The Atlantic

A Defense of the Suburbs

An architect immerses himself in residential production housing to learn why people like it—and what it can teach Americans about the future of urban design.
Source: David McNew / Getty

When Anthony Bourdain launched the new season of his food-and-travel series Parts Unknown, he began not with an exotic, far-off land, but with West Virginia. A native-born New Yorker, Bourdain found the state as foreign as Timbuktu, which is why he decided to go see its people and explore their culture. There, he found people eating squirrel, prepared like chicken. He found people who were proud of working for generations in coal mines. He found rural people with a culture they owned. The issue for Bourdain was not if he liked what he saw, but if he better understood people and places previously unknown.

Open-minded curiosity can also teach much about another foreigner in our midst: the American suburb. Often vilified or ignored by urbanites, architects, and critics, the suburb is nevertheless the residential heart of America. Its citizens have much to learn about how it works and does not work, and why people choose to live there: because they can afford to buy houses there, because the homes are of higher quality than they get credit for, and because the builders who design and build them are responsive to home buyers’ desires.

Understanding and responding to those justifications doesn’t require endorsing the suburbs as they are today. In fact, it might help improve urban design in the sometimes overlooked places where Americans live.

Working as an architect and historian, I first became interested in the suburbs when I realized that even my sophisticated friends—let alone the general public—were terrified to hire an architect to design their home. My profession is marginal in society compared to others, like medicine or law. Architects build few of the homes people occupy. Instead, those needs are satisfied by a building industry that my architectural colleagues don’t know anything about. At the time,

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