The Suburbs? Really?

Disclaimer: This post may come off as snobbish, inconsiderate, and perhaps a bit elitist. Also I will be making wide-sweeping generalizations in this piece. Don’t be alarmed–I know they might not hold as true as I claim.

With that out-of-the-way, I just thought that I would express my dislike for the suburbs. I really don’t like much about these places in America. Unfortunately this type of living has become nearly ubiquitous

When I say suburb, I have a particular strain of suburb in mind that I find appalling. I struggle to understand why people would want to move into a neighborhood where almost all of the houses are cut from the same sort of architectural plan, and every house looks eerily similar (though I am assured by the residents in these houses that their house is somehow unique and different from the others). Regardless, the lack of variation and creativity that is found in your typical cookie cutter suburb makes me gag.

If people had no choice, I would understand. It would be difficult to blame people who had limited means and chose such living arrangements because they had few options.

But these are fairly well off, affluent people who really want to live in these homes. They could choose to live elsewhere, in a neighborhood that actually had some character perhaps.

Aside from the complete lack of aesthetics, suburbs are not designed to foster community in a neighborhood. Houses are spaced just enough so they will give the illusion of neighbors and a community but are set apart far enough so that if you really don’t want to interact with your neighbors, you will never have to.

Even the winding subdivisions contribute to the aura of isolation that permeates suburban life. Instead of designing a street system that is useful, practical and inviting for people to drive down, the planner of the subdivision has created a maze, which has only a few entrances and exits. This discourages any sort of outsider interaction with the neighborhood in an attempt to shelter the inhabitants and provide them with an illusion of security within their gated community.

Instead of an atmosphere that cultivates normal communal relationships, the suburbs encourages people to live in isolation from each other without giving them the jarring feeling that they are completely alone and secluded. This is the reason that these neighborhoods are alluring to people.

Well, what is the alternative, one might ask.

Instead of creating the suburb to confuse and disorient newcomers and make navigating the neighborhood difficult, the neighborhood should utilize a grid. If the neighborhood is a new housing development, it should try as best as it can to assimilate the surrounding street names and general layout of the surrounding neighborhood all ready in place. First, this makes driving anywhere much more pleasant–one does not need an extensive knowledge of the entrances, exits, and winding turns of the suburb in order to get to one’s destination. And second, this creates an open and inviting environment for people outside the neighborhood to explore and enjoy it. No one will get the impression that the neighborhood is intended to keep others (of a different race, nationality, education) out and away from the neighborhood.

In order to make the neighborhood more aesthetically pleasing, the developers should hire multiple architects with a broad range of styles (or just one architect who understands and is comfortable with all sorts of styles of homes). This will hopefully will help to give variety to the neighborhood and avoid the dreaded cookie cutter home phenomena that plagues suburban sprawl.

Thanks for entertaining the rant!

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4 responses to “The Suburbs? Really?

  1. If the neighborhoods were set up in a grid, they would look even more like cookie cutters. And I really doubt that the streets are designed to keep people out in the way that you suggest, but I do think that the limited entrance and exit ( and maze-like design) keeps traffic from cutting through these roads; this keeps the sounds of the city away, while giving the neighborhood a safer feeling, especially for kids playing outside.

    Also, the cookie cutter design of houses keeps the price down, and these boring and square designs (though I admit they are boring and square) are extremely space efficient. In this day, the questions that are being asked by architects are: how can I be energy and space efficient, and how can I design a house to fit into this price budget.

    • In truth, neither the grid nor the subdivision necessitates ugly similar looking houses. You can find examples of these houses in the city or the suburb lots of places. My post is responding to a very particular type of suburban development that I see quite a lot, but this doesn’t mean that all suburbs, by the nature of them not being in the city are ugly. There are lots of beautiful suburbs; I just have found that typically when a developer designs a suburb, there is little creativity involved–the developer usually uses a similar floor plan for the whole subdivision, with a certain small amount of variation between them. Though this may be a bit more cost efficient, I still wish that the developer had gone the extra mile to create a neighborhood that has variety and character.

      As for grid vs subdivision, I suppose it does come down to preference and taste. Though you must admit, finding houses or navigating through a subdivision can be a frustrating, hostile experience.

  2. From the early 1900’s through the mid-40’s Sears and other companies such as Wards offered ‘homes in a box’–plans and/or materials for dozens of homes. A quick glance at the archived home plans from Sears on the internet (http://www.searsarchives.com/homes/byimage.htm) seems to indicate that ‘cookie cutter’ in this era brought affordable, cost efficient homes to thousands of Americans but did not necessitate a lack of architectural creativity. I would offer that one feature missing in many suburbs but common to the Sears catalog homes from the past is a front porch. Front porches seem to offer us a place to reflect and wonder–and commune with our neighbors–things I hope to be doing a bit more of during this coming summer.

  3. I think you are right on Joel. I find the suburbs to be deadening and can’t imagine living there again now that I have “escaped” back to the city, even if it is Grand Rapids. I think part of why there is so much homogeneity is that all the buildings have the same purpose – single family detached homes. There is only so much variation that you can get. If you think of a great city street, you will have a mix of uses, often in the same building, which allows for much greater variation. Wealthy or Cherry streets are decent examples of this.

    I have a more thorough response on my blog, which you can find at urbainvelo.blogspot.com.

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