Ah, suburbia, that wonderful invention for the average American which has gone so terribly wrong and yet so many still embrace. At a time when we are worrying about the future generation’s digital overload, we’re making such little effort to move away from this living structure that only perpetuates our physical isolation. Urban planners and visionaries have created some incredible ideas for solutions, but none seem to stick. We need to find a way to break free from the false promises of a home and a yard of one's own.
The people who fall the hardest for the suburban dream are usually families, or couples planning to start a family. If you’re going for the trifecta - a baby, a dog, and a lawn - the suburban tract home is still your easiest route. As someone with two of the three, however, I can tell you that this checklist is misleading at best and outright counter-productive at worst.
What families really need to raise strong, resilient, and independent children is a neighborhood and a sense of community. It really does take a village, and not necessarily one with separate, isolated huts fenced off from each other. The modern village would be a place with open, natural space that’s accessible by foot without having to navigate the same streets as cars driving 40 MPH. It’s a place where parents can be at home with their windows open to hear if someone’s child needs help. It’s a place with common areas for dogs to run, for people to grow flowers and vegetables and fruits, and for people to gather socially.
This might seem like too much to ask, but this was the original intention and promise of creating a suburban landscape. Along the way, however, we traded prestige in the form of ever more magnificent homes for land and community. We traded open spaces for giant roads. Even in planned neighborhoods with amazing parks, most people have to get in a car and drive their children or dogs to reach them. It’s quintessentially American to think that Bigger is Better, but perhaps it’s time to redefine that aspect of the American dream before we’re lost in a nightmare.
The digital world, which is the latest scapegoat for What’s Wrong With Kids Today, may end up being our salvation. If the promise of virtual reality can be translated to the working world without the pitfalls of the uncanny valley, parents could work effectively from home. This would alleviate traffic and the need for ever larger roads and faster cars. We could turn that extra space into communal open spaces for play, exercise and gardening. Always-on communication can ease the modern fears of sending children out on their own. It isn’t the same level of risk/reward that kids used to have, but at least they could be free to play without the immediacy of adult eyes.
We are in the middle of a great social experiment, and the coming decades will show us the consequences of virtual versus physical socialization. More than likely, the kids will be alright no matter what path we take, and humanity will survive because we are an inventive species with a great tenacity for life. That said, the increasing signal in the noise of the internet indicates a dissatisfaction with suburban family life in its current form. If change must come, let it be in a direction that brings us closer to each other even as we find it ever harder to tear our eyes away from a screen.