Suburbs, “mutilated urbanism,” and “nature band-aids”

James Howard Kunstler’s TED Talk “The Ghastly Tragedy of the Suburbs” includes a discussion of the role of “nature” in suburbia. This excerpt starts at about 10:15 into the talk:

Then because the relationship between the retail is destroyed, we pop a handicapped ramp on that, and then to make ourselves feel better, we put a nature band-aid in front of it. And that’s how we do it.

I call them nature band-aids because there’s a general idea in America that the remedy for mutilated urbanism is nature. And in fact, the remedy for wounded and mutilated urbanism is good urbanism, good buildings. Not just flower-beds, not just cartoons of the Sierra Nevada mountains, you know, that’s not good enough. We have to do good buildings.

(photo: two pictures of tree lined pedestrian paths, caption: “Role of ‘Green’ In City Center Is Formal”)

The street trees have really four jobs to do, and that’s it. To spatially denote the pedestrian realm, to protect the pedestrians from the vehicles in the carriage-way, to filter the sunlight onto the sidewalk, and to soften the hardscape of the buildings and to create a ceiling -a vaulted ceiling- over the street, at its best. And that’s it. Those are the four jobs of the street trees. They’re not supposed to be a cartoon of the north woods, they’re not supposed to be a set for The Last of the Mohicans. You know, one of the problems with the fiasco of suburbia is that it destroyed our understanding of the distinction between the country and the town, between the urban and the rural. They’re not the same thing. And we’re not gonna cure the problems of the urban by dragging the country into the city, which is what a lot of us are trying to do all the time.

(new photo, unshown on screen)

Here you see on a small scale- the mother-ship has landed, R2D2 and CP3O (sic) have stepped out to test the bark mulch to see if they can inhabit this planet.

This last paragraph, in particular, always gets me: comparing two lonely bushes stranded in a suburban streetscape to aliens is funny.

But, his larger point holds: suburban settings often use nature as a possible enhancement and often afterthought rather than a fundamental feature of the space. Why save original trees when you can just plant new ones later? If there is not enough greenery, add a flower bed and some bushes. Make sure the suburban yards are always lush and green (even if this does not really happen in nature). Put in some parks here and there so people can experience wildlife displaced from other settings.

The suburban nature millions of Americans see on a daily basis is not the real nature that was once in these locations (though you would have to go back quite a ways before any human intervention and this is important to remember) or that could be there given different choices by local officials, developers, and residents.

Celebration, Florida, built by Disney, has first murder

Many suburbs rarely experience a murder. In fact, many suburban residents might give this as a reason for moving into these communities: the crime, particularly serious crimes, is limited. So when a murder is committed in a model community, particularly one built by Disney, it will receive attention.

Here is a quick summary of what happened in Celebration, Florida:

Residents of the town five miles south of Walt Disney World woke up Tuesday to the sight of yellow crime-scene tape wrapped around a condo near the Christmas-decorated downtown, where Bing Crosby croons from speakers hidden in the foliage. A 58-year-old neighbor who lived alone with his Chihuahua had been slain over the long Thanksgiving weekend, Osceola County sheriff’s deputies said.

What is interesting to note is how the rest of the story describes Celebration. Some of the commentary is what you would expect from any wealthy suburb: this was an isolated incident, this sort of stuff doesn’t happen in the community, and the residents shouldn’t worry. But here a few pieces of the description about the uniqueness of Celebration:

The killing sullies the type of perfection envisioned in 1989 when Peter Rummell, then-president of the Disney Development Corp., wrote to then-Disney CEO Michael Eisner about building a new town on vacant, Disney-owned land in Osceola County.

The community would be a “wonderful residential town east of I-4 that has a human scale with sidewalks and bicycles and parks and the kind of architecture that is sophisticated and timeless. It will have fiber optics and smart houses, but the feel will in many cases be closer to Main Street than to Future World,” Rummell wrote in the letter.

Houses incorporated “New Urbanism” ideas such as placing the garage out of sight in the back and a front porch close to the sidewalk to encourage neighbor interaction. Restrictions on home color and architectural details also were in the community’s rulebook. Colonial, Victorian, and Arts and Crafts-style homes grace the streets; the downtown is a mix of postmodern buildings and stucco condos.

Residents arrived in 1996. Critics viewed it as something out of “The Truman Show,” or “The Stepford Wives.”

Fans saw other things. A return to small-town values. A walkable community. Safety.

So this is the media story: the murder that took place in the “perfect Disney town” (as the link on the Chicago Tribune’s front page suggests). A few thoughts of mine about this:

1. Celebration receives a lot of attention due to who created it and how it was created. Is there a point where this will become just another community?

2. No community is “perfect,” even one created by a company like Disney which sells its products based on this idea of joy and magic. The same AP story lists some of the problems from recent years including graffiti and a recent day when the local school was on lockdown.

3. Suburbs or small towns are not immune to crime, even of this magnitude.

4. It will be interesting to see how this story affects the marketing of the community.

5. This seems like an illustration for all suburbia: crimes like this can upset people’s feelings and attitudes toward places that they once considered perfect and safe.

Suburbs and cities in the 2010 elections

Joel Kotkin argues that suburbs are the primary battleground in the 2010 elections and Democrats are behind because they are trying to push urban strategies:

In America, the dominant geography continues to be suburbia – home to at least 60 percent of the population and probably more than that portion of the electorate. Roughly 220 congressional districts, or more than half the nation’s 435, are predominately suburban, according to a 2005 Congressional Quarterly study. This is likely to only increase in the next decade, as Millennials begin en masse to enter their 30s and move to the periphery.

Nationally, suburban approval for the Democrats has dropped to 39 percent this year, from 48 percent two years ago. Disapproval for President Barack Obama is also high — nearly 48 percent of suburbanites disapprove, compared to only 35 percent of urbanites. Even Obama’s strong support among minority suburbanites, a fast-growing group, has declined substantially.

Kotkin suggests two particular sets of ideas are behind this: suburbanites are not happy with the economic problems and Obama has pushed a more urban agenda (including suggesting that sprawl is not desirable).

Kotkin is on to something about a different political culture in suburbia. Numerous scholars have pointed this out: suburbs are not necessarily Republican but they do have unique concerns including not just keeping their homes but having them increase in values, desiring a more prosperous life for themselves and their children, keeping “threats” at bay, and limiting taxes. It can be tough to sell large changes to suburbanites when they feel that their money or resources are being taken away and used for other people. The political shift in America began in earnest in the 1960s as the growing number of suburbanites began to overwhelm concerns from other areas.

Though Kotkin suggests Obama has a more urban agenda, I think he hardly has strongly pushed for city life or city concerns. Even with the economic crisis, the primary focus has still be on the middle class (and perhaps some on the working class). Obama’s ideas about sprawl are not unusual, particularly among policymakers and academics. Perhaps voters tie Obama himself to the city with his Chicago mansion and seemingly strong ties to Chicago political operators?

But this shift toward the suburbs applies to both political parties: America is a suburban nation. And that suburbia is growing more and more diverse.

Proclaiming the end of the “McMansion era”

CNBC reports that the real estate site says “the McMansion era is over.” This is based on evidence that more people want smaller homes:

Just 9 percent of the people surveyed by Trulia said their ideal home size was over 3,200 square feet. Meanwhile, more than one-third said their ideal size was under 2,000 feet.

“That’s something that would’ve been unbelievable just a few years back,” said Pete Flint, CEO and co-founder of Trulia. “Americans are moving away from McMansions.”

The comments echoed those made in June by Kermit Baker, the chief economist at the American Institute of Architects.

“We continue to move away from the McMansion chapter of residential design, with more demand for practicality throughout the home,” Baker said. “There has been a drop off in the popularity of upscale property enhancements such as formal landscaping, decorative water features, tennis courts, and gazebos.”

“McMansions just look and feel out of place today, given the more cautious environment everyone’s living in,” said Paul Bishop, vice president of research for the National Association of Realtors.

And homebuilders are heeding the call: In a survey of builders last year, nine out of 10 said they planned to build smaller or lower-priced homes.

This is interesting information – the McMansion was and is commonly cited as part of the excess of the late 1990s and early 2000s. But I have a few questions and thoughts:

1. We are in the middle of a housing crisis, one that is virtually unprecedented in recent history. Could these results simply be the result of this period? Look at the data over time: Americans since 1950 have progressively wanted larger homes. Might this change as soon as the economy or housing market picks up again?

1a. We would have to wait and see whether this shift might be a longer-term move to an emphasis on quality and appointments rather than sheer space. Since family size has dropped over the years, it makes sense that homes might not get so large. Or perhaps more people subscribe to some green ideas about having a small footprint.

2. There is still some demand for homes over 3,200 square feet. If you look at the Trulia infographics, most people seem to want homes around the 2,000-2,600 square foot range. These are not small homes – they would be slightly smaller than the average size of new homes built in most years of the 2000s and are larger than most American homes built after World War II.

3. This is survey data which gives us some measure of what people want to buy. However, people still have to make choices on the open market – will they turn down larger houses for smaller houses for an extended amount of time?

4. Will home prices go down or stay low in the long run – or will builders make up for having smaller homes with more features that will cost more?

5. There are some questions about whether a downturn in McMansions is part of a larger, more radical shift toward a new kind of suburbia. Perhaps. But even if this were the case, it would take a while for these new developments to be large enough in number to counter the typical views of suburbia and it would also require Americans to develop a new sense of community.

Quick Review: Pleasantville

I’ve seen parts of this 1998 film before but I watched it again recently to see if I want to use it in a class on suburbs. Two modern-day teenagers end up back as part of a family in a 1950s suburban world and they start bringing color to this less-than-idyllic community. Some quick thoughts about the film:

1.The film is a critique of suburban life, particularly that of 1950s television shows like Ozzie and Harriet and Leave It To Beaver. The critiques are typical: suburban residents are repressed (more on this in a moment), women are in a subservient role, and the people are conformists who just like things to stay the way they are.

2. Sexual repression is the major theme throughout. The teenage female protagonist quickly charms another high school boy and sets off big changes at Lovers Lane. The mother of the family explores her feelings, the manager of the diner does as well, and the whole town generally goes crazy. While there are other themes, like conformity, patriarchy, and being closed off from the outside world, they are not explored as much.

3. The whole black and white vs. color scheme is a clever tool. The two teenagers who end up back in the 1950s find a black & white world but as this world opens up, things turn to colors. It is visually interesting to watch this contrast throughout the film.

4. The sexual repression theme is somewhat heavy-handed by the end though there is a twist: the teenage female protagonist who first introduces sex to the community finds out that there is a value in books and ideas. While the rest of the teenagers want to go nuts, she pulls back and decides there are more important things for her to explore.

5. In the ending scenes, the characters ask what they are supposed to be doing in life and the response is “we don’t know.” While on one hand this is a refutation of the 1950s world where “we just do things because that is how they are done,” this is not very satisfying: the better alternative is left unexplained.

An interesting film with some surprises. I wish it could have explored some other suburban issues beyond sex and conformity…but perhaps that is a lot to ask.

(This film was generally well-received by critics: it is 85% fresh, 70 fresh out of 82 reviews, at

Designing the suburban future

Allison Arieff writes in the New York Times about a design competition sponsored by the Rauch Foundation for the future of suburbs on Long Island. The blog post includes pictures of some of the 212 entries. Looking quickly at the five entries listed by Arieff, I am intrigued by #1 (a new transportation system better connecting suburb to suburb) and #3 (building compounds that combine uses). Some interesting ideas are out there regarding the future of suburbia…

Spies in suburbia: not unusual

The Russian spy ring recently caught in America was primarily based in suburbia. One New York Times writer argues that this is not that unusual:

We’ve seen this movie before, a variation on “Fun With Dick and Jane” or “Mr. & Mrs. Smith,” among others.

It’s fun, but as sociology, the story line set against the presumed seamless banality of suburban life gets ever flimsier. We seem to have had a computer chip implanted in our brain about the time of “Little Boxes,” the dopey and incredibly sanctimonious 1962 song about suburban conformity (“Little boxes made of ticky tacky … Little boxes all the same”) that helped define the suburbs. And it seems to persist even as its descriptive value trends toward zero. So at a time when more than half of Americans live in suburbs, what exactly does the suburban part of this tale tell us? Alas, not much.

The article contains more information about the growing diversity in suburbia including a smaller number of families living the “Ozzie and Harriet sort of life.” (Perhaps this phrase needs to be updated for the 21st century since “Ozzie and Harriet” is a little dated. How about the “Homer and Marge Simpson suburban life”?) If a majority of Americans live in suburbia, it is not unusual that a number of nefarious characters come out of suburbia.

What is not addressed in this article is a stereotype that suburbia leads people to such things as spying, violence, and breaking up their families to escape the dull and empty suburban lifestyle. In this case, the Russians came to suburbia to blend in and live a normal life.

Not simply deriding suburban life

An AP story discusses a supposed movement to take the suburbs more seriously and move beyond common negative stereotypes. One scholar accurately notes:

“Change your mind about what the suburbs are,” said Robert Puentes, a suburban scholar at the Brookings Institution. “They’re not just bedroom communities for center-city workers. They’re not just rich enclaves. They’re not all economically stable. They’re not all exclusively white.”

“These are not your father’s suburbs of the 1950s and 1960s.”

Efforts toward this end include a new museum in Johnson County, Kansas and several academic centers.

These stereotypes will take time to overcome. Common stereotypes, dating back to at least the 1950s, include: bland homes and people, desperate housewives, whites only, lifestyles centered all around children, wealthy people only, conservative, low-brow, garish (from strip malls to shopping malls to McMansions).

The story cites two academic centers for suburban studies. For much of the last 100 years, academics have often led the way in deriding suburbia. To fight some of these stereotypes, more academics would need to be able to move beyond knee-jerk reactions and acknowledge suburbia’s complexities.