Better Life in the Burbs?

  • New construction continues to spread into the countryside. A new study looks at the quality of life in these suburban developments.

People who move to the suburbs often say they’re escaping the stress of the city. But researchers are finding the suburbs cause a lot of stress for residents too, and the difference doesn’t seem to be as much about where you live as it is about how you live. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Lester Graham reports:


People who move to the suburbs often say they’re escaping the stress of the city. But researchers are finding the suburbs cause a lot of stress for residents too. And, the difference doesn’t seem to be as much about where you live as it is about how you live. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Lester Graham reports.

Ahhh, living in the suburbs, quiet tree lined streets, green lawns, and in the distance a glimpse of undisturbed woods along a creek or maybe farmland rolling off to the horizon. Across the Great Lakes region, the suburbs are picture perfect. Well, maybe not quite perfect.

A group of researchers has been spending a lot of time in the sprawling Chicago suburbs to see what draws people to the area, what they like, don’t like, from where they move and whether they intend to stay where they are, in the ‘burbs. What they’ve found is that living in the suburbs is not quite as stark or as bleak or as sterile as some of the popular press portrays it. But at the same time it’s not as blissful as the images in the brochures printed up by developers.

Charles Cappell is a sociologist at the Social Services Research Institute at Northern Illinois University. Since 1991 he’s been conducting surveys of people living in the suburbs. Mostly it’s been about why they live there. Usually the participants talk about their children, safety for their kids, nice schools, and nice green space for the family. But, recently Cappell and his team have been probing a little more deeply.

“In subsequent surveys, in 2000 for example, we did measure stress and we do know that suburbanites experience stress. They’re stressed from the demands of suburban life, some of the friction. But, in general, they report a fairly good quality of life.”

Of course, part of that quality of life is due to the surroundings. But after moving to the suburbs many people miss some of the more urban conveniences. And so as the housing developments sprout, the retailers are paving parking lots right behind them.

“This is one of the contradictions of suburban life: they value the quiet, green, suburban lawns and openness, and they crave the convenience of the shopping malls.”

But with that convenience comes the inconvenience of congested traffic on roads not designed to carry such huge volumes. While cities and counties spend untold millions of dollars widening old roads and building new ones, the suburbanites cope with the stresses of back-ups.

Rich Green is a geographer at Northern Illinois. He’s watched as the suburbs have spiraled out away from Chicago, causing an intricate and massive spider web of new roadways. Still, some politicians are calling for more and bigger roads in the suburbs. U.S. House Speaker Dennis Hastert is calling for an interstate to be built in his district that will create a new outer-belt for the Chicago metro area, some nearly 50 miles away from downtown. But Green says the Interstates in the Chicago area have simply created corridors of development. Instead of relieving traffic, some experts say the interstates around Chicago have simply given sprawl better access.

“Clearly, building these interstates hasn’t corrected some of the problems that people were hoping for. Usually, if you expand a highway, you bring more people.”

Traffic hassles are not the only stress suburbanites face. In fact, the more serious stressors have to do with the cost of living there. During the heady days of the stock market boom, people started building bigger and better houses out on one acre lots on the fringes of the ‘burbs. Now, because of the poor performance of the markets, those houses –sometimes derogatorily called ‘McMansions’– are extravagances that some suburbanites are struggling to afford. But if they want to live in the new Chicago suburbs, they don’t have much choice. Prices have skyrocketed and there’s very little in the way of affordable housing being built.

Dick Esseks is a retired professor who’s been doing research for the American Farmland Trust. The Trust is concerned about the loss of farmland due to development. Esseks says many of those who moved to the suburbs did so when times were good, but with the downturn in the economy, some of those people face forced early retirement.

“When they go from full-time workers to pensioned workers, can they find housing in the same community, stay in the same church, stay in the same synagogue, stay in other associations?”

Esseks says because many of the municipalities require large lots, have very high standards for construction, and agree to annex large subdivisions of ‘McMansions,’ they leave behind the chances for more affordable housing. Only the very well off can afford to live in many of the suburbs.

Still, even with the weight of big mortgages hanging over their heads, bad traffic congestion, and other stresses, researchers have found suburbanites seem to cope better on average than their counterparts in the city. Sociologist Charles Cappell says there’s a reason for that, and it has to do with who lives in the suburbs. Cappell says it’s established that married people and people with families tend to deal with stress better than single people. Older people are less stressed than young people, and the suburbs have a much greater ratio of traditional families with middle-aged parents than in the city.

“Some of the differences between quality of life between urban and suburban experiences can be attributed to the fact that urban places are more stressful or there are higher levels of stress because of these reasons. There’s more single people. They’re younger. But, the sources of stress, environmentally, may be different, but I think the bigger indicators of stress are your kind of social environment, your psychological space, how you cope, what kind of support you have and families in spite of their increased burdens on time, really do offer emotional support.”

So, people in the ‘burbs’, generally speaking, have a better support structure at home, and usually have the means to pay for a more comfortable, less stressful life to begin with. Cappell says getting out of the city and into the suburbs is not the answer to a stress-free life, but it just so happens there are a lot of people who live in the suburbs who are better able to cope with life’s stress.

For the Great Lakes Radio Consortium, this is Lester Graham.

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