cul-de-sac: a dialogue on suburbia

Much has been said and written in criticism of the North American suburb. It has been seen as the antithesis of design, a banal cartoon facsimile of some dreamed of sylvan ideal. To some, the suburb represents all that is wrong with modern life: rampant consumerism; the commodification of place; the homogenizing tendencies of global capitalism; a lack of community (and a lack of appreciation for community); the destruction of the environment (both in the invasion of the suburban accretions into the rural, and in the unsustainable nature of the suburb itself, what James Howard Kunstler has called the ‘greatest misallocation of resources in the history of the world’); the ferocious pursuit of greed by developers, as well as the ostentatious and misdirected displays of wealth by the nouveau riche in the form of monster ‘McMansions’; the erosion of street life and the disappearance of the pedestrian (not to mention the corresponding degradation of the health and quality of life amongst suburban dwellers); and on and on…

There is, at least amongst designers and cosmopolitan urban dwellers, simply no question that the suburbs are inherently WRONG; that we need to in some way convince the inhabitants of the suburb that the quality of their lives are tremendously degraded by the very circumstances in which they choose to live. From the point of view of the architect or urban designer, the phenomenon of the suburbs can be seen within the larger context of the continuing evolution of the North American city as a kind of utopia out of control. The history of suburban development is a history of failure on the part of architects and designers to co-opt the collective imagination towards a more vital vision of the city.

Many of the criticisms that have been leveled at suburban sprawl focus on functional issues. The New Urbanist polemic, for example, focuses upon the idea that the inherent sense of placelessness arises from morphology. Vital community life does not exist in the suburb because there is no street life; there is no street life because suburban places are designed not around accommodating pedestrians, but around the needs of the automobile. Many of the strategies that have arisen out of the explorations of the New Urbanist polemic revolve around issues of injecting meaningfulness into the non-place of the suburban realm. There is a sense that by changing the morphology of the suburb so that it functions more like a vital urban place, it will acquire a greater sense of meaningfulness for its inhabitants. It has the power, in fact, to change the behavior of its inhabitants. But is this true? Many of the New Urbanist developments which have come to fruition have been criticized precisely for their inability to change peoples’ behaviour. Places like Celebration, Poundsbury, Seaside, or (closer to home) Markham, have proven to be successful as a marketing model for developers but ineffectual in terms of really changing the behaviour of their inhabitants. These are still ‘greenfield’ developments; they are by and large still homogeneous residential enclaves that rely heavily on the automobile; they have not successfully incorporated a diverse mixture of income levels; the quality of community in these places is questionable. I see in this polemic not a solution but re-branding of the same anti-urban cult of the individual that created this situation in the first place. The ideal of a house in the country of a traditional suburb has been replaced with a new ideal of the small town. Either way, the sentiment is in opposition to true urban life, and relies on a set of morphological and visual signifiers which remain skin deep. Does a simulacrum of the campo in Siena really acquire some value simply by virtue of its form? Perhaps this can be justified with the argument that New Urbanist communities are a step in the right direction, a kind of half-way house for the rehabilitation of the suburban dweller; but if that is the case, what is the next step?

It seems to me that what is really at issue when speaking about meaningfulness – about making meaningful places – is the question of how cities accrete history. It is [possibly] demonstrable that the suburb does not develop meaning in the same way that a truly urban place does - it is not built for evolution; it is a temporal place that exists as a snapshot of the ideal as it manifested itself at the time of its construction. However I do not believe that truly diverse and vital cities that exist in North America today have any monopoly on meaning. One of the themes I would like to explore in this thesis is the idea that ‘meaningfulness’ is divorced from vitality when we are speaking about places. I believe, and I would like to demonstrate, that on the one hand the cultural wasteland of the suburb is not as empty as it is often believed or assumed to be; and on the other that the vital landscape of the city is equally capable of becoming commodified, of having its meaningfulness co-opted... I would like to explore the basic assumptions about the suburbs in order to understand the undeniable success with which this mode of life has occupied and consumed the collective imagination, in order to seek avenues for entry into that collective imagination.

In order to approach this, I will begin by asking the following questions (and many more, no doubt!)…

Who are the people that inhabit the suburbs? What are the common links (beliefs, backgrounds, economic situations, tendencies, fears) that cause us to choose this way of life? Of what do our / their hopes and dreams consist?

What forms of community exist within the sprawling periphery? What are the networks, dialogues, identities, organizations and connections of these places and how are these influenced or generated by the mode of living defined by the morphology of the suburban city? To what do we look for self-identification when our situation in the world becomes so non-specific as to exist anywhere and nowhere at once?

Is there beauty here? Is there a future for us in this landscape?

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