Once you’ve decided to pursue a new construction build, regardless of where you buy land, it’s likely to raise some issues regarding unintended consequences (whether or not the homeowner, builder, or developer wishes to acknowledge this is another matter).
Look out the plane window on a flight from New Orleans to Chicago, or Denver to Cincinnati. Everything you see is already in agricultural production. This huge expanse of naturally fertile ground literally feeds the world. The suburbs growing around any city show that we are losing agricultural land even as the human population continues to grow.
— David R. Montgomery, Dirt: The Erosion of Civilizations
With nature setting limits on land viable for agriculture, future generations may be horrified by our willingness to build over these acres of fertile soil with so little thought for the potential long-term consequences.
Many of Wendell Berry’s essays lament this lack of respect for the land, whether it’s cultivated field or wild forest:
In a larger city, on the other hand, you might be tearing down something people find historically significant, or maybe just significant to the character of a specific block or neighborhood.
It’s not uncommon at this point in their history for this idealism to be wrapped up in fond childhood memories, eliciting a vibrant strain of nostalgia (some might suggest of an unhealthy, cloying variety) for suburban life.
All too often suburbia is just the unquestioned background for mainstream life, for example, in the string of popular 1980’s films by John Hughes:
Although it’s hard not to notice in this case, at least, that the main characters escape from the suburbs to the big city when they’re in the mood for some excitement, adventure, and cultural enrichment.
At the other end of the spectrum there is utter contempt for suburbia and its perceived values, readily apparent in any number of movies, novels, or the DIY Punk movement of the late 1970s and early 1980s (and still going strong).
From this perspective, the suburbs are where the soul goes to die (particularly for the adults who have made their peace with authority, or so the argument would run). In other words, there may be safety in the suburbs, but it comes with a price. In fact, for many of its critics, suburbia represents mostly denial rather than any kind of meaningful affirmation.
The Revolutionary Hill Estates had not been designed to accommodate a tragedy. Even at night, as if on purpose, the development held no looming shadows and no gaunt silhouettes. It was invincibly cheerful… A man running down these streets in desperate grief was indecently out of place.
— Richard Yates, Revolutionary Road
For many young people the suburbs are what you end up trying to escape. The suburbs are missing something; the only thing on offer is the bland, the same, the quiet, and the sleepy. At best the suburbs in this case can be thought of as an uncomfortable launching pad, or a spur motivating escape plans. Your dreams and aspirations lie elsewhere, and the sooner you can move on the better.
As far apart as these two extremes might appear, feelings about the suburbs can even fall somewhere in-between (especially for those of us who were raised in suburbia), as a kind of bittersweet mix of love and contempt — e.g. ‘I didn’t choose to grow up in the suburbs, but that’s where many of my most vivid memories reside‘.
Early on in his 33 1/3 study of Arcade Fire’s album The Suburbs, Eric Eidelstein makes a similar point, “There’s nothing I wanted more than to leave my suburban upbringing. Now that I have, a part of me wishes I could dip my toes back into the bubble… Suburbia is innocence and ignorance… freedom and constraint… lightness and darkness.” The key, and devastating, word in that passage being ‘bubble’.
This Smashing Pumpkins song and video captures a similar feeling:
Two wildly different episodes from the original Twilight Zone TV-series reflect these violently divergent attitudes towards suburbia. The first is a love letter to a golden childhood, forever lost to the passing of time and the realities of adulthood. The second represents a kind of hell of conformity, reeking of paranoia and dread. Civility is revealed to be only a thin veneer that easily falls away under the slightest pressure, exposing ugly truths buried just below the surface of everyday life. For anyone who grew up in the suburbs these storylines are relatable, no doubt to varying degrees.
The Monsters are Due on Maple Street:
In my own case, living in the suburbs entailed countless hours of playing various sports with friends in the neighborhood, and seemingly endless bicycle rides through contiguous subdivisions waiting for the day we could drive cars (or ride motorcycles) and actually go somewhere, alongside memories of the ‘perfect’ neighbors who, later it was revealed, had separately engaged in fraud and embezzlement at work, seemingly out of unadulterated greed since neither of them ‘needed’ the money.
Perhaps no other work better captures this strange mixture of paean and warning about what lays just below the surface in the suburbs than David Lynch’s Blue Velvet:
For decades Americans have abandoned small farming communities and larger metropolitan areas to flee to the suburbs, mainly in the hopes of rounding off the sharp edges of life as its experienced on a farm or in a large city.
The suburban ideal offered the promise of… an environment that would combine the best of both city and rural life.
—Kenneth T. Jackson, Crabgrass Frontier
What was clearly being left behind were the extremes. For example, brutal, albeit beautiful at times, farm life.
Days of Heaven:
Dawn to Dusk:
And the seemingly cartoonish, but no less lethal, aggression often associated with the big city.
Mean Streets (NSFW):
As Jackson notes in Crabgrass Frontier, the suburbs “offered the exciting prospect that disorder, prostitution, and mayhem could be kept at a distance, far away in the festering metropolis.” Simultaneously, although nurturing a carefully manicured lawn (a practice that dates back to at least the 19th century), the average suburban plot freed its owner from the back-breaking labor associated with farming, along with its attendant risks like crop failures, the vagaries of maintaining livestock, or the whims of the marketplace.
In staking out a middle ground, suburbia tries to avoid the excessive “liveliness” of the big city, while also studiously avoiding the brutal cycles of life and death that anchor and allow a working farm to thrive. Nevertheless, suburbia remains tethered to city and farm; almost entirely dependent on the city’s industry and markets (both for employment and consumption), while the farms supply virtually all of its food supply. In a way, then, suburbia represents both a denial of life and death.
But the extremes are no less real, and they remain virtually impossible to avoid altogether. Denial just makes the situation worse.
In the case of Blue Velvet, for instance, where the villain, Frank Booth, is presented as evil incarnate stalking around the suburbs at night, things may be even worse than they first appear. As David Foster Wallace points out, “…the real horror in the movie surrounds discoveries that Jeffrey makes about himself… not of Dark Frank but of his own dark affinities with Frank is the engine of the movie’s anxiety.” Lynch, according to Wallace, drives this point home in the car scene when Frank turns back to Jeffrey and says “‘You’re like me’. This moment is shot from Jeffrey’s visual perspective, so that when Frank turns around in the seat he speaks both to Jeffrey and to us [emphasis added].”
If the suburbs at their worst represent an attempt to push away harsh realities, then it can’t go on forever, and, in the meantime, the attempt itself can produce some pretty nasty consequences.
This kind of angst in the suburbs almost seems inbred at this point; not only has it survived but it’s thrived for decades, seen in the boredom and unfocused rage of Rebel Without a Cause right up to the grunge and riot grrrl movements of the early 90’s and beyond.
The chicken run from Rebel Without a Cause:
Bikini Kill’s Rebel Girl:
Meanwhile, the kind of human wreckage detailed in Madeline Levine’s The Price of Privilege is clearly deeply rooted in suburban realities and conventional notions of what constitutes success and ‘the good life‘.
As a result, reasons for disliking the suburbs are legion, especially evident once you start looking for opinions. Moving beyond the general stereotypes of conformity and isolation, there are also stark realities regarding how suburbia came to be and how it’s been maintained, which is especially devastating when you realize nothing was a foregone conclusion, and that choices have been made at every stage of their progression.
In confronting “The prevailing myth… that the postwar suburbs blossomed because of the preference of consumers who made free choices in an open environment,” Jackson points out that “Because of public policies favoring the suburbs, only one possibility was economically feasible.” Once government programs like “FHA and VA mortgage insurance, the highway system, the financing of sewers…”, not to mention “…the unusual American practice of allowing taxpayers to deduct mortgage interest and property taxes” are taken into account, the suburbs seem not only inevitable but carefully planned for — even if many of their long-term consequences were not.
Understanding this historical context makes a work like Family Properties even more of a heartbreaking read. Whether it’s the well-documented history of red lining, blockbusting, ‘contract selling’, restrictive covenants, or even more publicly overt acts of racism, the suburbs certainly have an ugly past.
As Beryl Satter makes clear, being forced to ‘buy on contract’ meant African Americans lost “their savings during the very years when whites of similar class background were getting an immense economic boost through FHA-backed mortgages that enabled them to purchase new homes for little money down… While contract sellers became millionaires, their harsh terms and inflated prices destroyed whole communities.”
In effect, one group of Americans enjoyed the benefits of homeownership, including selling years later for a substantial profit (in many cases passing this money on to a second generation as part of an inheritance), while another group of Americans lost their entire life savings.
And that past, unfortunately, never seems to be very far away.
It is this kind of historical context that helps explain, at least in part, the resonance of a movie like Get Out:
It’s undeniable, then, that the suburbs, as an idea and a physical reality, are overdue for some kind of transformation — in terms of socioeconomic issues, resource demands and energy use, architectural aesthetics, transportation, water management, their relationship to nature (both wild and cultivated), etc. The list of issues that could be addressed is truly daunting.
Here is one attempt:
The suburbs are also dragging around other cultural baggage besides just single-family homes and endless miles of congested highways. For instance, it’s almost impossible to bring up suburbia without acknowledging the rise and fall of the shopping mall, at least the dominant style of mall popular since the second half of the 20th century:
As others have clearly documented (perhaps most vividly by Dead Malls), many of these shopping malls look to be on their way out, as both cultural touchstones and architectural objects:
In their place, one proposed solution is Lifestyle Centers. It’s not at all clear that anyone has a definitive, bullet-proof, strategy for overhauling these structures, and ‘lifestyle centers’ appear to be little more than a variation on the original shopping mall form. In fact, it appears cities and developers are just guessing at what might work.
One solution for the suburbs in general might be pockets of self-contained neighborhoods, mimicking the dynamic energy of urban living Jane Jacobs wrote about in Death and Life of Great American Cities, which is reminiscent of many traditional European city, and even smaller village, neighborhoods:
Whether or not the housing density necessary to achieve this is possible (e.g. building up to avoid excessive sprawl, with each individual residential unit smaller than what we’ve grown to think of as normal), it would also require a high-level of city planning and cooperation amongst all the stakeholders to incorporate all the services and day-to-day needs of the population, all while managing to also maintain and hold onto significant green spaces. A tall order indeed.
Even so, there have been pioneers and experiments trying to explore various possibilities.
For example, Village Homes in Davis, California, developed in the 1970’s, pursued a more holistic approach to residential construction.
His comments at the end of the video regarding their battle with the status quo is particularly telling. You can read more about the project here: Village Homes
The hope is that living arrangements and social networks like these will improve the participants’ quality of life.
As Americans grow increasingly disenchanted working for large, unaccountable corporate entities, these kinds of organizations have the potential for significant expansion, even in places like Cincinnati, which is hardly thought of as a progressive redoubt.
South Mountain Company, based on Martha’s Vineyard, would be one successful example from the construction and design fields (Marc Rosenbaum, who’s had a significant presence on GBA, is one of their employees/co-owners). John Abrams, the founder, wrote Companies We Keep, a compelling and detailed read on the evolution of the business.
For anyone who’s interested, the US Federation of Worker Cooperatives is an excellent resource for those wanting to pursue this idea further.
There are still other projects, for instance, community gardens or larger scale suburban permaculture, guerrilla gardening, or even Brad Lancaster’s street project, which try to improve the quality of life at the neighborhood level of a subdivision or even a single block (note that it’s no accident that all of these smaller projects improve our connection to nature).
Even something as small as planting a hell-strip on your own with colorful perennials is a start — something we see more and more of in the residential neighborhoods just outside of downtown Chicago, and even out here in the suburbs. Considering their tiny area of square footage, these mini-gardens have an incredibly powerful visual impact.
These projects represent mostly small-scale, but no less valid, attempts to make suburban life better and more meaningful for residents and visitors alike. In addition, these projects point to our intrinsic need for maintaining a real connection with nature, now often referred to with the buzzword notion of Biophilic Design, itself an outgrowth of E.O. Wilson’s biophilia hypothesis.
Almost anything would be preferable to the typical mix of poorly built cookie-cutter homes surrounded by congested roadways and the endless, and largely undifferentiated, strip mall hell that we currently endure:
As with strip malls, if houses prove to be equally unloved, even despised, it’s easy as a culture to let them rot or just bulldoze them and start over. If people are going to put in time, money, and effort to save something, it had better be well-loved, i.e. fulfill some pretty fundamental needs.
The existing and aging housing stock ringing every large city in America isn’t going anywhere. Whether rehabbed in a sporadic and piecemeal way, with varying amounts of success (both in terms of build quality and energy consumption), or the issue is addressed head-on by local and federal programs, something will need to be done.
It’s possible to imagine a large-scale retrofit program, with Passive House, or at least Pretty Good House, goals set as the benchmark. After tearing down the most dilapidated units, making way for the new, there would still be ample opportunity to rehab existing structures in a thoughtful way that could be a real boom for employment (maybe even allowing us to finally establish a much needed national apprenticeship system) as it also works to draw down on our housing stock’s demand for energy. It would also be offering people work that has real, tangible benefits to our society and the world as a whole, something that’s missing from most construction work at the moment.
If one’s intent, however, is just to dismantle the logic of the suburbs, there’s certainly no shortage of intellectual rocks lying around if you want to pick some up and start throwing them through the shiny, glass-filled facade of suburbia.
And frankly, it’s kind of fun to do. For example, how about suburbanites as brain-dead zombies out to mindlessly consume:
Whether it’s their costly infrastructure and massive energy consumption, their car dependency, their love affair with lawns, their lack of density, their total isolation from farming (or nature more generally; even where it does pop up it tends to look and feel like an afterthought), or the isolation from what the city has to offer, the suburbs certainly have their issues, many of them profound if not existential.
And even though I think all of these issues are certainly well worth thinking about, especially if you have the ability to choose between rural, urban, and suburban locations for work, the fact remains that for many people the suburbs are, in fact, still the best option for housing.
So the question remains: How do we make the suburbs better?
In our case, my wife works less than ten minutes from home. Unfortunately, a car is still the only real option for transportation (rather unbelievably) — e.g. busy roadways and a lack of continuous pedestrian or cycling pathways make what is an otherwise short commute somewhat perilous to navigate. Nonetheless, moving into Chicago proper, or out to a rural setting, didn’t make much sense to us, mainly because of the added drive time.
After deciding that we would try and build something new here in Palatine, a suburb of Chicago, we concluded that we should do our best to make something that would be loved and cared for long after we’ve moved on.
For the house itself this meant making choices regarding the structure, while for the yard, at least in our case, it meant pursuing permaculture principles rather than the more typical suburban lawn with some foundation plantings (more on the specific details in future posts).
Obviously, one house here or there that bucks current trends isn’t going to change much about an entire culture. A house like ours is mostly just to demonstrate what’s possible. Nevertheless, there’s real opportunity for large scale change, whether in our bigger cities, rural areas, or even the suburbs.
In the cities it could mean carving out space for many more community gardens, insisting on Passive House (or at least Pretty Good House) structures, limiting the use of cars while overhauling public transportation, all while giving priority to pedestrians.
Also, coming up with various strategies to avoid gentrification so that once a neighborhood is fully revitalized the original, long-term residents aren’t forced out by a higher cost of living (mainly through increased rents and property taxes).
As Aaron Shkuda documents in his book The Lofts of SoHo (Gentrification, Art, and Industry in New York, 1950-1980), a large influx of artists and the culturally much-maligned ‘hipsters’ is typically the initial spark a struggling neighborhood needs to begin a turnaround.
“The form of development that artists pioneered in SoHo provided a way for cities to confront the urban crisis without the financial and social costs of slum clearance… the mode of development that grew in SoHo was the antithesis of urban renewal. It was unplanned, and it stymied the attempts of experts or politicians to control it… SoHo provided a distinctly urban alternative to the structures built through urban renewal. These projects mainly attempted to provide urban residents with amenities found in the suburbs, such as easy auto access, security, and a verdant, non-urban feel. SoHo was gritty, urban, dense, and all the more popular for it… the history of SoHo demonstrates that it is perhaps the neighborhoods that artists create, rather than the artists themselves, that help draw and retain [educated professionals].”
—Aaron Shkuda, The Lofts of SoHo
In fact, as Shkuda points out, this formula has repeatedly proven so successful that “it is difficult to find a contemporary American city without residential lofts.” In effect, large, empty or abandoned, spaces converted into residential lofts is a stamp of approval, announcing that a specific neighborhood is now desirable or even the height of ‘cool’.
The trick is making sure the transformation — making an area worth going to because of art galleries, artisan shops, unique restaurants, bars and coffee shops, and overall cultural vibe — doesn’t overshoot the mark, moving past rebirth to a stage where only the wealthy can afford to stick around and participate.
Moreover, the fact that SoHo emerged from the ashes of deindustrialization not through centralized planning but rather the hard work and vision of individuals is worth celebrating. More importantly, it’s worth remembering as others take on the largely thankless task of urban renewal in their own neighborhoods (perhaps much the same applies to rural and suburban areas: if you want something different, make it different).
In rural areas we could encourage a transition from factory farms to a more holistic agroforestry model (hopefully inspiring some young people to come back from the city and suburbs to pursue a viable and rewarding career in farming). This model could include ample opportunities for agro-tourism, both to benefit locals and those who will visit from the suburbs and cities.
In the suburbs, in addition to renovating aging housing stock (again, to Passive House or Pretty Good House levels of performance), the development of walking and cycling trails, not unlike the Atlanta Beltline, for example, which would include walkable areas that thoughtfully combine residential and commercial zones, all while remaining focused on our need for nature via biophilic design strategies, could be the transformation that allows the suburbs to move beyond well-earned, but stale, cliches.
In addition, the suburbs require not just a new vision regarding mixed use, but also mixed income, providing housing to all, whether poor, old, young, or its more traditional economically secure nuclear families.
Unfortunately, if the glacial rate of change from conventional to ‘green’ building techniques in the construction industry is any indicator, then the suburbs may just carry on doing their thing, loved by some as they alienate and agitate others, all while remaining quietly, but defiantly, resistant to change.