An Urban Life With Suburban Expectations

Managing expectations is a key aspect of living a happy, fulfilled life. It is also an important part of lifestyle design. The second aspect of managing expectations is being able to fully convey the same ideas clearly to those around you including your spouse, family, children and coworkers. Have you ever done something really awesome but still felt a little let down because of extremely high expectations? Have you ever had an experience exceed your expectations? That is a great feeling. Do you typically find that your experiences exceed your expectations or fall short? How much of that is external and how much is internal?


My wife and I grew up in a suburban or semi-suburban area. I grew up with the notion that if I wanted to go somewhere (aside from my next door neighbor’s house) that I needed to ask my parents to drive me there. When my siblings got older they became the defacto shuttle service. And honestly, in my hometown, this is pretty much the typical, normal lifestyle. My wife grew up in super-suburbia. Literally, the movie The Joneses was filmed a few blocks from where she was raised. There were more Targets than poor people and even the neighborhood tennis courts and pools were a short drive away. My life was a little older, smaller town version of a relaxed neighborhood with big yards, average houses and lots of kids. I think we both grew up in the idealized post WWII portrait of the ‘American Dream’.

Suburbia is often romanticized as the best of both worlds. Not too close to anything but not too far from anything. However, it can also be considered by some as the worst of both worlds. An awkward, polarizing compromise that places someone not close to anything but not far enough away to have all the space you desire. To be honest, I enjoyed the suburban atmosphere. Our nice little neighborhood with a cul-de-sac, lots of people who looked just like me, and enough woods to make me feel like I could ride our four wheeler or bikes miles and miles. I could shoot bb guns and fireworks and never had to worry about the dogs running around without a leash or ‘scooping poop’.

My first experience living in an urban enviroment took place when I first studied abroad in Japan. I lived in the town of Utsunomiya. The irony is that by Japanese standards it is almost suburban. But by the American definition it is most definitely urban. I lived in the city with my host brother and the first thing I noticed was that we could go anywhere without asking his parents. It was the strangest concept to me that we didn’t have to wait for someone to take us to school, go out to eat, go to the movies or go shopping. We could literally bike or take transit pretty much anywhere in the city. The school didn’t have a parking lot, only a large set of bike racks to accommodate 250+ bikes. I think the high school my wife attended had 2,000 parking spaces. My short time in Japan was enough to expose me to a complete new idea to the way people can live their lives.

After college my first job was in the Philippine city of Manila. I think the biggest adjustment of living overseas, even more so than the cultural changes, was living in a densely urban city. It was packed, unique and an incredible experience. Makati city in Manila is one of my favorite places on earth. I had very few expectations before I arrived and I was pretty wide open to trying something new. One of the biggest changes for me was not having a vehicle. For the first time in my life I was on foot. And strangely loving it. Within a one mile radius I had almost everything I would need or could imagine. I think the other unique thing for me was that all of the friends I developed also lived very close (not too unlike my first year of college). Everyone lived their lives in a very small radius. It was simply not necessary to drive anywhere because everything was only a short distance away. I think growing up in a suburban environment distances are judged so differently. It’s not uncommon for someone to drive fifty miles one way to work. And even being near the office is only being a quick seven mile trip. Heck, in many of the super-suburban neighborhoods it’s often a mile or two simply to the entrance of the neighborhood. In Manila, space was shared. Having your own basketball court, gym, swimming pool, yard, movie theater and garage were all things that were available but not owned. Access was important but individuals certainly didn’t have the space to have personal versions of every available amenity. The tradeoff was that the typically shared spaces were larger and nicer than the individual versions. So, for me, living in Manila honestly was a paradigm shifting experience.

The difficultly lies in the fact that for individuals who were raised in the rural or suburban environments, it can be a dramatic shift when moving to an urban area. A lot of individuals move to densely urban areas for school or even postgraduate high paying jobs. For millennials, the shift has been even more dramatic. The goal for many baby boomers was to leave the rural life or the big city to have a space of their own. A little plot of land with a perfect lawn, a garden and a two car garage. It is interesting to watch a younger generation moving back into cities. To eschew the ideals of urban living and measuring distances in walking or biking miles.  But what can be equally as difficult is shedding the expectations of suburbia when living in the an urban space. It is unnecessary and almost prohibitively expensive to have a suburban lifestyle in the middle of a city.

So what are the expectations of suburbanites? I think the funniest example to me comes when answering the question: Where do we park? It’s even funnier when you respond.. “I don’t know, we normally walk or bike”. Not expected to walk, time is measured in car miles. Biking on the road is for ‘crazies’. And private, safe space is expected for play time. Events for suburban dwellers revolve around spending time at your house. If you have ever spent a holiday in suburbia, you will quickly understand that you arrive and spend the day at the house, watching tv, playing in the yard and eating lots of food. In urban environments time is spent doing things, often outside the home. The best playground is the park down the street and watching a movie happens at the local theatre or cinema. A meal for twenty involves standing or being in a public place or restaurant. It is possible to have fun without cable tv; it just takes a little bit more planning. And no, we probably don’t have a spare bedroom but we can setup a temporary bed in the living area if you want to spend a little bit of time with us. When space, money and resources are aplenty, the economic incentives to economize are limited. Efficiencies are not as important and are often met with confusion or questions. I enjoy both urban and suburban environments and articulating the differences is actually quite entertaining.

Set up expectations before hand. Being very clear when communicating what it will be like is an extremely important step that needs to be performed or the situation is set up for failure. If you live in a loft downtown, you will have to explain that visitors might have to park and walk a little ways to get to your home. Even long-term things like letting your friends and family know that you will be living in a smaller place and you will probably not have a few extra garage spots or spare bedrooms. That bathroom you have is sufficient for 355 days of the year but will take a little more planning the weekend when you have guests.  Let them know they need to bring walking shoes, that you will be spending more time outside than inside and they may want to bring a bike, book or board game because you don’t have cable to watch for hours every night.

Anytime you live a life that is different than your parents, friends or the way you grew up it is extremely important to convey what it takes to enjoy that lifestyle. For those who decide to live low impact lifestyles, rural, urban, vegetarian/vegan, or even just simpler housing accommodation, communication to others is important. You can do your best to explain the benefits or positives of the choices you have made to let others understand, without being condescending, why you live the way you do. When you live in a 200 sf studio, you don’t want to spend all your time sitting in that space. For many urban dwellers, the tradeoff in space is a worthwhile expense so that you never sit in vehicle in traffic again. But it can be extremely frustrating for suburbanites who visit a tiny intown house or condo only to sit seven deep not wanting to go outside.

In my life the divergence is an interesting observation. It seems my peers are split about 50/50 into where they want end up. Several have followed their parents’ footsteps into the same suburban neighborhoods, while others are committed to city centers and public parks. There are a lot of different lifestyles that make people happy. Choosing where you live can be a major decision in lifestyle design. People can be happy in urban, suburban and rural environments but I’ve realized that when we make the choice it is important to set expectations correctly for those around us so no one gets frustrated. Where do you live? What are the positives and tradeoffs of where you currently live? Did you live where you are now because you like it or you don’t want to move?

5 thoughts on “An Urban Life With Suburban Expectations

  1. I live in St. Louis, which means that everyone lives in the suburbs and almost no one actually lives in the city. Lifestyle inflation and the Joneses are everywhere!

    However, I do want a different lifestyle than most. I don’t want to constantly feel like I’m trying to one-up everyone.

    • The same can be said for most of the people that live in Atlanta. In Georgia it is pretty unique to live in an actual urban area. Our town Athens is one of the very few that has a livable city center. ATL has some massive suburban sprawl but the city is getting better.

  2. I think that any place you live probably has pros and cons. I live in a small town about 20 minutes away from our state’s capital. I feel like I have the best of both worlds because I enjoy a lower cost of living while having access to big city events and venues when I like.

    • That is true. I do think almost all places do have the positives and negatives. And it is interesting to see what specific things that make people choose where they live. It is pretty common for families with young kids to move about 20 minutes from the city center where we live but it seems that more and more are living a little closer in. I’ll be curious to see where the trend goes.

  3. In my small town in WV we noticed that we all wanted a pick up truck once in a while to do things. Rather than each of us actually buying a truck we all pooled our resources, setup an LLC, and the LLC bought a cheap old pickup truck. We setup a google calendar and share it so we can “reserve” the truck when we need it. We share in costs equitably including fuel and repair costs.