The morning air is filled with the mingled odors of honeysuckle and gas-powered riding mowers as I walk through an upscale neighborhood of old trees, shaded lawns, two- and even three-garage homes, and very few sidewalks, where the Northern branch of my immediate family lives. It is a peaceful village/suburb of Providence, RI, a city of greater economic diversity than you will find here. This is one feature that makes a city like Providence a more interesting place to live for empty nesters, especially those seeking to reduce their carbon footprint, and for the Millennials which, urban planners say, will have smaller and/or very different families, and prefer cities as hubs of creativity and innovation. There will always be people who prefer big homes and lawns, of course, just fewer of them than there are now. And even here, a few signs of change coming, as this small act of food independence in the neighborhood suggests. Suburban acupuncture?
We raised our own kids in the similar suburb of Montclair, 11 miles from New York City where we both worked, for similar reasons: good schools and safe neighborhoods, among others. In our day, doors were locked only at night, you knew your neighbors, and milk, even eggs and butter, were delivered from a local dairy in glass and paper packaging. Boys AND girls could, in many cases, walk safely to school, and pretty much had the run of the neighborhood. You always knew where they were by the collection of bicycles and skateboards in the driveway. Our kids got a very good start here, and express nostalgia for this time in their lives, even recreating it for their own offspring.
As a visitor to my former hometown, I was glad to see the Upper Montclair shopping hub holding its own on this sunny Tuesday. We worried about how the proximity of Willowbrook Mall and the Outlets in Secaucus would affect business locally. We shopped at Saunders Hardware and Keil’s Drugs instead of the Big Box chains out of a sense of hometown loyalty. Climate activism wasn’t on the radar quite yet.
Keeping your local merchants — food growers especially — in business is an even better idea now as community resilience becomes the new measure of thriving. It remains possible where relative affluence buys some time and a wider range of life options. So chances are that the Dariens and Maplewoods may adapt reasonably well to changing demographics that skew urban, plus the energy crunch and other impacts of global warming to come. Suburbs less well-designed and with fewer advantages, not so much. They may be the first to falter.
We who were fortunate enough to live in the leafy child-centered suburbs of a great city got through the OPEC crisis of the 70s and kept right on driving. We know better now.