Sameness and difference Suburbia and its discontents

Some might say that this imaginary drive is an unfair depiction, only bringing out the worst of city life. We could have started with a more positive metropolitan adventure - one that skirts the more artsy, ethnically diverse side of things - but the drudgery of the daily commute is far more familiar.

We could have driven the other way towards suburbia, the setting cognoscenti love to hate. One might tut tut at its popularity, but only 17 per cent against 83 per cent of Americans expressed a preference for an urban town house within preferred walking distance of stores and mass transit in a national survey.25 Similar figures also hold for Australia, and the new world economies are catching on.26 Get Used to It: Suburbia's Not Going to Go Away, as one author titles his book.27 Polls, Kotkin notes, consistently show a large majority of suburbanites are happy with their neighbourhoods in spite of the bad press suburbs get. Sprawl has provided individuals and families with a successful strategy to adapt to urban dysfunction: failing schools, crime, lack of space and the lack of personal green spaces of the inner city a stick; the ample car-parking and convenience shopping of suburbia a carrot. Why worry about the lack of urban hum? Let people have what they want, the argument goes. Forget the social and environmental costs and, anyway, suburbs are becoming more like towns. As Joel Kotkin describes:

There are bubbling sprawl cities like Naperville, Illinois and brash new 'suburban villages' popping up in places such as Houston's Fort Bend County or Southern California's Santa Clarita Valley. There are glistening new arts centres and concert halls in Gwinett County, Georgia. Almost everywhere there are new churches, mosques, synagogues and temples springing to life along our vast ex-urban periphery. This humanization of suburbia is critical work and is doing much to define what modern cities will look like throughout advanced countries. These are great projects, worthy of the energies and creative input of our best architects, environmentalists, planners and visionaries - not their contempt and condemnation.28

Forget that sprawl is an inefficient use of land, with large quantities of space taken up by roads and parking and zoning laws mandating large setbacks, buffer zones or minimum lot sizes; that continual expansion of road systems ensures land is cheap, encourages 'leapfrog' development, and leaves undeveloped land or brownfield sites inside the city; that more roads increase traffic congestion, because it induces more driving; that it separates land uses, leaves commercial developments to ease themselves into vacant land usually at one storey; that it uses up almost exclusively greenfield sites, previously in either agricultural use or a natural state. Forget the health consequences of sprawl - a huge cause of premature death.29

Others point out how government incentives and regulations have consistently favoured suburbia, opening up land for suburban developments at the expense of the city core, destroying the urban neighbourhoods through which they pass. The urban regeneration boom that started 15 years ago has shifted the focus somewhat and created some turnaround, yet the shrinking tax base in cities has led to a vicious cycle, with public services such as education and policing far inferior to that in the suburbs. The balance of spending is still on multi-lane highways, bypasses and road-widening schemes, taking passengers away from public transit, with vigorous lobbying by automobile and oil companies lending a helping hand. Low density suburbs are in essence inaccessible without a car. Today's suburbs include office buildings, entertainment facilities and schools and can exist independently of central cities. Dissatisfaction with their physical appearance, moreover, has led to the complex maze of regulations and the New Urbanism agenda that shape their current look and feel.30 Gridded street layouts have been abandoned in favour of sinuous networks of culs-de-sac, and zoning laws have been extended to address lot sizes, permissible uses, parking requirements, buffer zones, fa├žade treatments and billboards. However, while they may be more attractive than before, their primary effect fosters car dependency, increases development costs, and makes it 'illegal to build anything remotely walkable'.31 Even the French, urbanists par excellence, are into it. Head out to the grand couronne far outside the capital, skipping over the poorer, heavily immigrant suburbs closer to the centre.

So far we have conflated Europe, Australia and the US into one and have thus made sweeping statements to get across an overall feel. Would there have been a contrast had we separated out the experiences? Yes and no. The sheer corrosive physical impact of quarter-acre block suburban development is more dominating in the US and Australia. Its hold on the psyche cannot be overstated. Some indeed love it very much. Suburbia is a form of urban development which lends itself to a particular form of description distinct from that of cities in general. The word city implies density, height, streets, intricacy, intimacy, intense interaction. Suburbia, on the other hand, is a new settlement form with its own logic and dynamic spread out like a flattened pancake. Europe is moving towards the North American and Australian way, but we have less space to play with. Advocates play with numbers and, depending on the country, argue that only 2-4 per cent of total land space is used up. Others say that already 4 per cent of US land is used up as roads. There is plenty left, yet some people forget to assess the perceptual geography on the ground. The city's linked physical infrastructure of pylons, roads and utility plants casts its net immeasurably further out into the landscape, so shaping the feel of the space as if it were merely supporting the city and suburbia. In terms of perception, roads feel as if they are taking up a third of overall space and, indeed, in cities such as Los Angeles asphalt takes up even more.

The US, Canada and Australia still play with space as if it were in endless supply. Transportation codes demand greater leeway on turning circles, turn-offs, emergency lanes, lay-bys, parking bays and setbacks. These destroyers of streets are ever present. Flipping the parking to the back and the building to the front to create a street alignment is clearly a solution too obvious. The tired, listless arguments along the lines of 'this is what customers want' or 'it will increase turnover in shops' hold little water when you see the (lack of) vibrancy of these streets recreated. Visually there is a vacant endlessness. These wide roads project a boundless expanse of ungiving, unforgiving asphalt. Inert machines lazily flop on to the tarmac in front of sheds of chain shops, and there is an overarching sensation of sluggishness and lack of energy. The dominant hue is grey, interspersed with billboards and shop fascias that jump out at you, grabbing you by the neck. Their garish, brightly coloured signs create a tacky modern beauty and a touch of originality; mostly, though, it is the dulled familiarity of fast-food chains where those that are getting too obese feed as if from a trough. North Main Road in Adelaide, a suburban car-borne shopping strip, is the kind of exception that excites. Shocking, bold ads screech at you with their alluring plastic ugliness, as do frontages: This is the car sales highway, one car salesroom following the next; then it is DIY goods; later bulk furniture.

European cities are more contrite in trying to attract custom. There are equivalent streets, yet they have a tighter feel; you feel space is more at a premium. Many places, of course, are hollowing out as shopping has switched out of town, as happened some time ago in North America. Britain is further ahead here, with mainland Europe catching up significantly.

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