Document Type

Symposia Article


In Bourgeois Utopias, a cultural history of suburbia in America, Robert Fishman states the fundamental paradox about the suburbs: “[H]ow can a form based on the principle of exclusion include every-one?” The promise of the American suburb was that every middle-class family would be able to own a home with a yard, but this egalitarian ideal was illusory because what made the suburbs appealing was precisely what it excluded, namely everything having to do with the city—its congestion, political corruption, and most importantly, its racial diversity. And so, as suburbia was mass-produced and made avail-able with cheap low-interest loans to white middle-class families, racial minorities were rigidly excluded.

Although several waves of demographic change have reshaped the suburbs over the generations, this paradox remains evident today. Suburbs are becoming more dense and more diverse as many minorities have migrated from “inner cities” toward first-ring suburbs, and immigrants have found welcoming enclaves in the suburbs. But while suburbs have grown more diverse, they have also grown more segregated. High opportunity suburbs with plentiful jobs and good schools mandate low-density sprawl through zoning regulations, like mini-mum lot size and floor area requirements, parking mandates, and set-backs, that have the cumulative effect of making housing scarce and expensive. Only the very affluent or those lucky enough to have purchased a home years ago are welcome in these places. Racial minorities who, thanks to the earlier generation of suburban exclusion, have not had the opportunity to build the inter-generational wealth that is often a prerequisite to purchasing a home in the suburbs still find themselves locked out of the most desirable communities. The infra-structure of suburban communities, such as roads, sewers, and schools, are designed, perhaps deliberately, to completely collapse if the number of users increases by even a small amount, so these communities fiercely oppose any efforts to densify and permit more housing. Even modest attempts at densification are treated as calls to destroy suburban neighborhoods. But because our society has made a decision, undoubtedly questionable in retrospect, to treat suburban homeownership as the central tool for wealth building in this country, we cannot hope to meet our national aspirations for equality without opening up our suburbs to more housing. And so the question re-mains—how can a form based on the principle of exclusion include everyone?



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