Even moms with time to play tennis seem unhappy

On any given weekday in affluent, suburban Connecticut, young and middle-aged women in tennis dresses can be seen and heard complaining to their friends (live or via cell phone) about how busy they are.

    It may be hard to allocate some of oneís sympathy coinage to them in light of the troubles faced by less fortunate families in the state, but their woes should be enough to beg the question of why people who seemingly have it all are so unhappy with their lifestyles.

    The new suburbs are a place where more is less. This isnít the "Leave it to Beaver" subdivision anymore where the neighborhood allowed a certain freedom to kids and their parents.

    Modern residential developments are places of isolation in which kids must rely on their parents to arrange something as simple as play, and the hours in a parentís day are consumed by their automobiles more voraciously than gasoline. Being far from the madding crowd can be maddening.

    The question of why the quality of life for many people has diminished at the same time the standards of living have gone higher is the focus of a modern architectural movement known as the "New Urbanism" and is well-detailed in a book by its founders titled "Suburban Nation".

    Andres Duany, Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk and Jeff Speck are the architects who designed, among others, Seaside, Florida and Kentlands, Maryland Ė entire communities built from scratch and structured around community and amenities within walking distance.

    Seaside, built in the middle of nowhere, is a victim of its own popularity, pricing itself out of the market it was intended to house. A 1200 square foot two-bedroom dwelling now sells in the $500,000 range.

    While suburban sprawl has been tied by some to every problem facing contemporary society Ė urban isolation of minorities, pollution, traffic congestion, antisocial behavior in teenagers, ecological imbalances, etc., Duany, Plater-Zyberk and Speck make the case that the main problem with the suburbs is that they simply are not functional.

    Even when suburbs back up to a shopping center, they note, the road design is such that getting to the store requires an automobile to get there. Suburbs are full of "virgin sidewalks."

    The cul-de-sacs and wide open spaces may be fine for five-year-olds, but are isolating to older kids. Youngsters not old enough to drive are not afforded the opportunity to practice being adults -- as in running their own errands on a bicycle.

    And the costs involved in owning and maintaining the multiple cars necessary for the suburban lifestyle are a huge portion of the household budget.

    Though modern-home buyers will say the most important criterium in their selection is the type of community in which the house is located, they are instead taken in by appearance and marketing.

    The attractive-sounding names of subdivisions Ė Pheasantís Run or Devonís Gate Ė perpetuate the ruse.

    Zoning codes, which donít allow for mixed-uses, are one reason. As much as people might like to have a corner store to which they could walk for a gallon of milk or a bottle of aspirin, the likelihood is that the town would never allow even the smallest commercial use in their neighborhood. And minimum lot-size requirements make the economics of running such a store unfeasible.

    Another area where town-planning has gone awry is in the construction of schools, where bigger has been thought to be better, resulting in massive schools which are no longer a walk or bike-ride away. And there is evidence that the construction of additional highways and lanes actually creates more traffic congestion by encouraging people to commute.

    Traditional neighborhoods do exist. The houses around West Hartford Center come immediately to mind.

    Even here in Darien, where they need to work on the diversity thing (if you see a black person, chances are heís not far from his broom), there are some traditional neighborhoods. My wife and I have downsized to one car (she walks to the train to go to work), and we can stroll to the library, the store, out to dinner or to the movies. There have been kids playing Wiffle Ball (without adult supervision) on our street most nights this summer.

    Some people still live in neighborhoods, but even more remember growing up in them. Parents today pine to replicate their own childhoods, where on Saturday they were shooed out the door and told to be home for dinner. Todayís kids are so over-scheduled that the latest trend is to schedule free time.

    I was at a party recently hosted by one of my old neighbors. We figured that on a street less than a half-mile long, there were more than 100 kids. When our mothers had to run an errand, we were told to go outside and play. When we were toddlers, it was no big deal for our mothers to leave us with a neighbor for a while instead of packing 100 pounds of gear into the car for a trip to the supermarket. And there was no shortage of neighborhood babysitters.

   To be sure, things today are not as they once were. There are a lot more working mothers for one thing and the economics of raising a family are very different. But the design of suburban subdivisions makes the modern reality even harder.

    The authors of Suburban Nation lay out the requirements for building places to live worth caring about, including a list of walking-distance amenities and services that have proved highly-successful in their designs. Itís a worthwhile read for town planners and nostalgic parents and might prove especially rewarding for those tennis moms seeking to understand the causes of their dissatisfaction.

    If they can find the time to read.

August 30, 2000