Thanks to being an urban planning major in college, I have a pretty good pulse on how cities develop, change, decline, and gentrify over time.
If I had a choice over where to retire, I would probably look for a mountain retreat, far away from it all.
But this is a post about the inner and outer cores of metros areas here in the States. Let’s poke at a few factors to see why cities are better than suburbs.
Suburbs Are Unwalkable
Why the city always wins? For one thing, the city has sidewalks. I have the pleasure of traversing a few layers of the Minneapolis “onion” on my bike commute. As soon as I pass the city limits, POOF!, the sidewalks have vanished.
Of course, that means dog walkers and kids are out hugging the curb while trying to “enjoy” a morning walk, or simply waiting for the school bus. No sidewalks? Complete and utter lack of suburban planning.
In contrast, it’s a breath of fresh air to be where we are in a city neighborhood and have sidewalks for strollers, disabled folks in wheelchairs, small kids learning to bicycle, and even just us grown-ups who prefer not to be plowed over by idiots on four wheels.
What is it that convinced suburban planners to develop their little enclaves without sidewalks, anyhow? I can only imagine it had something to do with saving money, plus the fact most of our suburbs were developed in the golden age of the automobile: 1940s to 1960s.
Things are slowly improving, at least where there’s money to be had. Our wealthy first-ring suburb of Edina has recently started to plant sidewalks on at least one side of the road, on busier thoroughfares.
It’s a start. But I tell you after that drunken fool went charging through one of Edina’s sidewalk-less neighborhoods last week and nearly took out a walker and his dog, I’m convinced that the value of sidewalks on low-stress walk-ability is priceless.
Suburbs Are Dangerous Places for Pedestrians
One can typically count on two hands the number of places you can walk to in an urban neighborhood. Within 10 minutes from our house, we can reach the grocery store, pharmacy, library, a few restaurants, coffee shops, elementary and middle schools, and even a gloriously-stocked-with-amazing-craft-beers liquor store.
And parks paved trails and lakes. Minneapolis is a grand city, at least for seven months out of the year.
If you make your way out to the ‘burbs, you are bound to be loaded up into the four-wheel death trap and landing in neighborhoods with very nice houses that all look the same. The trees are often fewer and younger, which sucks if you appreciate a tall tree canopy to protect your lily-white complexion from these Nordic, intense summertime rays.
I spent the first eight years after moving to this metro area living in the suburbs. Second ring action, mind you. So yeah, I was in my car an awful lot. I had a nice $1,000 bike that sat idle for the first 15 of its 20 years in my possession. There’s something about being in a car that much that gets you wondering about statistics.
The more I have to drive on these 65MPH routes, the more likely I’m going to get into a crash. And in the long run, the less I’m going to thrive as a human being.
Safest: Cities or Suburbs?
Here’s a good read for you, if you think you’re safer living out in the sticks. The fact of the matter is, because you don’t have sidewalks and you’re always in a car to get to any place of consequence, you’re twice as likely to get killed in a car crash vs. getting killed by random city violence.
We all fear the boogeyman. But the worst devil of all is a speeding car that doesn’t care what it careens into.
We have friends who choose to live way out in the exurbs – you know, those second and third ring suburbs, where the cow dung fertilizing nearby crops smacks you in the face with its sweet, sweet perfume.
They figure it much safer out there because they’re farther away from people. Conceal and carry are important to them, but I’m not sure that’ll help them avoid a traffic accident.
And that level of ignorance is incredibly sad. A rift has emerged that I’m sure posts like this one are contributing to. Attitudes have hardened and grown more and more combative over the last 10-plus years. Us vs. Them. City vs. Suburbs.
My friends who chose to move “out there” among the farm fields in many respects represent a microcosm of the divide we now get to live here in America. I’m sure if I shared these statistics with them about city vs. suburb safety, they’d accuse me of being a democrat, or something more heinous, a liberal.
Cities Are Far From Perfect
It’s not all roses here in the urban neighborhood. Where to begin? In Minneapolis, we have the joy of a major international airport located within the city limits.
You can imagine the noise. Thankfully most of the nearby homes were given free upgrades for noise abatement (e.g., attic baffles, central air, and brand new double-pane windows). Nevertheless, it ain’t no fun to be out on your deck on a beautiful summer night, contending with Air Canada…
Captain Obvious? Ahoy there! Yes, it’s also more expensive to live in an urban core or city neighborhood. Not always, but often. Here in the Twin Cities, property taxes have shot up year after year. Yes, we have to pay for the nice amenities we enjoy. Those parks, trails, police and fire services, and schools are wonderful social goods, but they’re not FREE.
In major metros across the U.S., it’ll cost you $10,000 to $20,000 more per year to enjoy the privilege of city living. In Minneapolis, thankfully, that figure is less than $10,000. Mainly because the housing stock outside of the city limits is much newer and the schools in suburban districts are well-funded. But I digress. There are ways to make city living affordable.
- Don’t buy the most expensive house on the block (duh)
- House Hacking
- Ride your bike to get around, or take mass transit
- Avoid keeping up with the Joneses
- Make more money
Will the Suburbs Ever Win?
Not all suburbs are created equal. Even some of our Twin Cities extra-urban locales can boast of town centers with walkable stretches of sidewalk and districts friendlier to people more so than to cars.
Some of our best amenities are located out in the sticks. And because of how expensive it has become to live in the city, some suburbs are starting to transform into pod-like city cores of their own.
Ultimately, it’s not a contest. Not one worth having a debate with friends about anyhow. But having lived about half of my life in one vs. the other, both as a kid and as a grown-up, the city (neighborhood, not downtown) is clearly where my heart lies.
The exception to that rule is this: Give me the option to live in a small city, absent highways, and high-rises, but with basic amenities within a healthy walk or bike ride. Something about Colorado still beckons.
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Accidental Fire says
Great post, I’m a geographer so I’ve read my share of James Kunstler and other urbanists. I agree that the modern suburbs are a total dystopia of sprawl and I pretty much hate them. They have no character and make us car dependent. But growing up in Baltimore City, admittedly a much poor one than most, cities also have so many issues. In Baltimore it’s just so horrible, the murders, the lack of respect for any human life, and the crime. It’s a complete entitlement city, and the cycle of poverty will never stop unless they try something drastically different Of course those things don’t come about automatically because of the organization of a city, it’s about how the city is run and how it develops.
In the end, your initial comment is spot-on. My desire is to not live in a city or the suburbs but to live in a rural area, preferably by mountains and an ocean.
Hi AF – I consider myself an arm-chair geography enthusiast. Great to have the pros like yourself weigh in here!
I think there’s hope for suburbs that take pains to establish community-centric core services and destinations for their residents. Its the traditional suburbs that are ‘gated’ that I personally can live without.
Then there are the core urban environments, like Baltimore and Detroit. Corruption, crumbling infrastructure, and economic hardship can make a situation nearly impossible to dig out of.
Give me a seaside or mountain view home and I’m in heaven. Until then, I’m pretty content with my outside-of-downtown city limits neighborhood.
Mr. Groovy says
Hey, AF. Have you read The Power Broker, The Death and Life of Great American Cities, and The Unheavenly City Revisited?
Accidental FIRE says
No haven’t read that one but will check it out. I did most of my “new urbanist” reading about 10 years ago after I got infatuated with the subject. Then I drifted off to other topics…. I get like that. But it still interests me as a geographer for sure.
Great post, but I strongly disagree! I think there are too many variables here…not all cities and suburbs are created equally, as you mention, and every person and family values different things. We love it in the suburbs.
Actually, I saw your tweet last night, and I thought “not this again”…so many friends have been critical of our decision to move out of the city, but once they’ve seen what a great neighbourhood we live in they are considering a move as well. We can walk or bike to every ammenity we need, transit is great around here and into the city (although I now avoid the city at all costs) programs for the kids and parks are great, and we have wonderful neighbours and much more of a sense of community!
Most importantly, this move has enabled us to go down to one income – I am now at home with our two young kids – and our quality of life has increased exponentially. We no longer deal with traffic, long commute times and constant worry about crime.
As I was thinking about this last night, I am actually going to stop referring to where I live as a suburb. It is a city in its own right. My husband works here, my kids will go to school here, we have a mayor and city council and yes…we even have sidewalks…everywhere! We just happen to be located right next to a bigger city. So what?
You are entitled to disagree, Clare! Thank you for sharing your thoughts. This is what I love about the comments. They really help flesh out the full argument on both sides.
I hope this post came off a little more balanced than some of the attitudes you’ve come across. We try not to judge our friends and never give them a hard time for leaving our fine city environs. But after a long, long drive to reach them, we find ourselves wishing they were closer to US.
You have it made with respect to your suburb situation. All of the amenities you have access to are hard to find in many outer ring burbs. You are right to call your new locale a city, or maybe a “town.” With sidewalks, you’re already ahead of the game.
This really is a great topic to breakdown. I have owned rental properties and a personal residence at one time. Both appreciated in value. That said, I’ve been renting for the past 12 years and my cash flow is much better than when I owned.
The older I get, the lazier I become and don’t want to be bothered with a roof, water heaters, lawn care, snow removal, generators, that dang spoon that keeps falling into the garbage disposal only to have to buy and install another garbage disposal. It’s all included in the rent.
Even though your mortgage, real estate taxes and homeowner’s insurance is locked in, there are times that you just can’t predict a cash outflow that is home related. If I can mitigate that risk for as long as I can, other unpredictable expenses in life won’t seem as bad because my cash flow has been better.
Just my humble two cents…
Gwen @ FIRE Drill Podcast says
I’ve lived in the suburbs, in small cities, and now a big city. I have to say, living in a big city like Minneapolis is my favorite so far. I hated being stuck out in the middle of nowhere and having to drive 20 minutes to the nice restaurant – Applebees. The small city was ok, but their public transportation options were incredibly limited and I was still dependent on my car. Now that I live in Minneapolis, the options are almost unlimited! If I even need help getting somewhere, that is. I live in a very walkable and bikeable area of town that has provided infrastructure to help me get to a place without a car. I love using bike lanes!
Gwen! We love having you here! This is a fabulous city and even the first ring suburbs don’t suck. We’ve got bike lanes in front of our house. Always great to see the two-wheelers wizz by as opposed to loud-ass cars.
Fritz @ TheRetirementManifesto says
Get me the heck out! The further, the better. But hey, I live in a cabin on a gravel road, so what would you expect?! After 30 years of living in the city and suburbs, there’s nothing better than a small mountain town for retirement!
Hey Fritz! I’m with you man, so long as it’s to a point of geographic interest anyhow. Send me out to the sticks of Iowa or Nebraska, and I’ll be one unhappy camper.
A small mountain town sounds mighty appealing. Especially one near a pretty lake like the one you swim in. Looks so peaceful!
I lived in Minneapolis growing up until I was in my mid twenties. When I got married in the early 2000s I moved to the suburbs with my wife, and have lived in the suburbs of Shakopee and Savage, MN for the past 16 years. So I feel like I have a pretty good feel for what it’s like to live in both the city and the suburbs.
I loved growing up in the city, it has a completely different feel and rhythm than living in the suburbs. The people, the atmosphere, the neighborhood feel. This may sound weird but to some degree I still miss the sound of a police siren late on a summer night as I was falling asleep with my window open in south Minneapolis. I could walk a block to the grocery store and Sears department store (now Midtown Global Market), and a block in the other direction to my neighborhood school. Minneapolis was great for a family that rode bikes like ours did, and we’d often ride from our house out to the suburbs to go camping, or to go swimming at one of the Minneapolis lakes.
With that said, there are so many things about living in a city that were not fun. There was the high taxes, the narrow streets (especially bad in the winter), the crime (Only time I’ve ever had a gun put to my head was in Minneapolis, and the only time I ever had a bike stolen, multiple times). There was awful traffic in the city, and the only car accident I ever had was in congested Minneapolis traffic.
Before moving to the suburbs I had a notion in my head of what it would be like, with cookie cutter houses, no mature trees and strip malls everywhere. The reality has been a bit different.
While the first neighborhood we lived in was a brand new neighborhood with few mature trees and the cookie cutter houses, since then we’ve moved to a neighborhood with lots of mature trees, great views and walkable neighborhood. I found that in our suburb we enjoyed a myriad of parks and recreation, great mountain bike trails down by the Minnesota river, walkable areas where we could walk to 3 local grocery stores and about 30-50 other stores within 1-2 miles, and schools that are rated among the best in the state. So many jobs are moving out to the suburbs now as well, with large companies like Amazon and a host of others moving to our city recently and creating tons of jobs. Not all big companies are necessarily in the city center anymore.
I’ve also found that I prefer living in the suburbs as we’re able to have a nicer house with a larger plot in the suburbs versus in the city. And we have great sidewalks and bike trails in our neighborhood – I know that might not be the case in some older suburbs.
All this to say I will always love the city of Minneapolis as I grew up there, went to university there, and met my wife there. But in the end I actually prefer the lifestyle we’re afforded out in the suburbs with a larger yard, ready access to hundreds of acres of parkland and recreational opportunities, and access to better schools and opportunities for my kids. And I have yet to have someone put a gun put in my face. That’s a plus. 🙂
C’mon, Peter! No one’s put a gun in my face after 15 years here! There are certainly trouble spots, but many more safe neighborhoods than unsafe. There are good schools too, though I’d concede you’d probably want to live in the SW metro for the best the city has to offer. And I’ll take the chain of lakes any day over acres of parkland – but I hear you. There are some nice wilderness-like trails that are great for skiing and biking out where you live. We can agree that we’re both fortunate to have landed where we have. 🙂
I’m glad you haven’t been a victim of gun crime, and I completely agree, by and large most areas are safe in Minneapolis. All I’m saying is that I’ve had a gun in my face only once, and it was in Minneapolis – and that wasn’t the only time I’ve been held up in the city, or been a victim of crime there. Granted my parents lived in a neighborhood that at times had a bit more crime, but still. You’re much more likely to be a victim of crime in Minneapolis than in the suburbs unfortunately. Crime statistics in Minnesota show that most violent crime happens in the cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul. I do know, however, that crime was at it’s height when I was living there in the 90s, and it has dropped almost every year since then, so it’s not as bad now as it was when I lived there. It’s just one of the things you live with if you’re in a densely populated urban area I guess.
All in all, I love Minneapolis and I go back often since I’m only a few minutes away, but for this former city boy, I love living in the suburbs now.
I think it depends on the suburb though. Just as in Minneapolis, it REALLY depends on what neighborhood you’re in. You’re probably a heckuva lot safer in Fulton as opposed to New Hope, say?
Regardless of all that, I hear you – it is awful to be the victim of any random crime. Our house was broken into within the first five months of moving into the city. Since that time, there has been a steady reduction in crime. But I think that’s mainly because of all the suburb folks moving into the city to build McMansions, and voila! Gentrification.
freddy smidlap says
i’m allergic to the suburbs. i proudly could not point you to the nearest walmart, costco, or trader f’ing joes. we live in the city of buffalo and i walk to everything except work. it’s more of a cultural choice for us. the ‘burbs are el diablo.
Trader F’ing Joes? The shop that likes to sell people moldy produce?
I’d imagine you get slightly better snow removal in the heart of Buffalo v. outer too?
Erik @ The Mastermind WIthin says
Minneapolis is a great city to live in and having lived in the suburbs growing up, it really is dependent I think where you live.
Minneapolis spends a ton of money on keeping things clean, accessible and fun – but I’m not sure that that’s the same in other major cities (no experience so I can’t talk about that)
Growing up in the suburbs, I enjoyed the relatively slower pace, but having to drive everywhere is a negative. I only drive to the commercial kitchen I use and to see my parents these days – biking and buses are fantastic!
Good point, Erik. I think if MPLS continued to grow, it’d face the same problems of scale that Chicago faces. And I only like Chicago to visit, for brief spells at that.
See Accidental Fire’s notes on Baltimore. That’s a town that could use some help. Minneapolis has been fortunate to avoid permanent urban blight, despite a pretty crappy period after WW2 when half of downtown’s classic buildings got demolished to make room for PARKING LOTS.
I’m with you! Grew up in the burbs, albeit a first-ring burb with sidewalks, and prefer life in the city.
LA is a very suburban city, however. We have the walkability, noise, and high prices of an urban center, with the yards and soul-killing commutes of the suburbs. Best of both worlds or worst of both worlds? It’s probably an urban planner’s nightmare but it works for us.
Oh man… LA? Urban Planner’s nightmare indeed. Especially after GM bought up and crushed the awesome street car system almost a century ago. I have this odd romanticism about that town. I blame Hollywood of course. But you do have the awesome weather, so everything else is secondary in some respects. An awful commute would make me pretty cranky though. Let’s see where Elon can take us with that tunnel thingamajig he’s undertaking.
I’ve lived in the big city (Atlanta) , the burbs, and now rurally. Frankly there’s another level here to why I wouldn’t live in the city. The noise and commotion would drive me nuts as would the lack of a yard. I love walking out to the nature behind my home and not hearing cars or other people. Then again I grew up that way living both rurally and in a small town. It’s all what your use too.
Hey FTF – THAT would drive me nuts too! We love to go downtown on occasion, but are hard-pressed to want to live in the dense, noisy part of the city. A city neighborhood outside of downtown, like where we are, allows for yards and lots of parks. We have a creek and chain of lakes within a four block walk – but that’s MPLS.
I love nature too, but I kind of like the short distance to amenities a city can offer.
We live in downtown Portland and we like it, mostly. It’s definitely better than the suburb. We could walk or take public transportation to most destinations. There are a lot more amenities in the city than in the suburb. However, there are a lot of problems too. Homelessness is a big issue for us. Traffic is worse in the city during rush hours. We still like the city better than the suburb, though. Someday, I’d like to live in a more rural area and see if we can handle it.
Portland is a case study in strong urban planning delivered with INTENT. A city that prioritizes pedestrian traffic is one that I can fall in love with. Granted, you get a lot of cloudy weather there, and I’d struggle with that.
Now that you are early retired, maybe you could get the family to agree to a month long stint in a rural Airbnb somewhere? Good fodder for a blog post series!
Mrs. Groovy says
Moving from NYC (Manhattan) to Long Island was more shocking than from Long Island to North Carolina!
Where we’re living temporarily now, in Wake Forest NC, is totally suburban. I LOVE the greenways and trail systems but the traffic and congestion is not for me. I’m looking forward to our country home in a town of 3,500 whose only traffic lights are at major intersections. I’m not sure I could ever do city living again but never say never.
That does sound ideal, Mrs. Groovy. I’m at about the point where if I can find a smaller town with all the amenities still within a reasonable walk or ride, I’d probably prefer that over MPLS. What’s the population of Wake Forest? Do you enjoy any of the university’s amenities? A college campus town seems ideal with the built-in walk-ability.
Mrs. Groovy says
Wake Forest has a population of about 40K but we’re also about 3 miles from Raleigh, which is densely populated. Many people assume Wake Forest University is here but it’s in Winston-Salem. It started here but relocated in the 1950s. Duke is in Durham, which is more of a college town, as is Chapel Hill with UNC.
That’s a decent size – 40K. But with Raleigh combining to the load, I can see where it’d start to feel congested, especially compared with 3,500!
Learn something new every day. I’d be the folks in Wake Forest proper get tired of the same question – “where’s the school?!?”
Tread Lightly, Retire Early says
We technically live in a suburban area of our city (that used to be a Seattle suburb, but is now a city in its own right). However, an absolute non negotiable for me when we were house hunting was that we were within walking distance of a grocery store and a decent bus line. While I sometimes wish there was more within easy walking or biking distance within our house, the ability to head out our back door to forested trails more than makes up for it. And really, we’re well within biking distance of multiple town centers if we didn’t live at the top of a freaking steep hill.
I remember that well, Angela. The forested trails at your back door are GOLD!
Look on the bright side – living on top of that hill keeps the water away. In that part of the PNW, also GOLD. 🙂
Tread Lightly, Retire Early says
Very fair! Definitely have no concerns about flooding where we’re at 🙂
Young FIRE Knight says
I grew up in the suburbs but have lived in the cities since graduating college. Experiencing both it’s tough to really choose between them as each has their benefits and detractors. If I actually worked in the cities in which I live instead of having a long commute outside of it, I’m sure I would enjoy it a lot more (since I wouldn’t need a car).
I think my ideal situation would be like yours.. living in the mountains by a lake or beach that is walkable and bike friendly but not the suburbs or big city. Maybe one day!
Hey man, we can all dream!
I might check out Aspen or Idyllwild, CA one of these days. Seem like quintessential mountain towns from what I know. Miami Beach seems nice but Miami is a bit too hectic for my tastes. Love the vibe though. Maybe I’ll crash Vicki’s party over at Sanibel. 🙂
Miguel (The Rich Miser) says
After 30+ years of living in urban cores (I grew up in an apartment), I moved to a house in an inner-ring suburb. I find it just right – I like to be close to the action, but not in it.
On the one hand, it’s awesome to live in the city and just get in your elevator and be in the middle of amenities in under two minutes. On the other, it’s hard to have land, or peace and quiet.
That’s why I love my middle ground. I have land and tranquility, but 20 minutes in the car and I’m in the city (or 10 minutes to my nearest “town center”).
I think all options are valid – it just depends on what you like, prioritize, and value.
Miguel my friend!
I would say that our current locale mirrors yours in large part. We’re not in the urban core, but in a city neighborhood outside of the hustle and bustle, but still on city bus routes. Middle ground? All the way, baby.
Mr. Groovy says
Hey, Cubert. If people were angels, there would be no contest between cities and suburbs. Cities would be the clear victor. But people are far from angels, and most people who choose the suburb over the city today do so because the number of sucky people has reached a tipping point in the city. And I’m not talking about crime and dysfunctional schools, although that is certainly a problem. I’m talking about noise, smells, litter, and panhandlers. When I worked in Uptown Charlotte, I had to wade through a phalanx of panhandlers on the way to and from my office and during my lunch hour. Now, maybe I’m an evil bastard, but I found panhandlers to be particularly annoying. Thankfully, there were no panhandlers in my suburban neighborhood. So I’m with you, my friend–as long as the city nearest you hasn’t reached the tipping point of suck (e.g., Detroit, Baltimore, and Memphis).
Hello my friend! I think that’s a fair generalization for certain cities, but certainly not all of them.
Sadly, sucky people persist in all layers, from urban cores, to suburbs, to rural homesteads. We cannot escape them. The good news is that really great people tend to outnumber those sucky sunuvaguns in most all of these layers.
Panhandlers are annoying, but man, I’m reminded every time I encounter one, just how blessed I am (if that’s a word an agnostic can use?)
The cities you mention: Detroit, Baltimore, Memphis also happen to be cities with a higher percentage of African Americans inhabiting them. I hope that at some point our communities can forge a better path and make these cities shine again – but every single person has to be engaged and empowered to make it happen. No more Flint Michigan situations, and no more bulldozing neighborhoods with massive concrete interstate highways.