UK vs US “Suburbia”

In the many months I have recently spent in the US (North Carolina) it was not until recently that the true difference of suburbia, city limits and communities really stuck out to me.

Of course I had noticed the way that every area was made up of a mixture of sporadically places residential property and apartment/condominium complexes, all of which whilst sometimes a stone throw away from each other attempt to have their own closed off community approach.

For instance the HOA in the complex I have spent the last few months has kept the communal pool closed for several years because residents were allowing others to access it and those from neighbouring areas were coming over to use it. Instead of them attempting to band together with other local HOAs and groups, again of course an incredibly complex matter rooted in home ownership and trying to appear prestigious and righteous for property prices rather than for the betterment of actual residents, to address a clearly wider issue they selected a route that harms their own “community”. (“Community” because of course not all members of a HOA live at the properties in such areas, in fact many of the condominiums are used to line their pockets and they have minimal involvement with ultimately little care for improving residents lives through having such social opportunities available to them).

It isn’t like there are alternative community spaces for people to interact or engage with each other beyond chatting with your neighbour. Whilst some have some undefined space, a dog park or less frequently a children’s playground (something that blows my mind that essentially an estate with property that holds family does not even have a couple of swings or something stuck in a corner somewhere) there is nothing to bring people together. People are ultimately required to seek out friendships through work, online or maintain contact with childhood friends and family rather than those that are directly around them. An assumption is presented that people do not want to interact with those around them or to build better communities despite it presenting benefits for society, childhood development and also in some cases mental well-being.

But beyond the lack of immediate space, these complexes or estates, are often nestled in land that is not clearly defined or maintained. The ability to just walk through the woods that are not fenced off around the area is a risky one because where one property owner turns into another is often unmarked and trespassing can come with a risk to your life. A lack of maintenance on what looks like walkways also discourages people to get into nature, explore and to take peaceful and private walks that could benefit their mental and physical health/recovery. And without sidewalks/footpaths next to the majority of roads, regardless of their size, it is easy to feel trapped in your one isolated community without trekking off on some specifically planned journey by vehicle.

This whole thought process stemmed from me wanting to just go for a casual walk, a bit of a frolic through some woods or somewhere that I knew I was actually allowed to step through, to be able to take in some fresh air, enjoy the quiet of nothing but the breeze through the trees and to perhaps take a glimpse at some creature or pretty landscape. On doing a quick search I found the nearest “park” to be a couple of miles away that would require walking on grassy banks alongside busy roads to get there. “Park” because it being a rectangle of grass surrounded by a baseball diamond, some basketball courts and having no trees is very clearly a recreation ground and not a park. Parks are not recreation grounds and recreation grounds are not playgrounds. Give me a small pond, a lake, trees, a defined walkway trail away from the the noise of people being active, benches to quietly read a book, a picnic area or something and then we can talk about it having park potential or status.

But I realised that this condominium complex is technically still suburbia and up and down the USA this is a perfectly normal experience; they essentially have to drive anywhere to see anything and do anything unless they live directly truly in the city. Unlike London or other UK cities where they still carve out green spaces for people to enjoy or when you enter the suburbs and have footpaths alongside roads that seemingly go to nowhere, have sections of fields carved out so people can make the most of the woodland on the other side you are likely only to be able to access some sort of greenery in the US on foot by paying a premium to have an isolated home near it, acquiring land or living so in the city that you get to enjoy a park surrounded by the hustle and bustle of the world.

This is not me saying that UK suburbs are some magical place because they certainly are not. The trade off of having access to more greenery still comes at a premium as it gets viewed as the “perfect” blend between countryside living and city living and whilst that varies depending on each UK city you also know that not too far away you could in a pinch walk to at least a local convenience store if not a public swimming pool, library or other community facility on an actual footpath or through a properly carved out route through a field (certainly not ideal at times and not always the best maintained or lit but nonetheless at least they exist as a minimum).

And it is certainly not to say that the people of US suburbs are hard done by, because being able to live and function in a place without sidewalks or immediate local facilities suggests a sense of at least basic affluence (car ownership, contact with others with cars, internet access to stay connected etc), but the large swathes of people that are therefore expected to be in that situation and to be able to thrive, the way that society forces a stereotypical and old-school expectation on them to earn and live in a certain way keeps them from being able to interact as a mass collective of people or to form wider bonds that could allow for social, cultural, political and economic change directly around them and in a larger sense.

UK suburbs present challenges but if you reach a level of desperation you can reach out to community groups, residents associations, tenants right groups, friends from other parts of town and know that if nothing else public transport exists to get somebody to or from you or a walk can take you to the cheapest shop to top up on the most basic of essentials.

From an outsiders point of view US suburbs seem to stifle the very thing that they claim to value so highly and above all else; freedom and independence.

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