Can a Song Change Suburbia?


“Sometimes I wonder if the world’s so small that we can never get away from sprawl.”

Arcade Fire’s album, The Suburbs, released in 2010, became a 16-song call to action for architects, urbanists, and planners who have literally been all aTwitter about its deeper meaning. Penned mostly by band frontman Win Butler, a lapsed suburbanite (he grew up in The Woodlands in Houston), the record is a plea, a plaintive wail, a sometimes angry, sometimes wistful reflection on what sprawl has wrought.

“So can you understand why I want a daughter while I’m still young? I want to hold her hand and show some beauty before all this damage is done?”

I’m not a music critic, just a fan, but it seems no accident that these songs have become somehow eulogies and anthems, nostalgic for things lost, still resolute in the possibilities for change if only we can slow down.

“I used to write letters, I used to sign my name.”

The Suburbs created an unlikely alliance of indie rockers and suburban retrofit fanatics, and truly seemed to help push along the agenda of the latter with some greater urgency by artfully addressing our culture’s impatience and unquestionable belief in expansion and growth as a sign of progress, irrespective of consequences ranging from resource depletion to alienation. We have, as author/activist Bill McKibben has observed, “become so good at individualism that we’ve forgotten we need other people.”

Many members of Arcade Fire grew up in the suburbs (as did this writer) and no doubt our collective memories are as complicated and conflicted as any product of a cul de sac. Arcade Fire’s 2010 concert tour features videos projected of adolescent boys tooling around on bikes circa 1970—this was the era of what we now are forced to refer to as free-range kids, a time when you could explore your neighborhood unattended, run through woods and canyons, and build ugly treehouses without incurring the wrath of the local homeowners’ association.

“Took a drive into the sprawl to find the places we used to play. It was the loneliest day of my life…”

Interestingly enough, it’s urban dwellers who are becoming the most active in turning this trend around. Safe Routes to Schools, organizations like Boltage, and events like Walk to School Day are hoping to reverse the trend: 88% kids who lived within a mile of school walked or biked in the 1960s; today it’s just 35%. Districts are redrawing maps to encourage children to attend neighborhood schools.

“First they built the road and then they build the town. That’s why we’re driving around and around and all we see are kids in buses longing to be free.”

Work-wise, cities are leading the way in centralized, collaborative workspaces where you can rent workspace from 5 hours per week to full-time. There’s little reason to suggest that this model can’t be transplanted to non-urban communities.

No one wants to be told there’s something wrong with where they live, and suburban dwellers are no exception. But all suburbs are not created equal, and it’s the tragic ruins we’re left with like California City that we need to drastically reconsider. There are good suburban models to learn from and emulate just as there are many to avoid at all costs. It’s not about style or square footage, lawns or gates. It’s about taking a good hard look at what we’ve lost in the era of “drive ‘til you qualify” and what we might gain by creating a new model for creating communities, and indeed envisioning a new American Dream.