Suburban Isolation

By Stephen Hynes

The isolation of the suburbs is darker and more problematic than urban isolation. Suburban development patterns superficially resemble the residential organization of traditional small towns. Children help to create a sense of neighborhood, and parents meet each other in a variety of school and extracurricular activities. But beyond this there is little actual "neighborhood" in anything close to the idea that would have been understood by people in Saratoga Springs, New York; Keene, New Hampshire; Melville, Saskatchewan; or any of hundreds of small American and Canadian towns as recent as 50 years ago. Some still exist today in a socially functional form that continues to provide the warm background needed to develop and nurture our communitarian instincts.

But most traditional small towns have been gutted by the destructive dynamics of Wal Mart and suburban sprawl - closing main street and inverting population patterns to new suburban development on the outer edges. It's a suburban atomic bomb - laying waste to the center of town and dropping the people and their services like fallout in a wide ring around it.

The result is the familiar pattern of low density suburban development that requires automobiles to function. The "neighborhood" loses importance when it loses its point. Everything it once provided to the community - food, supplies, entertainment, public space - is now a car trip away. What remains is the ideal of "privacy" - amplified by having eliminated most reasons to interact with anyone.

Casual interaction in the suburbs is increasingly thought of as an intrusion. Anyone coming to the door is regarded with suspicion. The idea that the suburbs are the best place to raise children is strongly offset by the perception that the danger to children is higher now than ever before despite well documented statistics that in fact it is at the lowest level since such statistics were kept. As a consequence, newspaper deliveries are no longer made by neighborhood kids on bikes, but professional couriers in vans. Kids playtimes are far more organized than even a generation ago - with "playdates" often set up days in advance, kids delivered and picked up by automobile at precise times. This perpetuates the behaviour by training children to think the same way, as well as undermining their sense of independence and ability to choose and cultivate their own friendships. Parents become trapped by this need to move and defensively track children, complaining frequently about being nothing more than a taxi service and mobile cash machine.

The difficulties of low density suburban environments are particularly acute for the young and old, who both depend on the mobile, high functioning middle demographic for nearly all their material and social necessities. Without it they are locked in place, with little more than television and electronic media for company, making them particularly susceptible to the same isolation induced psychological anxieties and loneliness as the urban tower dweller.