Alex Massie

In Suburbia

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Megan McArdle writes:

Because I've always lived in cities, I don't even understand the utility of the big yards I see in the suburbs.  I get the purpose of a yard for children and dogs to play in, and summers on the patio.  But I don't get the point of the vast expanses of lawn that lie fallow in the more upscale suburbs.  They require vast upkeep for the benefit of . . . looking at green, empty space.  And the tradeoff seems to be a world where you can't get anywhere without driving and your neighbors are distant apparitions.

Well, I've divided my life between the city and the countryside and I've never lived in suburbia. Nor can I imagine doing so (though of course children might change that calculation). In an ideal world I would own a flat in the city and a cottage in the countryside. But few of us get to live in our ideal worlds and for many people, in the UK and the United States, life in suburbia is in many respects an attempt to split the difference, combining the fresh air, space and privacy of the countryside with the convenience and access to amenities of city life. (Plus, of course, in many American suburbs, better schools than are to be found in the inner-city).

In Britain at least - or more especially, in England - the garden represents, in many respects, an attempt to retain a link with a peaceful bucolic past in which life was simpler, purer, nicer. Almost every middle-class English family years for a place in the country, far from the hustle and bustle of the metropolitan life. Not for nothing is gardening one of the country's favourite pastimes (newspapers regularly entice readers with offers of free seeds or plants or gardening accoutrements). Nor is this passion confined to the wealthy; every British city still contains allotments, used by people of all classes to grow their own flowers and vegetables. Across the country, you'll find greenhouses wedged into the tiniest gardens and patios, to an extent uncommon elsewhere. in the cities, window-boxes are full to bursting with herbs and basement patios are packed with roses or tomato plants. Afternoons pottering amidst the plants remain a national passion. Much has changed in Britain since Orwell wrote his famous essay England Your England, but the love of flowers remains.

And so suburbia, with its advantages of space and privacy appeals. And in its way, despite all the compromises, it's a place filled with nostalgia; a place where you can mind your own business and expect your neighbours to mind theirs; somewhere the children can run about and play the way children are supposed to run about and play. If an Englishman's home is his castle, then his lawn and bed of roses are his pride and joy: I grew that he says, proud of his efforts at taming a little parcel of nature to his will (even if he relies on fertilisers and chemicals to do much of the heavy lifting).Obviously there's a status thing at work here as well, but it's not the only, or even the most important, consideration.

So, in that respect, the suburban lawn and garden seems a perfectly rational response, adapting an ancient human need  - growing things and forging, in however small a fashion, some link with the land itself - to the needs and patterns of contemporary life in which such connections can often seem frayed or, worse, abandoned entirely.

I think much of this must also apply to American suburban life too, most especially the advantages of size and privacy. It's the logical consequence of the deep-rooted American wish to lead lives free from interference from others. And, of course, at a certain level there's a cultural connection, however thin, between the expansion of suburban yards and building plots and the original pioneering spirit of the homesteaders, spreading out across the prairies and laying claim to their small patch of territory. In that sense, the young family that moves to a large suburban lot from the crowded inner-city is following a familiar, classically American, journey.

It's understandable that those of us fortunate enough to have lived in lovely cities or to have grown up in beautiful parts of the countryside might find aspects of suburban life strange and unfulfilling (or, in my case, find American suburbia a weird, yet fascinating, blend of the familiar and the deeply weird). But the people who live in the suburbs and tend their lawns and yards have good reasons to be there. They're doing their best with what they have.

Written byAlex Massie

Alex Massie is Scotland Editor of The Spectator. He also writes a column for The Times and is a regular contributor to the Scottish Daily Mail, The Scotsman and other publications.

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