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The differences between the Suburban Experiment and traditional development

When we think of “the suburbs,” we often imagine specific structures: cul-de-sacs, lawns, single-family houses, cars, garages, and big-box stores to name a few. John Pattison at Strong Towns recently wrote about how those are accidental to the real substance of suburbia:

Below, I’ve summarized some of the differences between how humans have traditionally built cities and how we build them in North America today. But first I want to clear up two common misconceptions about the Suburban Experiment:

  • The Suburban Experiment isn’t limited to the suburbs.
  • The Suburban Experiment isn’t defined by the automobile.


“We design [what we build] to resist change,” Chuck says. Which is another way of saying that we’ve designed it to decline. Because, for thousands of years, allowing a city to flex and breathe and grow and heal has been the way cities have built wealth and resilience. Chuck wrote this back in 2012:

A city built in the traditional development pattern—the human settlement approach used for millennia across geographies and cultures—has high upside and low downside. In periods of robust growth, it will prosper. In periods of stagnation and decline, it will not fall apart or implode but actually experience innovation and undergo renewal. This is beyond resilience; it is antifragile.

Pattinson lists seven categorical differences between the suburban experiment and traditional development: origins, how we build, where the energy comes from, scale, balancing multiple priorities, response to adversity, and resilience. He breaks each one into succinct bullet points and includes links to further reading. It’s a great primer to what we’re really talking about when we say “the suburban experiment.”

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