We all live in an NYC suburb


Last month I flew to LA. This month I’ll be off to Boston. This year I’ve been to London, New York and Toronto. I don’t think that this makes me in any way special—or unusual. A lot of people travel for business. Nor do I particularly like travelling, and I’m not even a frequent flyer.

But naturally, when I have to travel, I think about my own particular geographic choice of a home base, and I’ve found that living here in St. Stephen—or St. Andrews—isn’t much of an imposition to global travel. It just adds an extra hour in commute time to the Saint John Airport. Once there I’m just another international traveller who has to make sure all his personal grooming stuff is in tiny bottles and fits into a small Ziplock baggie so you can clear the security checks.

You get to learn other tricks too. Like not wearing metal through the metal detector. Believe me, that trick seems to elude a surprising number of people. Another is wearing slip-on shoes, because you have to take them off to clear international security. I’ve found that wearing a sport coat is handy, too, since they make you take it off and run it through the X-ray machine. That means you can put your watch, change and other metal objects in the coat pockets before you walk through the dreaded metal detector.

Enough of the travel advice. The point is, you can live and work almost anywhere on the planet these days, as long as you have a client or two willing to pay the bills. But even if you don’t do any long distance travel at all, you’re still living in a suburb of some big metropolis. We all are. When we go shopping, we go to the same box stores that we’d find pretty much anywhere in North America. The local Sobey’s store is probably nicer than the ones around Halifax. Across the river in the US, the Wal-Mart is another clone of the Sam Walton’s corporate DNA. The Burger King and McDonald’s are other clones. The only difference with our particular suburb is that it’s a bit smaller than most. But not a lot.

Which brings me to the real point—the idea of suburbs as living spaces. Overlooking the curious notion of St. Stephen being a suburb of any place, how—and why—did so many of us choose the suburbs as our main headquarters for domestic bliss?

You’d have to go back to the modernists back in the 1920s and 30s, guys like Meis van der Rohe and Frank Lloyd Wright. It was Wright in particular who promoted the idea of completely designed communities, and penned the model homes to fill them. The entire business, of course, was predicated on the emergence of the automobile as the primary mode of transportation, and one that could “free” ordinary people to live much further away from their workplaces.

Today, the border town of St. Stephen is experiencing the last gasp of this phenomenon with the completion of its portion of the new four-lane highway that will one day connect Saint John to the US. Soon, commuters could live here and work in the big city—if gas prices stay low enough. Which is a big “if.”

Despite high fuel costs, suburbs are likely here to stay. After all, invention is the mother of necessity. Once you’ve had the comfy and affordable large house and big back yard, why would you want a cramped condo in the city?

And the thing that could sustain the suburb is not the car but the Internet. Today, a good portion of our social contact, shopping, information gathering—and yes, work—can be done online. You don’t even need to get out of your pajamas to do a good day’s work. Which means that St. Stephen is as good a place as any, especially if you love the local environment.

So what’s missing in this ideal picture? Well, the chief characteristic of a suburb is its bedroom quality; it’s a good, safe place to raise kids. But suburbs tend to lack vital, viable downtowns. They also tend to lack diversity, offering instead a predictable uniformity of both architecture and residents. So when you put it all together, suburbs are often arid cultural deserts. Sure, you can offset this with DVDs, satellite radio and TV, surfing the Web and taking the occasional cultural trip to the big city.

Of course, some suburbs and small towns have flourishing downtowns—and do offer more of the social diversity we crave. But even then, there’s not enough going on to keep our young people satisfied. Their hunger for cultural experience draws them away to big cities.

Still, I don’t suppose there’s anything inherently wrong with suburban living. That’s to say I’m not complaining. But it doesn’t seem to be a particularly responsible lifestyle for those of us who have to do a long distance commute to work on a regular basis, given dwindling oil reserves and growing greenhouse gas emissions.

So what’s the answer? Two come to mind. One is the need for even more focus on building a better Internet. I did a Skype teleconference with some folks in India last week and the connections were appalling. We need to build a bigger, faster pipe—and offer it at much lower monthly rates. I’m talking about investing in fibre-optic cable to the doorstep. It’s the equivalent of building the transcontinental railways a century ago. The second is solution is the return of the railway itself. Just over 30 years ago most of the rail system connecting our small towns was ripped out of New Brunswick. We could really benefit from reclaiming those roadbeds and relaying that track. To make it really work, we could turn our major highways into toll roads and deep discount rail transport.

It’s pretty simple. If we don’t invest in better transportation and communications infrastructure (and I don’t mean more highways), our suburbs are destined to become ghost towns while our larger cities like Saint John become congested nightmares. Fine for New Yorkers, but I’m not sure we’d enjoy it too much.


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