also detrimental to children’s mental and physical health. It makes it difficult for children to visit friends, which makes it harder for children to develop independence, not to mention they cannot as easily get exercise from walking. A Stanford study found that the walkability of cities is associated with the inequality in physical activity, which they found to be correlated with rates of obesity. 

The reliance on cars also means that city infrastructure has to be built to accommodate large numbers of drivers. Cars are very inefficient in their use of space, leading to the need for large multilane highways. According to Vox, In a car driven by a single person, 80% of the car is empty. According to the pro-bicycling group Bike Citizens, the average car in movement on a road takes up around 213 square feet per person, which is around seven times more than a bus, which takes up around 16 square feet squared per person–when at 40% capacity. These generate large amounts of road noise that can be heard for miles around, contributing heavily to noise pollution. The World Health Organization recommends maintaining noise levels under 30 decibels for good sleep, which is difficult since cars often make noises around 70 decibels. Arterial roads–like highways, are often around 80 decibels. Loud noises also cause high stress levels and higher blood pressure, leading to shorter life spans and greater risk for diseases.

This is all in addition to the severe environmental effects that large numbers of fossil-fuel-powered cars have had on the planet, causing climate change and various other negative effects. 

The car-centered city design suburbs encouraged is also very unsafe. So-called “stroads” are a common feature of many North American cities, including Santa Rosa. These are the combination of a road and a street, set up for long-distance, high-speed transit like a road, but also including stops, turns, and complex traffic like a street. A stroad is the combination of the worst aspects of both, having both high speeds and complex traffic, creating a highly unsafe environment. 

There are many things that can be done to improve our metro areas. This includes ending single-family zoning and allowing the construction of mixed-use developments. Ending strict Euclidean Zoning would make it far easier to build denser and more affordable housing, though such efforts would have to be combined with additional reforms to the building code system to eliminate other requirements such as maximum building height and minimum parking requirements. The issue is not that single-family homes exist, but rather that they are the only type of housing available in so many areas. Creating denser cities and towns, ones with more medium density housing like townhouses and duplexes, would make it easier to use alternative means of transportation, such as walking, biking, or public transport, alleviating the many problems that come with cars. 

If we wanted to we could have far more comfortable and livable cities, but only once we realize that the suburbs are a failure.

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