Thursday, February 10, 2005

Turning away from the Community

One of the interesting hallmarks of contemporary suburban development is its detachment and retreat from the surrounding environment. Prior to the war, most development proceeded on some form of modified grid pattern or free-flowing organic network of streets. Housing and commerce were focused on the street and everything took a more pedestrian scale. Neighborhoods just flowed together, yet remained distinct. Everything was more compact.

Post war developments saw the segregation of land uses and a wholesale reworking of street networks to the hierarchical network so typical of modern suburban development. This effectively began the process of separating the individual from the community. Suburban jurisdictions spaced land uses further apart, designed them only for automotive access and included subtle psychological strategies to deter passerbys, visitors and undesirables. These strategies included limiting access points and laying out confusing street networks. The individual developments also did their best turn inward as well, often by constructing decorative gates and solid walls against the property lines (ostensibly for sound control but more likely to further reduce outsider presence within the development). Additionally these developments remained separate from other adjoining land uses. Different residential neighborhoods developed at different times or for different socio economic groups seldom connected to each other and many times saw sizable structural barriers errected. Residential uses butting up against commercial uses received similar wall treatments. In effect, the functioning mixed urban neighborhood was replaced an efficient but soulless subdivision.

Alienation didn’t stop at the subdivision level. The introduction of the garage added yet another element. Earliest subdivisions included car storage often as a single car freestanding garage somewhere in back. Later on the single car garage got attached to the house directly, first as a single car, then double and more recently triple car garage configurations. In addition to visually polluting the streetscape with excessive driveway paving and an endless series of blank garage door faces, this redesign of the house permitted the homeowner to pull directly into his or her house with out having even being seen in person by their neighbors or having to stop and talk to them. Just drive right into the house and never worry about stopping and talking to your next door neighbor.

What do these characteristics of suburbia have to do with community alienation? A lot in fact. When combined together, the Unplanning view is that our built environment has led to our own isolation and antisocial behavior. We have literally designed away elements of a true community. Books and articles have been written about the decline in American community values (though that is admittedly a vague concept unto itself) and causes and solution suggested. We should look no further than our built environment for some answers.

Ultimately, we need to relearn how to live with each other instead of living in spite of each other. Human survival throughout history depended on the existence of close knit communities and villages. No one could survive long without this community support, while the existence of too many villages too close in proximity tended to result in conflict. While our industrial civilization has provided us with modern technology to render human relationships obsolete, this way of life is highly dependent on the availability of cheap energy, something that will be in increasingly short supply in the coming years.


Blogger Frank said...

Umm, I gather you live in California. Where I live we've been tying the barn to the house for 300 years. In a nor'easter, or when it's 20 below, a detached garage seems like a pretty silly idea. Even on a nice day in July, yankee frugality says that you save a wall by attaching the garage. Seems kind of dumb not to.

2/23/2005 3:42 PM  

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