Recently, I stepped out of bed and managed to double-stub my toe on a computer printer and a lamp, both of which were on the floor next to my bed for some unknown reason. In college, a lamp and printer on the floor would have been part of my preferred design aesthetic. But now, living in a New York apartment with a wife and two kids, this clutter meant our two-bedroom was bursting at the seams. It was time once again to consider a move to the suburbs.
The city vs. suburb debate comes up a lot in our household. Sometimes it starts when we watch one of those family movies that romanticize suburban life, with kids playing on front lawns, riding bikes and having a big dog. Other times it is ignited because of frustrations regarding the quality of public schools and the expense of private schools in the city. And, finally, as with my stubbed toes, it is raised based on the need for more space, and the fact that we just cannot afford more metropolitan square feet.
My position on city vs. suburban living shifts based on how much weight I place on my own life experiences. I grew up in the Chicago suburbs made famous in John Hughes' movies, such as "Ferris Bueller's Day Off," "Sixteen Candles" and "Home Alone," and I have fond memories of playing up and down my suburban street as a kid. But as an adult I became a city dweller and have enjoyed the conveniences, cultural lifestyle and energy available here.
While I complain about the compressed space of city apartments, I am generally more pro-city than pro-suburban living. The central point of my pro-city rant is that if a person lives in a suburb and works in the city, one wastes several hours commuting from point A to point B and back again. Generation after generation of hard-working parents leave the city for the suburbs to obtain a bigger house and better life for the family that they never see or experience because they are always commuting and working.
The pro-city argument has further layers, like the benefits of not having to live a car-dependent lifestyle. My wife and I do not own a car, and we do not need to own one in New York, where there are plenty of alternatives such as walking, trains, buses, taxis and short-term rental cars for all travel situations. I would like to avoid the reality that a colleague of mine -- who lives in a nearby suburb -- recently recounted. He said he had spent a total of three hours outside of his car over the weekend because he was spending the rest of the time shuttling kids to games and events, sitting in traffic and running errands.
One of the constant support arguments made by the pro-city living brigade is that living in a city offers more access to culture and diversity. As a parent I would say this argument is overstated, simply because as a working adult you do not always have the free time to take advantage of the artistic happenings in a city. But the fact remains the cultural diversity surrounds you, and there is greater ease of access, which manifests itself on occasions like a rainy Saturday when in New York you are able to go to the Natural History Museum to look at dinosaurs without making the outing into a large excursion.
While I like city living, the challenges of urban family life weaken my resolve. Critical issues and economic realities related to children significantly challenge the pro-city argument. City public schools face a constant barrage of quality and funding concerns. The private school alternative is ridiculously expensive, some charging as much as $40,000 per year. Even at that inflated price, private schools remain fiercely competitive and are able to be highly selective, so there is no guarantee that if you pay you will gain entry. Add to the school fees the high costs for after-school and weekend sports, arts and language programs. Property and the cost of goods and services also seem to all cost more in the city. City living may be better in many respects, but does it offer better value for money?
The debate between city life and suburban life rages on in my house. The lamp and printer blocking my path in the bedroom were given to a friend and we remain city mice -- for now. All of the challenges that raise the city vs. suburb discussion continue to fester. The societal challenge of finding a new life and work system that allow the family to remain connected and eliminate long commutes, while also providing affordable, quality education and housing, has yet to fully emerge. Technologies that make it possible to work virtually appear to offer at least part of a cure, allowing some who took the suburban plunge to reduce commuting. Some cities are trying to improve the cost and quality of education that perhaps would remove some of the pressure to leave for the suburbs in the first place. And many companies are offering more flexibility in how, when and where they expect their employees to work. Technological innovations, as well as bureaucratic and operational changes, provide promising avenues for further development, but the commute to the solution is a long, slow journey.