Jan 19, 2012

Suburbia Superbia

In the US and Australia, there is a long tradition of viewing the suburbs as places of stagnation, dullness, narrowness, bigotry and domestic unhappiness. The word "dystopia" is frequently used.

I'm sick of this. This view is not my experience, nor that of most people who live in the 'burbs. And I'm here to tell you, when you're raising a family, the suburbs are completely magnificent!

It's not like this:

It's more like this!:

Image: W Magazine

Now, clearly, if you are young and/or single, you are not going to go out and buy yourself a three-bedroom brick veneer in the 'burbs. Why would you? Of course you're going to prefer your studio apartment in the city - or perhaps if you are a little older, your 2-bedroom apartment or miner's cottage on the city fringe.

And that's all as it should be. But trust me, when you have kids, you are going to start longing for that 3-bedroom house with a backyard, close to schools, parks and shopping centres. Maybe not with your first kid - you have the first, you kid yourself, we can still do this - but when the second comes along, BAM, suddenly that city-fringe miner's cottage is way too small, and before you know it you've bought yourself a house in the 'burbs. And more than the shame, resignation and defensiveness that you feel with this move, is a stronger, welcome feeling: relief!

Life in the suburbs with kids is pretty great. You have space and a backyard, you're close to everything and the kids have friends nearby. You can relax outside, hang clothes on your line, store stuff in your garage, walk your dog, hang out at home or go out. You can have people round for barbecues or drinks or dinner or lunch, and you have room (well, you should; we don't always because we work too much and our house is a mess!)

Suburbs do not automatically mean McMansions, SUVs and home theatres, or narrow views and horrible politics.

People who live in suburbs are not selfish or self-involved any more than people living in cities are.

Millions of people live in houses in the suburbs, and as long as people have families they are always going to want to. Instead of mocking these desires as wrong or unthinking, doesn't it make sense to think instead that, perhaps, there are logical reasons behind the choices made by millions of people?  I'm of the behavioural economics school of thought myself - I don't believe that millions of people living a certain way or doing a certain thing are stupid; people aim to live the smartest, most efficient way they can with the resources they have.

It's fairly common now to mock the "suburban dream", and during the worst excesses of the housing bubble more and more commentators recommended eschewing home ownership for a more nimble way of life renting and saving money, supposedly "as Europeans do". Yet nothing, at the end of the day, equates to "owning" a house (even if you are paying it off over 30 years). It's a bit of peace and stability where you can truly relax, do what you want with it (within reason) and not have to worry about finding the next place if the landlord sells it.

We romanticise Europe and life in the big cities like Paris and Rome - but people there are not living in cramped flats out of choice. And life in those cities is a whole lot harder than it looks, or how it feels when you're on holiday or living and working there in your energetic twenties.

In Almost French, Sarah Turnbull, an Australian, tells the story of how she moved to France. She falls in love with a Frenchman and moves to Paris to live with him, but is appalled to find that he lives in a regular house in a Parisian suburb. She basically makes him sell up and buy a flat in an arty part of the city, where they carry their groceries three flights up, eat chocolate croissants for breakfast and drink coffee on their iron balcony overlooking the charming rooftops that accord so much better with our image of "Paris".  I actually loved this book - but I have found myself wondering if they still live in that flat, and if so whether they have kids...

As a child I lived in a few places but always in the suburbs and my memories are happy. The best place we lived was in a cul-de-sac in Glen Waverley where all the kids played in the front yards together and all the grown-ups knew each other. We played with all the kids in the street (except for the kids of the drug dealer who lived on the corner; we never had anything to do with them apart from one memorable day when they invited all the kids round to swim in their pool, in a vain attempt to integrate into the neighborhood and probably get some friends for their poor kids. The drug dealer had tattoos and wore a jaunty hat, and he and his wife were vey friendly. But they had a truly savage guard dog all the kids were terrified of, and he sat holding its collar so we could get in the pool and then let it go. We all huddled in the middle of the pool terrified while the dog ran laps around it barking at us viciously, while the drug dealer assured us "don't worry, she can't hurt ya!", until we all cried and said we wanted to go home and he admitted defeat).

I lived for a few years in Greece, dividing my time between white-washed houses in Santorini and a flat in the middle of Thessaloniki. I loved them both, as I loved my time living in a student flat in Auckland, pubs in London and flats in Elwood and St Kilda in Melbourne. For some time after I came back to Melbourne I missed my time overseas and wondered what direction my life would have taken if Y. and I had stayed in Greece. But as much as I liked to ponder my alternate, cosmopolitan life in Europe, I think I always knew I would end up back here - full circle - in a cul-de-sac in the suburbs.

Life's funny like that.

Suburban bliss:

You can get your kids to help sweep up when they're about two.
They're not so interested after that.

Our girls, when they were toddlers, in the traditional suburban
backyard wading pool. Among my happiest memories as a
young kid and with my own kids.

This photo makes our scrabbly backyard look pretty amazing!
Jacaranda litter does wonders.

Where are these flowers now?? Nowhere to be seen unfortunately.
One of my infrequent attempts at garden beautification. 
...And yes, we DO have a white picket fence!

Summer icy-poles - straight out of childhood, in a suburb near you




  1. Hi Jackie,

    Always lived in the burbs - always will live in the burbs. Totally agree with you.




  2. You hit the nail on the head when you said tha if you're single, childless etc wanting to be inner city. Completely agree. I've actively avoided the burbs for twenty years and can't see the attraction of them - but I am single and childless. The thought of regularly mowing a lawn is about as attractive as the thought of root canal surgery. But I can certainly see the attraction of people such as yourself - and most of my friends. Still reckon the outer suburbs of any city breed weirdos...

    1. Absolutely - city life is where it's at for the footloose and fancy free. Would be very isolating living in a suburban brick veneer by yourself I would imagine! I love the inner city areas too - just can't live there anymore.

  3. I've done a fair range - Baker Street in a London bedsit (childless, single and no responsibilities whatsover);
    Share house - great when you're a student;
    Tiny flat in city fringe - coupled but childless
    Suburbs - Parents, child and dog. Weekends spent renovating, gardening and playing
    City fringe miners cottage - one child, arthritic dog and no interest in gardening or renovating for a while...

    ...to now. Living in an apartment in Europe and shelling out an amount of rent that would have bought us a 19C terrace in Carlton! Hideously expensive and we are still wondering (and discussing it with other expats over wine and dinner) how people here end up with security after they finish work. No-one's figured out the answer yet.

    1. That is a fair range, Kath, so you are very well qualified in any housing discussion that must arise!
      I also lived in Baker Street for a short time, in a pub. I liked the area OK but loved Twickenham, where I spent most of my London time, the most. I loved the "village" (suburban?) feel there and walks along the river to Richmond. Sigh...

      You and Pand also touched on the one great negative (for me) of suburban life: bloody gardening! Weeding! Rose spraying! Hedge trimming! Leaf raking! Annuals planting! Annuals neglecting! I'm a hopeless and frankly uninterested gardener and Y is no better. Our garden is "charmingly scrubby" (I call it) as a result .



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