Greetings From the Exurbs
As massive lines of luxury cars again snake their way through the East End’s pumpkin patches this fall, we’ve been hearing many people lately puzzle over one big conundrum. How do we characterize the place where we live?
Growing up here among the potato and cauliflower fields, many of us were told by our teachers that we lived in a rural area. As children, it gave us a solid understanding of where we were, in a place that gave us vast swaths of open space, plentiful if monochromatic farms, but also the economic depression and cultural isolation so common in rural areas.
Now, we hear developers coming before planning boards here shooting down community concerns about the changing rural nature of our neighborhoods. This is a suburban place, they argue, and their development plans are in keeping with generations of understanding about what a suburb is.
While this is an easy way for builders to climb out of a discussion they’d rather not have, the truth is that the East End is neither rural nor suburban. It’s an exurban place — has been for years — but outside of hasty quips in vacation sections of metropolitan newspapers, there’s not much said about what an exurb is.
The term was first coined by author Auguste Spectorsky in his 1955 book “The Exurbanites” to describe prosperous areas outside beyond the suburban sprawl surrounding New York City. At the time, those areas included both Nassau and Westchester counties, which by now are decidedly suburban areas.
Planners have since expanded on these ideas, highlighting major issues that help define exurbs — areas with poor transportation networks and economies that are underdeveloped due to their distance from the urban center.
One need only attempt to travel without a car west of Riverhead and then try the same thing here to realize how underdeveloped the East End’s transportation system is. For those of us lucky to own cars, this might not seem like a major problem, but the traffic on our roads is in many ways related to the lack of public transportation.
The idea that our economy here is underdeveloped might at first blush seem unlikely — after all, this place is filled with shops and restaurants and second homes that require an army of tradespeople to maintain. But without this tourist and second home economy, and health care services, we wouldn’t have an economy here at all. Corporate and manufacturing jobs are not even in the mix.
Exurbs around this country have been under tremendous development strain since the beginning of the pandemic, and at this point that boils down to one key factor — corporate employers have learned that, in order to keep employees, they have to allow leeway for people who still want to work from home.
Nationwide, 81 percent of exurban counties saw population increases in 2021, while 68 percent of large urban counties saw a population decrease, according to a study on population shifts during the pandemic by the Economic Innovation Group.
This trend is not going away on the East End, even as offices in New York City attempt to return to their former ways of work.
Many of these transplants have made a decided effort to work to protect the East End, joining civic groups and offering skill sets that were much-needed here.
But the nature of increased residential development leads us inexorably toward suburbanization. We often hear people who live here now recall the farms and open spaces they remember from their youth in places like Smithtown and Patchogue.
The bad news is that, as development marches further east, the need for infrastructure improvements and school services increases, raising property taxes along the way.
The good news is that planners have been on to this trend for a while — that’s why the comprehensive planning process has been so important everywhere on the East End. With innovative and forward-thinking zoning in place, we can keep much of what is still special about this place.
Our unique geography can also work in our favor. The estuaries that surround us nurture industries as diverse as ecotourism, shellfish farming and recreational boating, which are a rarity among areas that are just a map dot removed from suburban sprawl in any random direction.
We had to chuckle when a developer proposing a new hotel on the North Fork recently attempted to shoot down neighbors’ concerns about changing the rural character of Southold by saying the area was already suburban. If we really are the suburbs, what is special enough about this place to warrant a destination hotel stay away from the city?