Monday, January 12, 2009

What Will Save the Suburbs? Nothing, I Hope

Today's New York Times has a piece by Allison Arieff about the incipient erosion of suburbia - set off by a combination of the economic recession, last summer's high gas prices, and a growing green consciousness - and how to deal with it. At least, I hope that last one is part of that; I really don't want this point in history to be characterized by the same wasted opportunities as the early 1990s.

When it comes to the issue of suburbs, I'm hardly the least-biased person in the world. Growing up in the cul-de-sac wilderlands north of Toronto gave me a perspective on them which, now that I have the luxury of looking back from an urban apartment, I wish I didn't have. Again and again I hear the old canard that the suburbs grew and endure because parents want to provide a safe environment for their children to grow up, and again and again my response is that the suburbs do no favors to anyone.

Suburbs, in my mind, combine all the disadvantages of urban and rural lifestyles with none of the advantages. They splay out like childrens' doodles over the landscape, heedless of where they're going or what they're replacing, utterly disconnected from their surroundings and the world at large. Back in October, one of my photographic expeditions led me to Old Finch Avenue in extreme northeastern Scarborough, and while I didn't find the Old Finch Avenue Bailey Bridge I did find a suburban landscape that could just as easily have been in Scottsdale. Standing there, among the cookie-cutter houses built to the same half-dozen plans, only the intrusion of a 131 Nugget contradicted the concept that I might walk down one of those winding roads and stumble onto my old home, a hundred kilometers away.

The future has a place for people who want to live at a remove from the hustle and bustle of urban life - that is without question. A small community built around a commuter rail station could provide all the benefits of countryside living with all the advantages of proximity to a major city. The suburban designers' infatuation with rambling sprawl is fundamentally isolating and contributes to the development of an ethos that stresses expansion and consumption in a world where real limits are starting to loom just over the horizon.

If the twenty-first century as a whole has a bright place for suburbs, it can only come after a fundamental reorganization of suburban design principles as they're currently practiced. Otherwise, those endless thousands of clapboard mansions may yet turn out to be built on the head of a pin.

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