A question I’ve been contemplating lately is whether we should continue living in the city center or move to a house in the suburbs. The distinction between a city and a suburb isn’t clear-cut. While a city is the core of a metropolitan area, a suburb is an area on the periphery of city limits. Generally, cities have large populations over a small area, but suburbs can have even larger populations of hundreds of thousands or a million residents — just spread across a lot more square kilometers.
Here are a few thoughts on the subject.
The COVID-19 lockdown has given us a taste of how life could be without the noise and air pollution produced by cars, trucks and most of all scooters/motorcycles in big cities. As a person who works from home, it was fantastic to be able to keep windows open during the day, breathe fresh air at any time and even smell the sea when the wind was blowing inland. Along with those novelties, I started to cycle and exercise outside and found it extremely enjoyable. The streets were pretty much taken over by bicycles and runners in fact, and cycling shops recorded record sales during the lockdown months.
The day the lockdown was partially lifted was a big contrast. Cycling suddenly became much more dangerous and frankly, the noise and pollution killed all the joy of it. Moreover, being on lockdown also offered another perspective on how important or not it is to be surrounded by shops and activities as well as the importance of having a home that you enjoy.
I was born and raised in Malta, where the concept of cities and suburbs is blurred since you don’t really have a big central city; there are parts that look more like a city and others that feel more like rural living, but you never get the same feeling as living in a real city. Using personal means of transportation is a must and you get accustomed to needing 15-40 minutes to get anywhere important such as the university, work, beach, gym, etc.
City Life Experience
Although I’ve traveled a lot and visited many big cities, my first real experience of living in one was Barcelona, and I fell in love with the lifestyle instantly. I liken it to the experience of drinking Vodka and Red Bull mixed together (a favorite from back in the clubbing days in my early twenties although I wouldn’t recommend it). It’s exactly that feeling of losing some inhibitions and being more open to new ideas, plus the buzz and excitement of new opportunities that abound in a city like Barcelona.
Chiang Mai was another big city I had the experience of living in, although in a funny way it feels both more rural and way more congested and polluted than the typical city in Europe.
The upsides of living in a city:
- More meetups and new experiences than you can even keep up with
- Possibility of meeting an incredibly diverse set of people
- Being challenged in new ways and possibly having to face some inner demons. I see this as a good thing if addressed correctly.
Looking back, I can see how life in a city has taken all the attributes of my character and amplified them. That meant that I was able to advance very rapidly in work and fitness due to the people I met, inspirational work spaces and meetups, and the wealth of sports facilities, athletes, and coaches. On the other hand, it also meant that some of the weak points of my character were also severely put to the test.
For example, it has always been really important for me to have a safe space, which I usually found at home and more specifically my room at home. As long as I had that one comfortable space where I could shut off the rest of the world and recharge (reading, writing, video games, etc) I felt safe and at peace. I am very sociable but I need to be able to retreat to that space when I need to. Life in the city for the most part robbed me of that space. This brings me to the next point.
Life with Kids
When you have kids, you really need more space, and city apartments start looking much less attractive. Kids can still benefit of the proximity to things in the city and the multitude of things they can do, but home life can be challenging especially if one or both parents are working from home.
Then there’s the question of schools. In our case, we ended up choosing a school that was quite far from the city center. That means a longish commute to and from the school on a daily basis, which gets tiring and expensive if you’re using taxis. I’ve since learned that for young families, proximity to their kids’ schools is usually the number one factor when they choose where to live.
One can argue that life in the suburbs is safer. There are fewer people, less traffic, and potentially a stronger neighboring community. On the other hand, if you’re being targeted by thieves, a house can in many cases be more vulnerable than an apartment.
Suburbs clearly win out on this point. There’s less noise and less air pollution when compared to life in the city.
With most suburbs, due to the fact that everything is much more spaced out, you will need to have one or more cars to function on a daily basis. This can mean less time spent walking and biking; two essential activities for health. You might need to regularly drive back to the city if you attend any activities there such as gyms, music or art lessons, etc.
Depending on where you live, the suburbs might also be hilly parts which make moving around even more uncomfortable and oblige you to use motorized transportation. This is the case in Barcelona and its immediate suburbs, for example. Cities tend to rise around flat plains and access to water historically, so they are more or less flat and easy to walk around, although there are exceptions of course.
The main points in favor of suburb life are less pollution, more space, and perhaps a safer environment. In favor of cities, we have easier access to hospitals, restaurants and other institutions. We have definitely more cultural activities and diversity.
School proximity is also a factor but since some schools can also be within the city it really depends on what school you end up choosing.
I am still torn between the two options, so if you have any thoughts and have tried both, please do leave a comment below.