A New Voice on the American Way of Life: Scholar's data-rich book suggests new ways of seeing the suburbs

June 14, 2010

Suburban living is the most popular choice for the good life for Americans. But must the strip mall and the eight-lane highway define the quality of 21st-century American life?

That is a central question about the modern metropolis—with its center city core, suburbs, and exurbs—that political scientist and leadership scholar Thad Williamson explores.

In his new book Sprawl, Justice, and Citizenship: The Civic Costs of the American Way of Life, Williamson takes a data-rich look at the world of soccer moms, gated communities, cul de sacs, big-box stores and gas-gulping commutes.

What makes this book fresh is, first, its use of a landmark 30,000-person survey to examine life in America today, and second, the nuanced portrait that emerges from this study. On the one hand, Williamson shows how sprawling neighborhoods contribute to diminished civic life and increased social inequality. For instance, suburban residents (controlling for other factors) are less likely to belong to a political organization or to have participated in a protest. On the other hand, suburban dwellers are happier than urbanites with their communities and more likely to trust their neighbors.

These varied findings point to the following paradox: Suburban sprawl is damaging to equality, damaging to political engagement, and damaging to the environment yet Americans (by and large) like it anyway. “Finding ways to preserve what is good in America’s metropolitan areas while addressing the long-standing inequalities between cities and suburbs that have produced endless sprawl is one of the most pressing and challenging leadership problems of this generation,” Williamson says.

Williamson can serve as a source or speaker on topics such as: 

  • Why suburban communities remain popular.
  • How aging residents and rising crime rates are changing the suburban ideal.
  • There are more poor people living in suburbs today than in central cities.
  • How existing suburban areas can be improved--“retrofitted,” with sidewalks, shared spaces, higher-density housing, and more engaged community life.
  • What lifestyle and transportation changes could matter most to strengthen communities?
  • Real-world strategies for improving urban school systems.
  • Why people are becoming more worried about the environmental costs of sprawl.
  • Why the bad economy is trapping people in their current houses and limiting mobility, and what that might mean short- and long-term.

Thad Williamson is Assistant Professor of Leadership Studies and Political Science at the Jepson School of Leadership Studies, the University of Richmond. His next book is on the politics of Richmond, Va. 

Media inquiries: