I can’t believe it. We actually did it. We just bought a house in the suburbs. And, after a few more weeks of renovations, we will be moving in full time. We’ll be moving to the land of SUVs, non-walkable, car-centric, single family wastefulness that embodies urban sprawl. We even bought a new (to us) 2nd car to support our new life of excess to accompany a home with more bedrooms than we have people. This may seem normal to you, but if you’ve read my work about efficiency, lifestyle design, and riding a bike, you understand that this (on the surface) appears like a complete lifestyle paradigm shift. And in many ways it is. But, ironically, in some ways it will actually be more in line with the priorities we espouse for this stage of life.
Living the City Life Dream?
I love our old little house but I’m not sure we were really living the city life dream. At first glance our current home met the correct efficiency metrics- in-town, small, efficient, walkable (ish), paid-for. Just a few blocks from some really great trails, parks, and restaurants. Less than a mile to an incredible downtown and less than two from my office and entertainment. However, just beneath the surface were a few missing components to an ideal in-town experience. We live off a nice little street but the traffic moves quickly and almost all of our neighbors are elderly or college students. The elementary school we were zoned for is one of the weakest 5% in the state. Although we can walk around, many of our friends (and other areas we spend lots of time) are actually just out of walking/biking distance. While our home was awesome before we had kids, it has changed a bit with the two newest editions. Part of the changes are really a function of the evolution of our life over the last five years. Five years ago schools didn’t matter, going out downtown was an exciting activity, work was twice as close, and we were the college students next door. The biggest takeaway for us is that our needs in a home change as our lives evolve. (picture is the new house in the burbs’)
I have two competing images in my head. One is this idyllic one of walking or riding bikes to school with my little girl. Taking strolls to the park or the local coffee shop. Checking out the local farmer’s market, visiting the Y, and an easy ride or walk to work each day. Then there is a competing vision of the kids playing basketball in the cul-da-sac, exploring undeveloped woods, attending high-achievement schools, leaving the mountain bikes unlocked, and having room at the family home to host large gatherings, birthday parties, and have family and friends from out of town stay for days comfortably. Choosing a home and location is based on how our lives are designed to function and that changes over the years.
The Suburban Dream (In-Town)
It’s possible to live a suburban life in town. It’s possible to have a nice home in a kid friendly neighborhood with a yard, that’s walkable, close to town, with parks and bike trails nearby. In fact, our small town has some incredible areas that are just that, only a few miles away, with the best schools (often private) that money can buy. It is all possible. But for our family, the set of financial trade-offs it would take to build a suburban life in town are difficult to prioritize. The financial differential between home prices (including schools costs) mean that an in-town life would require an extreme reduction in other areas of spending if we wanted to keep our costs consistent. Staying in town would ironically dramatically increase our spending to achieve a similar style of life. And we are torn because many of our closest friends are not emotionally or financially positioned to value the trade-offs of living in town. To spend time with our family and close friends, we already need a car to make life convenient. Many of our closest friends have moved out of town. Ten years ago, while living in the same town- just a mile or two from where we live currently, 95% of my friends lived within a 2 mile radius. Now, the same group of friends (that still live in our city) has expanded the radius dramatically and many live further out in suburban or rural environments. We can make new friends, but we plan to spend time with our old ones as well.
Growing Up Out of Town
I spent my youthful years in a quiet cul-de-sac a few miles from town with a couple of neighbors and lots of woods. I lived about 8 miles from my school and spent most of my days riding a bicycle through the woods around neighborhood streets. I went to an in-town school and all of my close friends were certainly a car ride away. But I had neighbors, miles of trails in the woods, the ability to drive our 4-Wheeler around, shoot BBguns in the woods or launch fireworks without disturbing anyone. We also lived where the dogs didn’t need leashes and all of our neighbors could play in the street without worry. I didn’t really think much about not being able to walk everywhere for entertainment. Most of my entertainment was outside or in the home’s basement. It never occurred to me that I was missing out not being next to a park- I could walk for hours outside without anyone ever noticing me. To some extent, I felt like one of those latch key kids from Stranger Things. I adapted to what I had and enjoyed it. (Pictures is our new backyard)
I also lived in a blue-collarish neighborhood. My parents were definitely the most educated family around and most of the people had pretty simple jobs. While our spending patterns were in-line with most of the neighbors, our family wealth (unknown at the time) was likely multiples more than the rest. Looking back, we were the millionaire-next-door type of family without even realizing it. I suppose there is a little ironic that I’m stepping into a similar style of life to that of my parents.
The Brutal Commute
The biggest inefficiency for living in the burbs often centers around the expense (both time and money) of a life spent wasting away in a metal box on four wheels. Right now (pre-move) it takes me about twelve minutes to get to work on my bike. I live about two miles from my office and a little less than that from the downtown area. It takes about seven or eight minutes to drive to my office. My new commute will end up taking somewhere around twenty minutes door to door. Some days a little less or more but even that is about the limit of my driving distance. The irony is, our total family driving time will decrease by moving 6 miles further away from the city center. My wife spends more time than I shuttling the kids around and the new location will actually bring her closer to the suburban car-centric outlets where she does her quick shopping. We’ll be less than two miles from the grocery store, tasty restaurants, and some low key entertainment choices.
I can say “I get it”. I get why people do it. I get why people leave a town. I get why people move away from precious life in-town see they’ve constructed. I get why they make life complicated. I get why people drive hours on end each week outside the city. Currently, I’m willing to make the trade for an additional 15 minutes a day but I’ll be curiosity see if it lasts. I’m certain I’ll be reevaluating life if it took me to a big city where the commute/tradeoff numbers where even longer and large. As I think through it, I’ll work to post about making suburban life as efficient as possible. While significantly more resource intensive and wasteful, I’ll work through some of the unique ways we’ve chosen our specific location to maximize the efficiency of our specific location. What about you? Do you live in the city? Country? City-burbs? How to you keep things simple when you see the push for complexity?