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July 13, 2009

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We all know how I feel about suburbia. How would you redesign the suburbs?

The question is the subject of a contest from Dwell magazine and Inhabitat. I’m pretty curious how Snarketeers would answer this question.

Posted July 13, 2009 at 12:58 | Comments (11) | Permasnark
File under: Briefly Noted, Cities


I think it would be cool if more places looked like Forest Hills Gardens in Queens. Designed by Frederick Law Olmsted, Jr - I know at least one Snarkmaster has a crush on his dad.

It's a tough thing, though. Not all places can be lovingly designed with easy train access to a giant metropolis. I'm a little reluctant about endorsing anything that looks to make over a huge swath of the country in the east coast, railroad-garden-suburb image - nostalgia can't be the only approach here. What would a futurist (or at least futural) suburb look like?

Extreme privatization of roads and services; the elimination of zoning. Too much emphasis on building a community and not letting a community build itself seems like the root of manyissues with identical houses and neighborhood-less grid layouts.

All I know is, everything has a green roof. Everything. You can't stand on the roof of the California Academy of Science and not feel like it is -- needs to be -- the future. (And this already looks like a still from Star Wars.)

I like John's point re: letting a community build itself. The urban forms we respond to -- the ones that seem warm, inviting, and yes, even a little nostalgic -- are the really organic ones.

Thinking out loud, here --

What if "urban planning" wasn't so much "planning" as it was providing a strong, useful set of tools -- legal, economic, infrastructural -- for people to use themselves? What if all urban planning resembled somewhat the formalization of slums -- "you know what, you go there, start building, put your roots down... and then we'll build infrastructure."

Don't draw me a grid; give me a toolbox.

And this we come full circle; Robin wants to live in a hobbit-hole.

I should mention again the awesome Walker exhibit that reimagined the suburbs. The exhibit book includes a great overview essay making the case for artistic and architectural re-engagement with suburbs. A taste:

The suburbs have always been a fertile space for imagining both the best and the worst of modern social life. On the one hand, the suburbs are portrayed as a middle-class domestic utopia, and on the other as a world of unrelenting homogeneity and stifling conformity. Most of what we think we know about suburbia has been shaped by its portrayal in various media‚€”film, music, literature, and television in particular‚€”where it has been depicted alternately as an idyllic setting for family life in TV sitcoms, for instance, and a dysfunctional landscape of discontent in Hollywood movies. In a more recent twist, these separate qualities are combined in a dualistic whole: the pleasant veneer of suburbia masks its unsavory core.

The problem with so many end-of-suburbia theses is that they forget the most powerful thing about suburbia‚€”its symbolism and the idealism associated with it. What might be surprising to critics of suburbia is not that most people choose to live there, but that they do so contentedly. Despite decades of trying to apply urban theory and assumptions onto suburban scenarios, it seems far more likely that suburbia itself will adapt and evolve accordingly. The ecological angle is but the latest variation on arguments against suburbia, as Robert Bruegmann makes clear in his essay, ‚€œLearning from Sprawl,‚€ which chronicles the successive waves of criticism about sprawl over the last century (page 257).

Tim, you always accuse me of hobbit-dom -- justly -- but you ignore the fact that these green slopes are placed *atop tall towers of glass and steel*. More soaring elf-city than Shire!

I'm sorry, when you said you wanted to build them like slums, I assumed we were talking about modest shanties, punctuated by the occasional mini-estate like Bag End. You don't just throw up shining towers of glass and steel, Sloan! You need an Elrond to plan Rivendell. (And to mix up my lit-refs, even Macondo needed a Jose Arcadio Buendia.)

Also, Matt's link to his old 2005 post on the suburbs (above) sent me to read my old 2005 post on the suburbs, which contains these gems:

  • Suburbs are like Adorno and Horkheimer's dialectic of enlightenment in little grass and pavement capsules. But, you know, with box stores.

  • Chances are that if it's big enough and safe enough and nice enough, you can't afford it. You couldn't afford it before you had kids. You just didn't notice.

  • [My house is] almost 3000 square feet, and over 100 years old, built of stone, brick, and stucco, and traps heat like Satan's own tightly puckered asshole. (Too much? Okay, a little too much.)

  • the failure of public education in the cities is a political and economic problem for the city as a whole as much as it as an educational problem for city children.

  • The suburbs are the twentieth century's bulwark against itself.

Man, four years ago, I had it goin' on.


We could also eliminate restrictions on public transit; get rid of taxi medallions and promote paying passerbys for spontaneous shuttling.

Here's an idea that I got from, um, The Backyardigans - blocks and developments with common backyards. Think about it - instead of fences and hedges and multiple lawns and pools, behind everyone's house is a giant, shared semi-private park.

I grew up on a farm. Until I went away to school, I was unaware that there existed a motorized gizmo especially for trimming the edge of a lawn along a path or sidewalk. It struck me as the landscape equivalent of the nosehair trimmer.

Yet I'm skeptical of the sweeping criticisms of suburbs that simmer on the political left, and Matt's linked essays resonated with me. It's rational to migrate to the local optima of taxes, home prices, crime rates, and SAT scores. Also, a lot of them have FiOS! And I think of my own future home in terms of a laundry list of prohibitions:

I'll never live in a place where I can't grow vegetables, hens, clotheslines, and science projects in the front and back yard, or turn it into a native-plant sanctuary or a rock garden if I damn well please. If I live in a desert, I'll never water a lawn or fill a pool. I'll never live where I or my hypothetical kids can't bike to the library or parks. I never want to commute longer than an hour or so, ideally not driving. I'll never settle where there are no seasons for food, no funky hole-in-the-wall ethnic restaurants, where specialty ingredients are only found online. I'll never live where I can't get outdoors on public land for the weekend.

That's a lot of nevers, though. I'm hesitant to force them on anybody else. I worry, though, that the economy might force me to make exceptions, kids or no kids.

Anyway, so much good stuff to read in this post. Thanks all.

Posted by: Jake on July 13, 2009 at 10:25 PM
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