Living in the suburbs gets a bad rap. Many would say for good reason: People who live in the far-flung suburbs are less socially connected, less happy and not as healthy as those residing in cities. Suburbanites also have less economic opportunity and spend a bigger chunk of their income on housing and transportation (how’s that commute working for you?).
It’s a lively and ongoing debate, well worth exploring, but meanwhile, half of the American population currently lives in the suburbs, according to the U.S. Census, either by choice or by circumstance, and they’re not likely to be heading back into the city anytime soon. So what can we do now to infuse our sprawling suburbs with the same sorts of social, psychological and economic advantages that make cities so alluring? Below are five ways to bring vibrancy to life in the ’burbs — including some advice on how to deal with the long commute.
1. Revive, Repair, Reinvent
Whether you’re a city planner, architect or just an interested suburban dweller, there’s a lot you can do to boost vitality in your neighborhood, both on a macro and micro level. For instance, empty shopping malls, with their vast parking lots, can be transformed into lively town centers, according to Galina Tachieva, the author of “Sprawl Repair Manual” and a partner and director of town planning at the Miami architectural firm Duany Plater-Zyberk & Company. Tachieva proposes in her book that those vacant spaces can be filled with compact residential units, small shops and restaurants, all with an outward-facing prospect — which is much more welcoming than stores housed in a mall that face inward — a hallmark of sprawl repair techniques. Across the country, old Wal-Mart and Kmart stores have already been turned into a variety of vibrant new community gathering spots, including churches, ice rinks, a public library in McAllen, Texas, and a Spam Museum in Austin, Minn.
2. Nurture Community
Take a cue from Minneapolis, where city leaders have been working with residents in some of the older suburbs to revive long dormant neighborhood associations, or create new ones, to help rebuild a sense of community. Minneapolis’ “neighborhood relations specialist” — and many U.S. cities now have a resource person in that slot — works with suburban residents to define their neighborhood’s boundaries and most valuable qualities, and then sets achievable goals to revive community spirit. In the Brooklyn Park neighborhood, for example, residents used a community-boosting tool kit developed by University of Minnesota graduate students to initiate some practical solutions, like setting up a neighborhood tool-sharing project, organizing a “shop local” day, hosting a block party or movie night, holding community-wide garage sales and starting a community garden or babysitting pool.
3. Cultivate Green Space
No matter how small, adding a bit of green to a suburban landscape makes a neighborhood more enjoyable to look at and live in — and it can lift residents’ spirits long term. In a study at the University of Exeter Medical School in England, published in January in the journal Environmental Science & Technology, researchers used data from a British household survey to conclude that people who moved to areas with lots of green space had better mental health overall, compared with those who moved to neighborhoods with less greenery. “Weʼve shown that individuals who move to greener areas have significant and long-lasting improvements in mental health,” said lead researcher Dr. Ian Alcock on the university’s website, noting that the study’s findings would be particularly useful for urban planners. Even modest improvements, like transforming a traffic island into a rose bed or an empty lot into a small wildflower meadow — or simply planting greenery in the yard or hanging window boxes — can enhance a community’s spirit.
4. Make Grassroots Connections
Half the trips Americans make to shop, dine out or run errands are less than three miles long, according to Geoff Anderson, CEO of Smart Growth America, so they’re doable without getting behind the wheel of a car. Instead, if you haul out the bicycle or the two-wheeled grocery cart, or simply walk to a nearby coffee shop, you’ll not only save on the cost of gas and cut down on emissions, but you’ll also be doing something to improve your health and whittle your waistline. What’s more, getting out in your neighborhood helps connect you to your neighbors, which in itself is great for the health of the community as well as its residents.
In Minnesota, two grassroots initiatives are helping neighborhoods transform suburban streets to accommodate alternative transportation modes. Transit for Livable Communities funds bicycle and pedestrian improvements — for example, redesigning four-lane streets into two lanes with dedicated bicycle lanes, which helps slow traffic through neighborhoods and increases safety.
5. Cope With the Commute
On average, we spend about 25 minutes commuting each way on workdays, according to the U.S. Census, but many people commute much longer than that: About 2.2 million commuters travel 50 miles each way daily, and an additional 1.7 million Americans trek 90 miles each way every day. In a study, led by Christine Hoehner, public health services professor at Washington University in St. Louis, researchers looked at the medical records of 4,300 Texas commuters and found that weight and blood pressure increased with longer commutes, while cardiorespiratory fitness decreased — possibly increasing risks for heart disease, diabetes and kidney failure in those with longer commutes.
The solution? Hoehner and other experts suggest that drivers take time out during the day for at least a little physical exercise to counter the effects of sitting in traffic. While you’re in the car, try doing relaxation and stress-busting techniques — even simple ones like deep breathing. But before you get too relaxed, toss the pine-scented air freshener and replace it with a peppermint or cinnamon scent — research from Wheeling Jesuit University in West Virginia suggests those aromas make drivers more alert.