This post is a response to a post by Joel Crevier over at Reflect andWonder. In it, he laments the suburbs.
I struggle to understand why people would want to move into a neighborhood where almost all of the houses are cut from the same sort of architectural plan, and every house looks eerily similar (though I am assured by the residents in these houses that their house is somehow unique and different from the others). Regardless, the lack of variation and creativity that is found in your typical cookie cutter suburb makes me gag.
I empathize with his feelings, especially after living in a sub-division just like that during middle and high school. There are many reasons why sub-divisions are less than ideal, to put it mildly, two of the most important of which Joel hits. After mentioning buildings being relatively far apart, and a confusing, winding street network, he points out,
Instead of an atmosphere that cultivates normal communal relationships, the suburbs encourages people to live in isolation from each other without giving them the jarring feeling that they are completely alone and secluded. This is the reason that these neighborhoods are alluring to people.
This is the problem with sub-divisions, they are a hybrid between country and city that tries to give people the best of both, but they fail and are able to neither deliver the privacy and quiet that makes the country appealing, or the dynamism and community that are the strength of cities. They fail because they try to combine two mutually exclusive things, the country and the city.
Since living in the country is not feasible unless we want to go back to an agrarian society of predominantly farmers, the question seems to how can we improve the suburbs to make them more like the best of the city while trying to improve on the weaknesses.
One key to the city is the network of roads. Most modern cities are laid out on a grid, which makes it easy to orient yourself and navigate. It also creates lots of intersections where you can choose where to go and gives you a more direct route from any point to any point than cul-de-sacs and winding streets can. A fine-grained street network does not necessarily have to be a grid. Medieval towns that grew up naturally provide great examples of this. In a sub-division that is full of cul-de-sacs, you don't have many options if you want to go anywhere. Generally there will only be one or two ways out.
Another major difference between a sub-division and a city neighborhood is that there will be a mixture of uses in a city, while a sub-division will only have one. In the suburbs, there will be residential areas with only houses, malls, where all the commercial buildings are, and maybe office or industrial parks. There are schools and churches too. These different areas will be separated. There won't be a store in the middle a bunch of houses and there won't be houses in malls. This is completely different from in a city, where there will be retail stores on the ground floor of most buildings, with offices or residential units, or hotels or whatever really on the floors above. This makes a difference in what brings people onto a street, and how far they have to go for things. In the suburbs, only shoppers and people who work at the stores go to the malls. Only people who live on a street would need to go to that street, especially when it is a cul-de-sac that doesn't go anywhere. Only people who work at an office park would go there. In contrast, on a city street, business men will be walking to lunch or a meeting, people will be out shopping or running errands, the people who live on the street will be going back and forth. This makes the street much more vibrant and interesting. One of the keys to why this is is that things are much closer, so people don't have to get in their cars and drive to wherever they are going. Because people aren't ensconced in a thousand pounds of steel, it is easier to meet and interact with your neighbors in the course of daily life. Most cities don't meet up to the ideal, but it does give some indications on how to improve the suburbs.
Most people don't want to live on really busy streets, but there is no reason that a street with mixed uses can't be quiet, treelined, with buildings that are one or two storeys. Cross streets could have single family homes or townhouses, and there could be small parks where children could play. Mixed-use does not have to be busy or very dense to improve on the current paradigm that governs suburban building. Aesthetic homogeneity would be combated by building that have different uses and needs, so must look different. Also, the constant changes needed to keep all the different uses in balance would continuously diversify the look of the neighborhood. As stores grew or went out of business, more people moved in and larger buildings were built, the neighborhood would evolve naturally.
A neighborhood like I have described is not a cure-all but it can and does exist. Northwest Portland, Queen Ann in Seattle, and the area around Denver University are examples. Personally, I would not want to live in a neighborhood just like this. I prefer more dense, busy, urban areas.