Plumb Lines

May 12, 2009

Cars Aren’t the Problem, Suburbia Is

Filed under: Uncategorized — Matthew Schmitz @ 11:40 am

The New York Times has done a good article on Vauban, a German suburb without cars:

Street parking, driveways and home garages are generally forbidden in this experimental new district on the outskirts of Freiburg, near the French and Swiss borders. Vauban’s streets are completely “car-free” — except the main thoroughfare, where the tram to downtown Freiburg runs, and a few streets on one edge of the community. Car ownership is allowed, but there are only two places to park — large garages at the edge of the development, where a car-owner buys a space, for $40,000, along with a home.

Having more such developments would be a tremendous improvement over the suburbs we currently have. There are some real problems with the Vauban model, however. Currently it is impossible–and due to zoning regulations practically illegal–to live without a car in many places in America. While American cities would benefit from having many more roads designated for pedestrians and cyclists, the Vauban model, where cars are effectively outlawed, may be a bit too anti-auto. A more sensible middle course is one where cars are a convenience, not a necessity or a taboo.

The other problem with Vauban–as with many New Urbanist-style projects–is that while it rejects the anti-family, anti-community elements of suburban sprawl, it is designed for a racially and economically homogeneous clientele. Suburbs were powered by the automobile, but they were built to allow people to live like people with the same background and buying power. A “green” or “sustainable” suburb is emphatically not a city, a polis, where people of varying classes and interests are able to join together in a community of communities dedicated to human flourishing.  If we want to build communities where people and families can flourish, we should remember that suburbia doesn’t just have problems, suburbia is the problem.

-Matthew Schmitz



  1. How is suburban sprawl anti-family?

    I hated not having any public transportation and not being able to walk anywhere from my home in an outer suburb growing up, but it definitely meant I had to spend more time with my family. Either they’d drive me places and I’d have to spend the drive with a parent or older sibling, or they wouldn’t drive me anywhere and I’d have to spend time with them at home.

    Comment by Suzanne W — May 12, 2009 @ 2:00 pm

  2. This is a good point Suzanne, and I think it reflects the way many people think about the suburbs. The problem is that this reinforces a certain particularly narrow and arguably unstable familial form. The nuclear family enshrined in the suburbs makes no allowances for people like grandparents who may be unable to drive or even survive without close proximity to others who care for them. It also creates unique strains on families–such as those you refer to–that far from strengthening it, make everyone more eager to leave its confines.

    Comment by Matthew Schmitz — May 13, 2009 @ 12:11 pm

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