By Taj Sarwar
Suburbia was once seen as the ideal place to start a family, to raise children, and to live out the ideal American existence, complete with a large home occupied by a nuclear family, a meticulously maintained yet barren green lawn, and of course, a shiny new car. In fact, many still value this suburban lifestyle and view it as the idyllic way for their children to grow up, especially after decades of its glorification in American culture. The fact is, however, that suburbia is riddled with inefficiencies and absurdities, which have had dire consequences on its inhabitants, as well as on the environment. Suffolk County, Long Island is a prime example of the structural failures of suburbia, and how these shortcomings and oversights have affected society there. From issues of inaccessibility and isolation to the dangers of development being based around cars rather than people, these problems are linked, and are rooted in the relationship that humanity has with nature.
Many of suburbia’s defining infrastructural characteristics are wholly incompatible with sustainability of land and resources. Vast parking lots, expansive yet inefficient roads, a lack of intuitive public transportation or even sidewalks in many cases, are all the result of a system which prioritizes the needs of cars over the needs of people. The consequences of such a system are prevalent in Suffolk County, where access is largely dependent on whether you have a car. Businesses, schools, clinics, grocery stores, and other essential services are all very spaced out, public transportation is sparsely available and when it is, it’s likely inconvenient and unreliable. In addition, walking or biking is not only impractical due to lacking accommodations such as sidewalks, crosswalks, and bike lanes, but it is also quite dangerous because of the volume of high-speed traffic that exists on main roads. Because suburbs are designed to be travelled by car, the risk of vehicle-pedestrian collisions are much higher than in cities, where people and automobiles may coexist. Areas with higher population density tend to have more safety regulations – lower speed limits, fewer roads, and more streets lead to less collisions and less vehicle-related deaths overall (Briggs).
An important step in remedying this problem is the elimination of the “stroad”, an inefficient, dangerous, and unproductive hybrid of a street and a road (which does not fulfill the role of either very well) which dominates much of America’s suburbs (Marohn). Suffolk County’s roads are exceptionally dangerous, as it is plagued by these unsafe stroads – Route 25, also known as Middle Country Road, Jericho Turnpike, and Main Street, is consistently ranked as the most dangerous road in the tri-state area, where twenty pedestrians had been killed between 2011 and 2013 (Castillo). The wide lanes, speeding vehicles, and a lack of sidewalks or crosswalks in many areas are indicative of a road system which is designed for cars and not people.
Owning a car, or at least having access to one, is a necessity for those living in Suffolk County, as it is in other suburbs around the United States. This, in and of itself, presents the issue of inequity in the suburbs – without an automobile, it is very difficult for people in Suffolk County to travel to work or even bring groceries home. Even with a car, there are substantial maintenance costs that come with owning a vehicle in addition to the up-front cost of purchasing one – from repairs, oil changes, gas, insurance, parking costs – these expenses are a burden. The inaccessibility of the suburbs reinforces a cycle of poverty, as people’s livelihoods are dependent on their cars (Durana).
Isolation in the suburbs due to a dependency on automobiles for access to the community has detrimental effects on the development of children, contrary to the commonly held belief that the suburbs are ideal places to raise children. Children need exposure to the diversity of people and cultures, sensory stimulation, independence, and above all else – community. Children growing up in cities are more likely to become independent at earlier ages than suburban children, partly because suburban children are dependent on their parents’ willingness to drive them places while children in urban settings will learn to use public transport to go places. Suburbs, where children are for the most part sheltered from the world, do not offer the sense of community that cities are full of, which is integral in raising healthy children (Saulter).
Ultimately, it is our deteriorating relationship with nature and the self-centered belief that humanity is above than the rest of the world, and that we are entitled to do with nature what we wish – that has allowed this problem to spread throughout America (White). When the comfort of humankind is prioritized over everything else, as was the case in the creation of the suburbs, the ecological consequences are substantial – from absurdly inefficient use of land to the excess of consumption. Obviously as personal vehicles are a necessity, carbon emissions will be substantially higher per capita in the suburbs from that necessity alone. In addition, much more land is cleared in order to accommodate multi-lane roads, parking lots, and strip malls, destroying habitats for wildlife and hurting biodiversity. We need to rethink our roads and prioritize the needs of human beings – walkable communities in which pedestrians, cyclists, and drivers coexist as they go about their business are infinitely safer than the road designs which dominate American suburbs now. These ecological consequences exist along with the extensive societal consequences which humanity suffers because of suburbia’s inherent deficiencies, from the denial of our own nature as social beings as we choose to live in bubbles, shielding ourselves and our children from the world.
White, L. (1967). The Historical Roots of our Ecological Crisis. American Association of Science.
Briggs, R. (2019, May 20). City streets safer than suburban roads, study finds. WHYY. Retrieved September 26, 2021, from https://whyy.org/articles/study-city-driving-often-safer-than-the-burbs/.
Durana, A. (2018, March 26). Seeking better work-life balance in the Suburbs? You better have a good car. Slate Magazine. Retrieved September 26, 2021, from https://slate.com/human-interest/2018/03/the-suburbs-were-built-for-cars-todays-suburban-incomes-were -not.html.
Saulter, C. (2010, November 15). Moving to the suburbs for your kids? Think again. Grist. Retrieved September 26, 2021, from https://grist.org/article/2010-11-14-moving-to-the-suburbs-for-your-kids-think-again/.
Marohn, C. (2021, April 26). The Ugly, Dangerous, and Inefficient Stroads found all over the US & Canada [ST05]. YouTube. Retrieved September 29, 2021, from https://youtu.be/ORzNZUeUHAM.
Castillo, A. A. (2015, March 5). LI Road Named Deadliest IN Tri-State Area. Newsday. Retrieved September 29, 2021, from https://www.newsday.com/long-island/suffolk/route-25-in-suffolk-again-ranks-as-region-s-most-dangerous-road-for-pedestrians-1.10010330.
Tajrian Sarwar is a fourth year Coastal Environmental Studies major with a minor in Geospatial Sciences. His interests include botany, environmental justice, and sustainability. He is currently co-planning the Ashley Schiff Preserve volunteer program, where a list of the different species found around Stony Brook University, as well as their ecological functions and importance, will be compiled over the course of the Fall 2019 semester. Tajrian also serves as the volunteer program assistant for the Friends of the Ashley Schiff Preserve this semester.