For as long as I can remember, I’ve said it’s my dream to eventually live in an apartment in a large city like Chicago or New York.
I’ve met a lot of people who agree, but I’ve also met a lot of people who vehemently disagree — it’s too bustling, they say, with much too little space and none of the freedom that a house in the countryside or the suburbs provides. But I’ve never really seen the point of having that much space, that much surface area for a lawn and a pool and a playground, bordered by that quintessential white picket fence.
But isn’t that the exact image of the American Dream? Isn’t that exact scenario the way you know you’ve made it? Add two or three kids to the mix, maybe a golden retriever, a lovely wife, and you basically have yourself a Norman Rockwell painting.
Yet, it’s also isolating. I’m reminded of the neighbor in “Home Improvement,” that cheesy ’90s sitcom with Tim Allen. Wilson, as he’s called, is only ever seen from eye-level up, behind Allen’s fence. It’s played for laughs, but the sort of disconnect is a distinct part of suburban life. The fence says that they have their yard and you have your’s — neither of you are to cross over into the other.
It’s at the heart of the capitalist notion of land ownership: you want your land, your property, disconnected from others’ purely because of the fact you own it. You’ve achieved the American Dream and nobody else can enjoy it with you unless you explicitly tell them they can.
In fact, the suburbs were created and popularized due to commercial need. After the Second World War, American families relied more and more on the automobile to get to and from work, the grocery store and wherever else they needed to go. As city centers became more congested as a result, suburbs miles from downtown were built to meet the growing demand for a larger space.
These weren’t the first suburbs by any means — the concept goes back to the early 19th century — but they were the first to directly mirror and symbolize the American Dream. And what’s more ideally American than owning a big car that you can drive into the city and park in one of the many sprawling lots? You shouldn’t have any trouble finding a space, because across the United States there’s estimated to be between 700 million and 2 billion.
It’s no coincidence that, in this same post-war period, President Dwight D. Eisenhower signed the Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1956 into law. A massive public works program to build enormous highways across the country followed, a project Eisenhower called “essential to the national interest.”
It also provided transport from the faraway suburbs to the downtown business districts, as was, and is, the case with Chicago’s Eisenhower Expressway, formally known as Interstate 290. Intended primarily to ease the flow of traffic and fix congestion — something it still hasn’t been able to do to this day — the project tore through marginalized inner-city communities, displacing an estimated 13,000 people.
This isn’t even getting into the obvious environmental impact of our reliance on cars. It’s a fact that, because of our ever-expanding suburban lifestyle, public transportation, the clearly better option for the environment, isn’t always very realistic: people need cars because we chose to reposition our life around them. Isolation at home has led to isolation on the road.
Suburban sprawl also has other detrimental effects on the environment, including the issue of energy consumption. The suburbs and exurbs — those spacier, more rural areas beyond the suburbs — consume more energy than their city counterparts, partly because of the size difference in their dwellings: larger homes require more heating and cooling. Not to mention the impact of lawn care, which itself consumes water, pesticides and gas.
Nevertheless, this is all ignored, or maybe even just unknown, by those who wish to achieve the capitalist vision of owning their own property. Never mind the fact that denser cities mean more culture, less greenhouse gas emissions, more socialization and a generally happier population. It’s all about who can own the most spacious home, the greenest yard, the most cars and the deepest swimming pool. That’s the idyllic destiny we’ve been spoon-fed.
Dense housing is often equated with Soviet-era brutalist architecture that’s framed as oppressive and dystopian. While the Soviet Union’s pursuit in attempting to give every family a low-cost housing option was noble, this sort of housing needn’t be ugly — just look at Paris, a 15-minute city ranked among the most beautiful in the world.
The American Dream as we define it has perverted our notions of socialization and collectivism. But my dream of living in an apartment building in the city isn’t just about the fact I don’t need the space that comes with a house — it’s about the fact I want the ability to walk, or catch a bus, to the market to buy groceries. I want to recognize people who live around me, walk and shop and leisure among them instead of being removed from them.
The worst thing capitalism did was convince us of the necessity of individualism above all. Our current city planning and infrastructure is a testament to this sin. The sustainable future is density and sociability — a dream worth working toward.
Joey Sills (he/him) is a sophomore studying journalism and political science.