The Tragic Comedy of the American Suburbs
In many ways, I am a product of the suburbs. As a middle class white male from Dallas, I am quite familiar with the setting and I’ve spent a large portion of my life either living in or visiting the suburbs. Almost my entire extended family resides there and my hometown is notorious for its sprawling suburban development. I know the suburbs. The suburbs are my home. Nevertheless, I despise what the suburbs represent: a psychological, social and ecological disaster.
More than any other settlement pattern, the suburbs embody the middle class American dream. We are all too familiar with the picture perfect fantasy: the white picket fence, the two story house, the 2 or 3 or 4 car garage, the meticulously manicured chem-lawn, and of course, the anti-depressed family of four with a dog and maybe a cat or three. As lovely as it sounds, this specific form of the American dream has had a ruinous social impact.
It has never been an inclusive dream. Historically, it was largely the dream of white people who desired exclusivity, security, and privacy. These are understandable values when you are raising a family. However, the reciprocal values of strong community, social justice, and mutual trust are equally important. The phenomenon of white flight shows which value set was preferred.
White flight during the decades following World War II was driven both by the pull of the suburbs and by the push of urban decay. These white families were motivated as much by the alluring prospect of suburban retreat as they were by xenophobia. Either way, white flight was an escape strategy; and the suburbs represent the divisive impulse of the majority to socially detach from the uglier side of society: the crime and poverty of deprived urban ghettos, for instance.
Unfortunately as whites fled the inner city, so too did much of the political will needed to address the glaring social inequalities that were at the root of the problem. Once your family had successfully retreated to the comfort of the suburbs, these social ills were out of sight and out of mind. The quality of public education in the inner city no longer affected your kids, so who cares if the city school district is corrupt, or schools are not getting the funding they need.
As a result, the inner city was chronically neglected and these problems were basically ignored. Over time they became more severe, creating an ever-widening achievement gap between privileged, white suburbanites and poor, inner city minorities. So the regrettable social legacy of white flight to the suburbs was a new era of de facto segregation in America.
To illustrate some of the nastier psychological effects of suburban development, let’s take a look at the most exclusive type of sub-division: the gated community. And just a reminder before we begin our tour – humans are social animals. What we call a gated ‘community’ could be more accurately described as a self-imposed suburban ghetto for the privileged with a security fence surrounding it. And for many it is the apex of the suburban American dream: exclusivity, security and privacy.
But there is little true community within these quaint gates of heavy steel. As you enter, you are immediately confronted with a security checkpoint staffed by the community’s very own private security force (usually a bunch of teenaged kids whose patrol duties include tooling around the neighbourhood on golf carts). 8 foot privacy fences, enclosed garages and guard dogs keep the neighbors at a safe distance and ensure that any uninvited outsiders are met with the hostility they deserve. The range of activities within the gates is quite limited: no shopping, no restaurants or cafes, no public life whatsoever. It’s essentially a place for scared rich people to sleep and eat in relative peace; a glorified dormitory with a massive padlock on the front door.
A general mood of suspicion and fear pervades most households because the entire design of the so-called community serves to alienate and isolate individuals, rather than fostering the mutual trust upon which strong communities are built. This is the American suburb in its most extreme form, shockingly similar to the settlement patterns of white South Africans during Apartheid. It’s time to do better.
The ecological impacts of suburban development are equally disastrous. This is perhaps the most obvious downside of the suburban living arrangement. Nearly everything about the suburbs is ecologically damaging. Here is a brief list of the problems:
1. The activities of the typical suburb are strictly zoned so that residential space is distinct and separate from commercial space. Traveling between these zones almost always requires a car because of the long distances involved and lack of pedestrian accommodation.
2. The houses are much larger than they need to be, which wastes building materials and energy. The size of your McMansion is a status symbol in the suburbs.
3. The conventional building materials used in home construction have very high embodied energy, meaning that they require lots of energy to manufacture and transport to the building site.
4. The houses are often very poorly designed and poorly built. A common design feature is the grandiose vaulted ceiling which wastes a ton of energy. Windows are often placed on west facing walls without any shade. In places like Texas, this can turn a room into a solar oven during the summer time.
5. Lawns are little more than grass covered chemical and fresh water sponges of questionable aesthetic value, and they are usually maintained with gasoline burning machines. The suburban lawn is probably the single biggest waste of resources within the typical household. Most lawns don’t even produce any useful food or herbs. They are literally just energy and water sinks.
6. Most suburbanites don’t work in the suburbs. Many drive long distances alone in their SUV just to get to work every day.
7. The predominant culture of ownership in the suburbs values private property over shared use. So everyone owns their own lawnmower and weed-eater, and it’s not uncommon to see 4 or 5 private backyard swimming pools on a given block.
Anyway, I could go on, but most of you have heard it all before. The bottom line is that this whole situation is a huge clusterfuck, and we have to figure out a way to fix it.
The Consummate Critic
James Howard Kunstler is one of the most outspoken critics of the suburban way of life. He has called it "the greatest misallocation of resources in the history of the world" and views the architecture of the suburbs as a symptom of our throw-away society. In his opinion, the massive investment dumped into suburban development after World War II not only wasted resources on a colossal scale, but also created a ‘geography of nowhere;’ a nation full of places that are not worth caring about. In addition he addresses the myriad and subtle ways that living in a landscape littered with strip malls and McMansions affects our attitudes and behaviors.
He has also criticized urban planners and modern architects, whom he dubs 'starkitects' for creating buildings and urban spaces that are scaled to accommodate machines rather than humans. A passionate champion of the principles of traditional architecture and urban design, he supports the emergent renaissance of the time-tested urban planning exemplified by many classic European cities. New Urbanism and the Principles of Intelligent Urbanism are two such approaches to urban design. Both draw inspiration from the cities of Europe and both can do much to revitalize the urban landscape, through an emphasis on creating quality public spaces for the community to gather, and through mixed use, human-scaled buildings which serve to bring the activities of the city together in symbiotic relationships.
Sensible design brings urban places to life – this is what the vibrant cities in Europe have going for them. Even the busiest European cities feel like a network of interconnected villages, particularly when you get off the beaten path. Almost every building is mixed use, with retail on the ground floor and private residences or office space on the floors above. And the settlement is always very dense, making neighbourhoods walk-able. Public space is emphasized and valued in the form of beautiful parks and plazas. This is a decent model for creating more functional, pleasing cities. The question of what to do with our existing suburban infrastructure is more challenging (more on that in future posts).
Kunstler refers to the built environment of America's suburbs as a ‘tragic comedy’; a cultural wasteland which does nothing to edify its inhabitants. The sad fact is that the suburban landscape was built for cars full of consumers, not people. Many of the places we have inherited are characterized by an alienating infrastructure which discourages one from truly engaging with others and enjoying a place.
Instead, we have grown accustomed to the drive thru convenience of our built environment. That peculiar kind of convenience, which is utterly inconvenient unless you drive everywhere, has become the primary value for most Americans when they interact with their urban environment. For them, the convenience of their driving experience takes priority over quality -- so it's more important to get a burger at the drive thru in less than 2 minutes than it is to get a decent burger. Likewise, every major urban development includes a gargantuan multi-story parking garage or a massive slab of asphalt to park the cars, regardless of the aesthetic sacrifice. In this way the built environment is simply a reflection of the deeper values of our throw away culture.
The same culture that is seduced by the glorious efficiency of McDonald's and disposable everything: plates, cutlery, contact lenses, diapers, etc. also accepts expendable buildings which are no longer aesthetically rewarding, but exist solely to facilitate our primary function in modern society, which is to consume. These facilities of consumption do little to foster any other type of activity within the community. They are designed to get you in, get you spending, and then get you out the door again, back into your car.
The Wal-Mart for instance, is not designed to be a particularly warm enriching experience, inviting you to spend your afternoon there. It’s a massive warehouse with bad fluorescent lighting. The irony is that you end up spending your entire afternoon there unintentionally, just trying to get through the gauntlet of diversions and through the check out.
We're quickly turning our cities, and the network of suburban developments between them, into clones of each other; destroying almost everything that is unique and special about a place. We are destroying the precious story of place for the sake of economic development, which all too often takes the form of a strip mall full of corporate retail. Many American cities feel like habitats for corporate retail establishments rather than habitats for humans.
I’ll turn it over to Kunstler now: enjoy! He’s actually pretty funny.
(great example of a developer that's trying to create better human habitats)
(good wikipedia article explaining the Principles of Intelligent Urbanism)
(A San Francisco based non-profit organization that works with architects, developers, and planners, teaching how to implement the principles of New Urbanism)