The common uniformity of prison and suburban design

In A Burglar’s Guide to the City, a reformed bank robber describes a realization he had while walking through the suburbs of southern California:

For Loya, linguist George Lakoff’s book Metaphors We Live By took an unexpected spatial resonance, revealing ways in which the built environment could be read or understood as a series of metaphors or signs. He said that after being released from prison, he spent a lot of time taking long walks around the suburban landscape of Southern California. He began noticing that every twenty-five feet, he would hit a driveway; he’d then walk eight feet across the driveway before hitting another stretch of grass; then another twenty-five feet to the next driveway, and so on, seemingly forever, “and the uniformity of that totally echoed the uniformity of the prison environment,” he said to me, “where I had my cell and my seven feet of wall and then a door. And I remember thinking, ‘Oh my God, man.'” He laughed at the utter despair of it all, having gone from one system of containment to another. How would you get away or escape from this?

This is a common image of suburbs: prisons of conformity and tedium, laid out every twenty-five feet by developers to maximize profits while misguided Americans snap up the properties thinking they have found the American Dream. Yet, sameness in lot size doesn’t necessarily mean sameness in lives. These regular spacing could be a very good sign of a tract neighborhood but even then, the homes – like those in Levittown over the decades – could be altered as various owners put their own mark on the dwellings. Or, the neighborhood could be quite diverse, particularly in older suburbs.

Additionally, prisons are built with very different purposes in mind compared to suburbs. Developers and local officials are not scheming to control people in these homes (except maybe through a capitalistic system that keeps them focused on their own properties and blinded from larger issues). In contrast, prisons are all about surveillance – just think of Bentham’s Panopticon.

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