The City Space

Cultivating Urban Understanding

Why Sameness Scares Me

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This is a video of a sub-division in an exurb of a major metropolitan city. I won’t name the location because it doesn’t really matter. You could film this video in almost every state in the nation: Row after row of identical houses, up against a tree-lined strip along a busy road. The occasional car. Not a soul in sight.

This is suburbia, or the ghost-town that many suburbs have become as a result of the great suburban experiment and the too-quick expansion that created sprawl as we know it, a pre-fab pattern that developers glommed onto and reproduced at far too rapid a rate for any appropriate feedback mechanism or checks and balances.

It was a way to get quick money using cheap land and cheap materials. It gave the people what they wanted. Or so we thought.

Sameness scares me. Sameness is only one of many reasons why the suburbs are bankrupting America (literally and spiritually) but it’s one of the central issues from which stem all the other issues that caused this suburban disaster.

Row after row of identical houses. I remember visiting family in a suburb near this one for Thanksgiving as a child. Every year, my parents and brother and I would drive to this suburb and make our way to our cousins’ house, and every year, without fail, we would get horribly lost. (In spite of my father’s excellent driving skills.) This was before GPS, but not before MapQuest, and even with that printed piece of paper theoretically guiding us, we’d always make a wrong turn at this or that wide concrete box-of-a-church. We’d start retracing our steps only to pass another church—not even sure if it was the first one or a new one—then we’d delve deep into winding cul-de-sacs from which, I was sure, we would never find our way out. We’d all have this picture in our minds of what the house looked like because we went there every year, and yet it would take an extra half hour of driving through these winding streets to find it because every goddamn house looked the same: Brick façade, tree out front, attached garage, family about to sit down to Thanksgiving dinner inside.

This was my first real contact with the suburbs. I wondered where all the children played (inside, or in fenced-in backyards apparently) and what there was to do besides sit in your house or drive around (not much). I don’t even remember seeing a store. I try not to pass judgment on anyone who lives in the suburbs. After all, they didn’t build it. They merely showed up and paid for their portion of it. But I know I couldn’t live in a traditional suburb myself and I hope to see our country move away from this model soon. It doesn’t really have a choice.

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So why does sameness scare me?

First there’s the gut level: standardized tests, clones, dystopian films set in a future where everyone wears the same clothes and speaks the same language and does one of five proscribed jobs. These are all negative, somewhat terrifying things. Why on earth would we want to live anywhere that could be compared to them?

Then there’s the aesthetic level: Sameness is just plain boring. It also demonstrates a lack of creativity. It says nothing about the people who live, work and play in a particular area if all the infrastructure looks the same.  Sameness is forgettable. No one travels to Washington DC and says, “Eh, let’s just skip the city and head for Bethesda.”

Then there’s the personal level: I love the memories I have of my friends’ houses growing up. I can still conjure the feeling of the wooden planks on my middle school friend’s back deck and the smell of her family’s garden in late summer. I can recall perfectly the freedom of visiting a friend’s house as a child and walking to the neighborhood park up the block by ourselves. And of course, there’s my own family’s house, and my grandparents houses, all of which are filled with rich memories that reflect the unique areas they occupy and the unique design of each space. If all of those memories were awash in the same pre-fab look, how could I tell them apart? Would their meaning change?

When we are surrounded by structures that look the same, we can’t help but feel a sense of monotony and dispassion. If you’ve ever worked in a 1980s office park, you know what I mean. Your productivity and mental well-being suffer.

I’m aware that plenty of you grew up in the suburbs or maybe still live in the suburbs, and you might be offended by these pronouncements and think I’m being overdramatic. Please send me your best arguments for why your suburb was excellent and a good place to live. I am all ears. There might be a handful of suburbs that have striven toward a semblance of cohesiveness and community, but 98% are carbon copies of the same dull, draining landscape. My comments here are not a criticism of the people who live in suburbs so much as the people who thought they were a good idea in the first place and shaped a nation that feels suburban living is its only option for an affordable, middle class lifestyle. As I’ve written before, it’s not.

We can talk about the high level reasons for why the suburbs were a colossal mistake, why they alienate us from our loved ones, and why they are depleting our nation’s resources. But this is me stepping away from all that for a moment to admit that I find the suburbs just plain scary, disturbing, boring, and miserable. I want a better life for our country and the millions of Americans who have ended up in suburban landscapes–some of them hours away from any real city center–surrounded by fast food chains and dangerous stroads.

That’s why I advocate for a different way of living, one that celebrates unique cultures, vibrant architecture, beautiful natural landscapes and economic vitality.

Those winding cul-de-sacs won’t lead us anywhere good.

Photo cred

….And completely unrelated: My next post is up on Strong Towns. I’m talking about Small Scale Lessons for New York City Skeptics.

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