The Beauty of the Suburbs

Posted: Sep 10, 2003 12:00 AM

Don’t look now, but you probably live in a bad neighborhood.

You might not have noticed since, if you live in the suburbs, you’re probably surrounded by good schools, low crime, friendly neighbors and tidy lawns.

But none of those things are important. Because no matter how safe you may feel, your neighborhood’s killing you.

Why? Because in many suburbs, basic services are not within walking distance. That’s supposedly stressing people out, and making them fat.

Suburban residents usually drive to work, drive to the store and drive to the bank. That may be one reason the number of miles we travel has doubled since 1963, according to Dr. Richard J. Jackson, director of the National Center for Environmental Health at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Dr. Johnson studies sprawl and, ironically, there’s a bit of it in his title, too.

Of course, there may also be less sinister explanations for why we spend so much time at the wheel.

After all, there are far more cars today than in 1963 -- in fact, a recent survey showed there are now more vehicles than licensed drivers. Motorists enjoy more miles of better-maintained roads than they did then. Plus, cars are simply better, safer and more fun to drive. Would you rather have a 1963 Chevy, or a 2004 Ford?

But Dr. Jackson is concerned about far more than the number of miles we drive. He says the number of prescriptions for antidepressants has increased, and he suggests that while suburbs were designed to make life more convenient, they may instead be sowing frustration. Other researchers consider the suburbs to be incubators for anxiety, depression and substance abuse.

Talk about depressing. This picture of stressed out parents and unhappy children sounds more like the movie “American Beauty” than the real world. In typical Hollywood fashion, that film depicted the drug dealer as the good guy, the Marine as the bad guy (it was, after all, made long before Sept. 11), the parents as clueless idiots, and the children (one of whom was indeed the drug dealer) as jaded people-of-the-world.

The movie purported to show how life in the suburbs really was, and of course won five Oscars, including Best Picture. But for those of us who actually reside in the suburbs, the picture was unrecognizable.

Now, real life is imitating reel life. As The New York Times put it on Sept. 4, “Stay-at-home wives have often complained about the isolation of suburbia, working parents point to the killer commutes and teenagers moan about the boredom. Now Dr. Jackson believes there are persuasive, if yet circumstantial, links between the suburbs and certain physical and mental diseases.”

Yes, that must be why so many people are moving to the suburbs: Because life is so miserable there.

The fact is, most stay-at-home wives do so voluntarily. If they wanted to go back to the office, they could surely find childcare and do so. Most working parents accept their commute. If they thought it was too lengthy, they’d sell their house and move closer to work. And it’s safe to say that, no matter where they are, teenagers will always complain about being bored.

But life in the suburbs is said to be bad for more than our mental health; it’s supposedly inflating our waistlines as well. The Times report also lamented that in the ’burbs, “There is often simply no sidewalk, forcing some suburbanites to put on their running shoes and pedometers inside giant malls, clocking miles as they pass the various cookie stands, ice cream shops and bagel makers.”

Imagine that. We suburbanites are so soft and weak that we can’t resist the lure of a Cinnabon as we power walk in the mall. Yet somehow, Manhattan residents manage to walk past a Starbucks on every block without ducking in for a muffin. Maybe there’s something about city life that just makes you stronger.

Studies like this simply ignore the obvious: People live in the suburbs because they like it there. They could choose to live in a city, where often they would be closer to work and could walk to stores and shops. But they prefer the safety, security and affordability of suburban life.

Urban planners and health specialists can spin the data any way they want. They can tell us we’re unhappy and unhealthy because of where we live. But many of us have voted with our feet. We’re happy in the ’burbs, and we’re staying put.

To paraphrase the great Charlton Heston: “Dr. Jackson, you can pry my lawnmower out of my cold, dead hand.”