Thoughts on a St. Louis Suburb

By Taylor Campi

I spent a large portion of my recent 4-day trip to St. Louis, Missouri, in the suburbs west of the city. As is true in the majority of American suburbs, the development and activity in this part of town revolve heavily around the use of cars. I first noticed this on my 6-minute walk from the Metro Link light rail stop to my hotel. The hotel is a massive 8-story rectangular structure that juts noticeably from its rather flat surroundings, and is clearly visible from the light rail stop (photo below). To reach it, however, one must cross under the interstate and through a number of large parking lots.

View of my hotel from the Metro Link station

My first observation on the walk was that the place seemed empty. In Portland, I’m used to sharing the sidewalk with other pedestrians, even in quieter parts of town, or at least seeing a cyclist or two pass through. The difference here wasn’t necessarily that there were fewer people around, but just that they were hiding in their cars! This behind-car-doors version of community activity felt woefully reminiscent of the Indiana suburb in which I grew up, often longing to live elsewhere, but never certain why until I moved to a city and experienced the lively, community-driven public spaces I’d lacked in my youth. In my own experience, the presence of fellow pedestrians has often provided a greater sense of community and safety, as well as offered opportunity for social interaction, which is a key determinant of mental health. The loss of a sense of community on the streets is just one of the sacrifices suburbs have made in order to accommodate car-centric consumerism.

            View from my hotel room of the parking lot and mall across the street

Next I noticed how the walk made me feel—I was bored! I found myself wanting to check my phone, maybe call my mom or a friend, anything to pass the (short) time until I reached the hotel. Suffice it to say that my surroundings did not excite or engage me, and considering that said surroundings were commercial/retail and restaurants, I’d expect their goals to include the engagement and interest of passersby. Then again, when the vast majority of passersby are in cars, engaging pedestrians will come secondary to accommodating drivers. If cities are to break this cycle of car-centric spaces encouraging car use and vice versa, they cannot expect transit and crosswalks alone to do the trick. If we want walkability in our communities (and we do!), we must change the physical structure of such places in ways that prioritize the pedestrian and cyclist over the car, and that make the car less necessary or favorable.

Another reason I felt bored was because nothing here was unique, new to me, or particular to this place. I could have been in almost any other suburb and had the same experience. I say “almost” because I’ve found that in the Pacific Northwest, many of the suburbs I’ve encountered seem to maintain more of a sense of place than their Midwestern counterparts. I have to wonder if this is because of what we can see beyond our immediate surroundings. In the flat landscapes of the Midwest, all we can usually see is whatever development or nature is in our immediate vicinity. In more mountainous areas, however, there are often faraway hills or mountains peeking over the horizon that add a bit of nature or character to our perception of that area. For this reason, the stakes are higher, in a sense, for suburban development in places with short lines of sight and no protruding horizon features because what gets developed (and what nature gets preserved) in these spaces makes up the entirety of our view.

Walmart in Indiana

Walmart in Arizona