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July 5, 2014 11:26 AM   Subscribe

In his new book Ciphers, German photographer Christopher Gielen (previously) reveals haunting images of our endlessly repetitive development through aerial views of American urban sprawl.

The photographic aerial studies reveal the hidden geometries of sprawl growth that become apparent only when seen from far above the ground. These top-view abstractions show striking parallels between layouts and shapes of otherwise unrelated developments – structures as varied in function as prisons and retirement communities. But all of them clearly demonstrate sprawl as a car dependent phenomenon and as a way of life.

These pictures are intended to invoke an era of carefree risk-taking, of “bigger is better,” when investing in home ownership and commercial real estate were still standard practices and neither distance from workplace or city centers nor gasoline prices much mattered in determining the geographic locations of new constructions.

The goal of this work is to connect art with environmental politics and to trigger a discussion about contemporary building trends by looking closely at the ramifications of sprawl – to ask: what is sustainable planning? – particularly at this point in time, when a growing need for new housing is prevalent across the globe.

To further explore these topics, Ciphers was paired with essays by futurist Geoff Manaugh, cultural philosopher Johan Frederik Hartle, urban redevelopment expert Galina Tachieva, architect Srdjan Jovanovic Weiss, as well as environmentalists Susannah Sayler and Edward Morris of The Canary Project.
posted by Room 641-A (50 comments total) 22 users marked this as a favorite

 
(via Fast Company)
posted by Room 641-A at 11:28 AM on July 5, 2014


These images are horrifying. And yet, if they were changed in certain ways and put into Sci-Fi, I'd probably think they looked futuristic and amazing. Or if I were from the 1850's and were shown these images, I'd marvel at the advanced society that could create them. The difference being I guess that I've been to a housing development, and it's not awe-inspiring at all. Next Sci-Fi movie I see with an orderly, shiny, futuristic megalopolis shown from above I'll remember this book.
posted by cell divide at 11:31 AM on July 5, 2014 [6 favorites]


P.S. if you're looking for more images, he has a bunch on his site.
posted by cell divide at 11:32 AM on July 5, 2014 [6 favorites]


Some of these are equal parts mesmerizing and terrifying.
posted by C'est la D.C. at 11:34 AM on July 5, 2014


From a distance, they don't really show sprawl or car-dependency unless you know what they are. There could easily be shops in there and neighbors socializing with each other. Everyone could be working from home. It's only because we've been to these places that we know everyone's driving 30-90 minutes to work and hardly anyone talks to each other or does anything with their home besides sleep and sometimes eat there.
posted by michaelh at 11:43 AM on July 5, 2014 [7 favorites]




For a lot of people on the planet these photos represent a level of wealth and stability unattainable to them, their children and grandchildren. Just the idea of owning your own house in a safe neighborhood is such a fantastic privilege.
posted by Foci for Analysis at 11:47 AM on July 5, 2014 [8 favorites]


My community is over a hundred years old. It has houses of many different architectural styles and eccentric zoning that's a sort of living reminder of the different uses people made of their land in past eras. The people are... you know, people. Everybody's got a story.

What must it be like to live in the neighbourhoods pictured in this book? I really wonder what it does to you when your house and property (for most people the greatest assets they'll ever own) are interchangeable pieces of some planner's grand design. What does it do to children when they grow up in a house that can only be distinguished from the rest by an address painted on the wall? What kind of Skinner Boxes are people buying into here?
posted by Kevin Street at 11:48 AM on July 5, 2014 [4 favorites]


Reddit pointed me to this fantastic image, similar theme but I'm not sure who made it. Here's the actually part of Boca Raton, FL it came from.

For some reason I picture every house to be just like this remarkable never-renovated 1980's dream home.
posted by 2bucksplus at 11:51 AM on July 5, 2014 [15 favorites]


Flying out of Dallas-Forth Worth, and looking down at the sprawl, I saw these subdivisions as fractal in nature. As we rose, I saw one subdivision turn into 9, then 9 into 25 and then we were through the clouds.
posted by thecjm at 11:54 AM on July 5, 2014 [2 favorites]


As James Howard Kunstler says, the suburbs are the greatest misallocation of resources in the history of the world.
posted by Homeboy Trouble at 11:54 AM on July 5, 2014 [11 favorites]


Conform or be cast out.
posted by one more dead town's last parade at 12:04 PM on July 5, 2014 [2 favorites]




Little boxes made of ticky-tacky

edit: should have previewed
posted by entropicamericana at 12:07 PM on July 5, 2014


Foci for Analysis: For a lot of people on the planet these photos represent a level of wealth and stability unattainable to them, their children and grandchildren. Just the idea of owning your own house in a safe neighborhood is such a fantastic privilege.

Homeboy Trouble: As James Howard Kunstler says, the suburbs are the greatest misallocation of resources in the history of the world.

These two comments convey the importance of context when discussing suburbs. If safety and financial well-being are your goal, the suburbs can provide that. But there are other goals beyond that, and the suburbs provide nothing but a long drive to anything, and the sense of having something of your own.
posted by filthy light thief at 12:15 PM on July 5, 2014 [1 favorite]


My community is over a hundred years old. It has houses of many different architectural styles and eccentric zoning that's a sort of living reminder of the different uses people made of their land in past eras. The people are... you know, people. Everybody's got a story.

I doubt your community has the space to accommodate all those people, even if they could afford to live there. I agree that suburban sprawl is problematic but the quaint little 100 year old neighborhoods around here are still filled with people who are driving to work.

What does it do to children when they grow up in a house that can only be distinguished from the rest by an address painted on the wall?

Maybe it makes them less judgmental and more empathetic.
posted by The Hamms Bear at 12:30 PM on July 5, 2014 [17 favorites]


It will be very interesting to see how well these developments age, putting aside the car and TV culture alienation built into them.

If these homes are not well cared for, if the jobs required to maintain them become ever more scarce, and if they become devalued the residents and their neighbours don't commit to taking serious interest, these could become some very nasty, anti-social ghettos.
posted by absentian at 12:39 PM on July 5, 2014 [2 favorites]


> What does it do to children when they grow up in a house that can only be distinguished from the rest by an address painted on the wall

I turned out fine.
posted by The corpse in the library at 12:44 PM on July 5, 2014 [6 favorites]


As James Howard Kunstler says, the suburbs are the greatest misallocation of resources in the history of the world.

He always frames it in terms of the environment and so on, but I think his real objection is aesthetic and class-based. Suburbs are pretty much the antithesis of a beautiful small New England town built around a village green, and I think it burns his soul that millions of educated, well-off white people voted with their feet for suburban living.
posted by Dip Flash at 12:47 PM on July 5, 2014 [5 favorites]


I think it burns his soul that millions of educated, well-off white people voted with their feet for suburban living

It doesn't really matter who or why. Right now, you've got a ton of people demanding the benefits of city living and country living simultaneously, without any drawbacks, and they're burning a lot of fuel to do just that. However, if something cannot go on forever, it will stop.
posted by one more dead town's last parade at 12:51 PM on July 5, 2014 [4 favorites]


While I don't like these kinds of monoculturish developments from the inside, I actually think the aerial photos look pretty neat. I love those moments on an airplane where you can look down and see stuff like this.
posted by freejinn at 12:52 PM on July 5, 2014 [3 favorites]


For a lot of people on the planet these photos represent a level of wealth and stability unattainable to them, their children and grandchildren. Just the idea of owning your own house in a safe neighborhood is such a fantastic privilege.
I recall reading an article that described the contemporary McMansion as "the pot of shit at the end of the shitty rainbow." On the one hand: yup, it's a dream, and it takes a lot of resources to build, and someone who can get one is quantifiably better off than someone who can't. But on the other hand: it's fucking awful to live in.
posted by You Can't Tip a Buick at 1:07 PM on July 5, 2014 [1 favorite]


/He always frames it in terms of the environment and so on, but I think his real objection is aesthetic and class-based. Suburbs are pretty much the antithesis of a beautiful small New England town built around a village green, and I think it burns his soul that millions of educated, well-off white people voted with their feet for suburban living.

If we're talking about race and class issues and the motivations of suburban residents, it needs to be pointed out that in America, "urban" can also be used as a synonym for "African American". And the long legacy of policy and cultural aspects leading into that; see the recent Ta-Nehisi Coates article on housing segregation.
posted by Homeboy Trouble at 1:10 PM on July 5, 2014 [2 favorites]


It's only because we've been to these places that we know everyone's driving 30-90 minutes to work and hardly anyone talks to each other or does anything with their home besides sleep and sometimes eat there.

I grew up in a development like this. Do you really think nobody talks to each other? How would that work? What you do in your house is you eat and you sleep and you read books and you watch TV and you have friends over and your band practices and etc. and etc., just like everyplace else I've ever lived, from suburbs to dorms to big cities to small cities.

My community is over a hundred years old. It has houses of many different architectural styles and eccentric zoning that's a sort of living reminder of the different uses people made of their land in past eras. The people are... you know, people. Everybody's got a story.

What must it be like to live in the neighbourhoods pictured in this book? I really wonder what it does to you when your house and property (for most people the greatest assets they'll ever own) are interchangeable pieces of some planner's grand design. What does it do to children when they grow up in a house that can only be distinguished from the rest by an address painted on the wall?

You could just ask us! Where I grew up there were only two house plans, A and B. Every other house had plan A, every other house had plan B. It wasn't hard to distinguish them, because people paint their shutters different colors. But more importantly -- it just doesn't really matter very much what shape your house is. People live in apartment buildings where every apartment has the same plan; it doesn't make them into pod people. What does it do to children? It does just about nothing, as far as I can tell. People are... you know, people. Everybody's got a story.
posted by escabeche at 1:31 PM on July 5, 2014 [34 favorites]


It's only because we've been to these places that we know everyone's driving 30-90 minutes to work and hardly anyone talks to each other or does anything with their home besides sleep and sometimes eat there.

There are plenty of jobs in the suburbs. Everything from retail and restaurant jobs to government jobs to medical and office jobs. The suburbs need doctors and lawyers, teachers and firemen too. Growing up, my parents both had pleasant 15 minute commutes, so did most of my friends' parents. I'm sure some people live in the suburbs and put up with a long commute, but it is hardly universal.
posted by 2bucksplus at 1:43 PM on July 5, 2014 [3 favorites]


It's a nightmarish vision of thousands of people who have disconnected their sense of individuality from their purchase of house. What next, having a personality without expressing it with a personal clothing style? An inner life?
posted by Free word order! at 1:52 PM on July 5, 2014 [3 favorites]


There are plenty of jobs in the suburbs.

Yes, but are they in the same suburb you are? I know lots of people who live in one suburb and end up commuting an hour to a different suburb on the other side of the city.
posted by octothorpe at 1:56 PM on July 5, 2014 [1 favorite]


I grew up in a development like this. Do you really think nobody talks to each other? How would that work? What you do in your house is you eat and you sleep and you read books and you watch TV and you have friends over and your band practices and etc. and etc., just like everyplace else I've ever lived, from suburbs to dorms to big cities to small cities.

It's not that you don't have any friends, it's that you don't really have friends where you live. It is definitely a problem in commuter culture. The eat and sleep comment was an over-reach, though. Sorry.
posted by michaelh at 2:01 PM on July 5, 2014 [1 favorite]


I used to have a book called How Buildings Learn. The main takeaway for me: Most of those lovely, highly individual old buildings started as cookie-cutter bland crap that got redone and redone and redone by the occupants until they attained the complexity and interest that we somehow assume they were born with. The main difference seems to be that older buildings were often built with more lasting materials than modern American cardboard box buildings. It is a little like the phenomenon of looking at old castles and marveling at how "everything was better back when..." Uh, no. Ninety percent of everything is crap. It's just that the stuff that lasts 300 years was probably the cream of the crop to begin with.
Indeed, looking at Gielen's work, it's tempting to propose a new branch of the human sciences: geometric sociology, a study of nothing but the shapes our inhabited spaces make.
My son is very into video games. We talk sometimes about the mental models they reflect -- about the way the rules of games imply human conceptualization of life and the world. A lot of games seem to have a really poor understanding of the natural resources that underpin the vast wealth of modern life. For example, they seem to think of physical space as a limitation of how many people you can warehouse without any thought going into where food would actually come from. For example, a lot of games discount ocean spaces adjacent to a city as somehow not a source of food when the reality is that island nations like Japan rely heavily on seafood in order to support a dense population on a small land mass.

At one time, I wanted to be a city planner. I decided I first wanted a bachelor's in environmental studies of some sort because the land and natural resources beneath the city is so critical to making a city work properly. It is not enough to understand buildings and people. You also need to understand the larger context of climate and environment to make things work well. I think one of the problems of modern life is the degree to which we have become disconnected from that fact. The above quote looks to me like it sums that up neatly in a nutshell: That many modern peoples conceptualize housing in terms of physical space and social space without really having an idea of how it interacts with the natural world. Like all that matters is socioeconomic class and architecture type questions, divorced from other concerns.
posted by Michele in California at 2:04 PM on July 5, 2014 [4 favorites]


There are plenty of jobs in the suburbs. Everything from retail and restaurant jobs to government jobs to medical and office jobs. The suburbs need doctors and lawyers, teachers and firemen too. Growing up, my parents both had pleasant 15 minute commutes, so did most of my friends' parents. I'm sure some people live in the suburbs and put up with a long commute, but it is hardly universal.

15 minutes isn't typical in a suburb. And I can't find a link right now, but I am pretty sure commutes are worse for us than for our parents, on average (on the other hand, we're working from home a lot more.)

Anyway, 'everyone' was an exaggeration but it only takes a percentage of a neighborhood driving distances in order to change the character of it. There are a few reasons. One is that it usually takes both you and your neighbors being outside at the same time to develop a relationship with them. Early evening is a good time for this, but if your neighbor is still coming home from work, is more tired and irritated when they arrive, etc., then neither you nor your neighbor get to know them. This reduces the reasons you have to spend time outdoors socially which makes it hard for your other neighbors, and so on. Over time, the network looks pretty empty. The weekends can make up for this, but commuter culture isn't just about work - people are driving further for their children's events and to visit family as well. It takes intentional effort by motivated people to form those relationships since they don't happen naturally as easily.

Like tcitl above said, "I turned out fine." It's not a bad life. And, it's certainly not like the modern urban neighborhood is full of best friends. But, these are still legitimate criticisms to make.

Most of those lovely, highly individual old buildings started as cookie-cutter bland crap that got redone and redone and redone by the occupants until they attained the complexity and interest that we somehow assume they were born with.

My house is about 90 years old and everyone just loves how unique it is. It was built by some guy who ordered everything but the wood and bricks as a kit from a Sears & Roebuck catalog.
posted by michaelh at 2:19 PM on July 5, 2014 [8 favorites]


I think it would be a great idea if we went back to the good old days when most people lived in hovels, through their garbage out the window (if they had one) and died at around the age of 40 from some wasting disease for which there were no cures. These are just places where people live. I've lived urban, ex-urban, suburban and rural - and frankly the differences weren't all that great. When viewed from above pretty much everything looks pretty much the same - geometric and mesmerizing.
posted by jerrywrite at 2:37 PM on July 5, 2014 [3 favorites]


I think it would be a great idea if we went back to the good old days when most people lived in hovels,...

Yeah, because living in hovels and dying at age 40 is absolutely the only possible alternative to our current choices. We can't possibly imagine improving on anything. So we should just be grateful for the crap we currently have to put up with and not aspire to anything better because it used to be even worse.
posted by Michele in California at 2:54 PM on July 5, 2014 [7 favorites]


I grew up in a development like this. Do you really think nobody talks to each other?

I grew up in town and lived in cities my whole life until I was 34 and I ended up in the suburbs. I was used to knowing my neighbors and socializing with them but when I moved out to the 'burbs, I was really shocked at how little people talked to each other. I bought a townhouse condo out there and probably talked to my next door neighbors about three times a year. Every just came home and zipped into their garages and then closed the door behind them. We ended up joining a local Unitarian church to find anyone to talk to.

We finally moved back to the city seven years ago and all of a sudden, we had dozens of friends nearby. Seriousily, the first week we moved into our block, the neighbors threw up a block party to welcome us to the street. I can't exaggerate how much more open and friendly I've found city folks to be. I can't imagine ever wanting to move back to the suburbs.
posted by octothorpe at 3:26 PM on July 5, 2014 [5 favorites]


oh man... post-flood Boulder County is dealing with a bunch of fallout from various historical societies with regards to people trying to rebuild their 100+ year old cabins mining shanties up in the canyons. The owners (rightfully) are looking to improve on the builds and the historical societies are wringing their hands and pearl-clutching about the history of these buildings, when the reality is? The original structures, in many cases, were fucking tar-paper roofed hovels thrown up during the gold rush out of whatever cheap materials were available at the time. They weren't intended to last ten years, much less 130 or whatever. Over the years they've not so much been renovated as sort of metastasized all over the hillside lots they sprang up on.

So yeah, history contains multitudes and not everything old is worth preserving. Some of the shittiest awful cheap brick masonry work I've ever seen in my life was part of the Over-The-Rhine tenement slum apartment building facades that have been converted, with much care and expense, into gentrified urban yuppie "lofts" in Cincinnati. And yet they lovingly preserved, at great expense, the horrendous exteriors with the gloopy shoddy brick pointing that screams "cheap shit construction" from the early 1900s.

I hate sprawl just as much as anyone else tbh and I'm pretty sure Aurora, Colorado could serve as a warning example of the kinds of meth-ridden ghetto suburban slum anarchy that could evolve in the worst sprawl cases, however some recent examples of thoughtful re-design in former tract-and-strip-mall communities, at least around here, have gone a good way towards re-centering the communities with a smaller core and communal shopping/employment that provides better transit and walkability options. It all comes at a cost, though - the biggest issue is that as soon as this sort of high-density Kunstler-esque urban planning gets done, things like affordability go right out the window.

sigh.
posted by lonefrontranger at 3:28 PM on July 5, 2014 [3 favorites]


> I can't exaggerate how much more open and friendly I've found city folks to be. I can't imagine ever wanting to move back to the suburbs

I, on the other hand, rarely spoke to my neighbors when I lived in NYC, but now I'm in the suburbs and my daughter is currently playing at our neighbor's house and we have a block party every year and and and. My neighborhood is diverse in both population and housing stock, but it is definitely the suburbs (demonstrated by our shortage, although not complete lack, of good restaurants).

In conclusion, people are a land of contrasts.
posted by The corpse in the library at 3:37 PM on July 5, 2014 [7 favorites]


The suburbs have their problems, but (in my experience) lack of interaction with neighbours is not one. Living in an apartment in the city, I have far fewer opportunities to meet and get to know my neighbours than my friends in suburbia, who at least have porches, front yards, and room to entertain guests.

It’s possible that actual houses in the city afford more opportunities for social interaction than houses in the suburbs. However, in physical form they're typically not too different from what you'd find in the suburbs, just older.
posted by Kilter at 3:42 PM on July 5, 2014


...if they were changed in certain ways and put into Sci-Fi, I'd probably think they looked futuristic and amazing.

Look down from a high enough orbit, and you're seeing diatoms.
posted by cenoxo at 3:49 PM on July 5, 2014


Look down from just a little higher, and you can barely see a Pale Blue Dot.

With over seven billion human beings living so closely together on it, curious aliens from the next galaxy over must think blue is our universal skin color.
posted by cenoxo at 4:33 PM on July 5, 2014


I recall reading an article that described the contemporary McMansion as "the pot of shit at the end of the shitty rainbow." On the one hand: yup, it's a dream, and it takes a lot of resources to build, and someone who can get one is quantifiably better off than someone who can't. But on the other hand: it's fucking awful to live in.

So true. I can't tell you how terrible it is to have enough room that my wife and I each have a home office we can work out of plus a spare bedroom for guests. It's awful to be able to watch movies late at night without worrying about it being too loud for the downstairs neighbor. I hate having it be so quiet that I can sit in my back yard and read a book undisturbed. And it's really ridiculous to have room in the garage for a workbench so I can work on my hobbies.

Come on. I've lived in the cities and suburbs. There are pros and cons to both. Yeah, I miss being able to walk to restaurants and grocery stores. But for my preferences, my overall quality of life is vastly better since I moved out of the city. If you think it's fucking awful to live in a standalone house in the suburbs, I don't think you have any idea what you're talking about.
posted by primethyme at 4:39 PM on July 5, 2014 [5 favorites]


This reminds me of this guys aerial photography of Mexico City a bit - especially #16, which is really creepy.
posted by mbatch at 4:51 PM on July 5, 2014 [1 favorite]


What disappoints me personally is the lack of greenery. Where are the trees? The vast, open green spaces? I'm not even talking about tiny suburban parks. It's more of a larger issue with me that we people seem to build houses and communities to avoid nature, to escape it, to close it out. I don't know what the alternative is, necessarily, except that I found myself really liking a few neighbourhoods in Dundas, Ontario, which is known for its green space. And this is technically in the suburbs! The streets were lined with shade-giving older trees of a variety of species. The front lawns I walked past contained trees, shrubs, rock gardens, waterfalls, and ponds, and there were lingering scents of roses and mint and catnip and lavender and their backyards opened up onto a river with forested hills stretching miles and miles into the distance and I loved it. I'm a city person who generally sees suburbs as dystopia, but even I would consider getting a house in that neighbourhood. Because I want deer and foxes in my back yard, and miles of actual forest to explore.

Suburbs normally make me feel claustrophobic and agoraphobic at once, like what happened to the natural landscape? I find chaotic wild areas much easier to navigate than the streets of my own city, because the natural environment makes sense to me.

Clearly, not all suburbs, or cities, or countrysides, are built the same.

But come on, urban planners. Plant some trees! Wild nature is not your enemy!
posted by quiet earth at 5:25 PM on July 5, 2014 [1 favorite]


He always frames it in terms of the environment and so on, but I think his real objection is aesthetic and class-based. Suburbs are pretty much the antithesis of a beautiful small New England town built around a village green, and I think it burns his soul that millions of educated, well-off white people voted with their feet for suburban living.

I'm not sure about him specifically, but there are major erosion and water issues related to suburbs (and urban areas) that aren't really that solvable without some major changes in urban planning (and which aren't the residents' fault, obviously, but are still issues we -- universal/societal "we" -- should probably deal with in the near future regardless). An example of one issue that causes problems where I live (in a very built-up area of the Mid-Atlantic), when there's a lot of ground that's impermeable to rainwater, which there is in a built-up place with lots of pavement and sod, such as a suburb or city, that rainwater starts gushing into the local waterways and the streams aren't really able to handle the influx. There isn't really anywhere for that water to go, so it floods into what should have been the floodplain but is now people's homes. Even in the best case scenario, in which people have sump pumps and the ground is relatively soft and nobody gets flooded out, all that water still erodes the area around the streams, which exposes area infrastructure (which leaves that infrastructure very vulnerable). Also, since the water is coming from streets and yards, it carries a lot of pollutants that harm many of the species that live in the water (including the bacteria that many macroorganisms feed on -- so making the water ultra-clean isn't the answer, either, and it's actually a problem when there's a leak of chlorinated drinking water into those streams because it makes the streams "too clean"), and that dirty runoff might even make the water too polluted for direct human contact.

As I understand it, suburbs represent build-up of relatively urban development -- the problem (environmentally) isn't that they aren't urban *enough,* it's that they're actually too urban, and so a lot of natural processes cause either huge costs for the people who are living there, or the build up of the area disrupts the natural processes. On the West Coast, the natural process that comes up most frequently are the wildfires that are essential for replenishing the soil and for other pro-environmental reasons, but which now threaten people and their homes. On the East Coast, the issue is more likely to be storms and flooding. But wherever there's been an increase in suburban or urban development there's going to be a clash between residents and the natural processes of the area, and both the residents and nature is probably going to be worse off from that clash.

There are so many people who need to be housed and we should expect that to only increase, but I don't think that sprawl is necessarily a *terrible* way to house them. I actually don't think that the suburbs are necessarily fundamentally inefficient in terms of land use -- for example, I think it could actually a very good thing for each family to have an area of land around their home (it might be useful in terms of hygiene, if nothing else). However, I think there are some cultural issues at play, such as in terms of how we use our yard space, and in terms of housing construction, that mean that suburban life isn't as environmentally sustainable/friendly as it could be (it would probably be good for runoff issues if a "normal" suburban yard was assumed to be full of trees and other native plants rather than mostly/entirely grass, as a really minor example). If the alternatives to suburban developments are things like vast mono-crop farming or huge tracts of impermeable cities that require massive, expensive, and largely hidden infrastructure to run, I actually think that the suburbs could be the future of sustainable building, it's just that we're not building them or, in a general sense, living in them sustainably *now.*

If any urban planners or others who know more about this want to weigh in and/or correct me, though, that's fine! I actually would really welcome that! This is all from what I gleaned from my training to help monitor the health of our natural waterways where I live.
posted by rue72 at 6:39 PM on July 5, 2014 [4 favorites]


But come on, urban planners. Plant some trees! Wild nature is not your enemy!

Hey, 42% tree covered city over here.
posted by octothorpe at 6:47 PM on July 5, 2014


I'm not sure about him specifically, but there are major erosion and water issues related to suburbs (and urban areas) that aren't really that solvable without some major changes in urban planning

I agree of course; I was being rude about Kunstler, who is a famous crank as well as a great and sometimes extremely insightful writer on urbanism issues, rather than addressing the actual ecological impact of suburbs.

Whether suburbs are ecologically "good" or "bad" isn't really something you can answer in the abstract -- it depends entirely on what your criteria are for good and bad, and even more so what the alternative is. The term "suburb" encompasses both very dense and transit-friendly places, as well as places much further along the sprawl spectrum.

The biggest issue over the long term in my opinion is what was mentioned above: can suburbs be rebuilt and modified as society changes (both demographically and in terms of rising energy costs)? Some writers (eg Kunstler) are more pessimistic on that question; I don't feel like I know enough to be certain of the answer but I think that even the suburban form may be quite adaptable if we are willing to throw resources at the problem. (For the example of what no resources plus low density urban form looks like, though, Detroit gives a suggestion -- even just demolition is extremely expensive and our national disinterest in infrastructure spending is not encouraging.)
posted by Dip Flash at 7:34 PM on July 5, 2014


Yes, if we're not willing to put more than the absolute minimum (or less) of resources into infrastructure, then I think that *any* development that we do is very likely going to be ecologically unsound. And both people and the environment (needlessly!) suffer because of that. I don't have the training to know how farming or urban development (including suburbs) should or could be changed to support rather than fight local ecology -- and I would honestly love to know what an ecologically-sound and environmentally sustainable way of housing, feeding, and transporting a large population might look like. I doubt it would mean a country of mega-cities and mega-farms, because farming and dense cities aren't necessarily environmentally friendly, but I also doubt that it would mean lots of grassy lawns and AC units pumping cool air to the top of McMansion family room cathedral ceilings.

The US highway system is awe-inspiring, and these aerial photos of the highways and overpasses look to me like gorgeous feats of engineering, and in my opinion, those highways improved many lives (along with refrigerated trucks!) and were essential to the US's economic and likely social growth from the 1950s/1960s. Obviously there are huge environmental problems that are associated with that highway system, but I understand why it would still have been considered a net benefit at the time, am personally thankful that it was built, and am impressed by that project -- definitely far more than I am by things like putting a person on the moon. It's awful for the US as a society and economy, *as well* as for the environment -- and of course for individuals living in shoddily constructed, ecologically-disruptive housing! -- that the US (government? leaders? people? I don't know) is either unwilling or unable to tackle huge infrastructure problems and projects like that today.

Last I heard about Detroit, they were talking about razing ostensibly abandoned neighborhoods and turning them into farmland. I'm not sure that that would be an improvement, frankly (it might be, I'm genuinely unsure). When I think of vast tracts of farmland, I think of places like China or Greece, where the local ecology was severely disrupted by farming and lack of "wild" space, and which have seen problems like endless desertification as a result. That doesn't make me too optimistic about the project. But then you hear about places like suburban areas of New Orleans that were largely abandoned after Katrina and which were so taken over by invasive plant species in the aftermath of the hurricane that the land is de facto unclearable now, at least with the amount of manpower they have to clear it, and which is now on the one hand "reverting to nature" but on the other, not to the natural species of the area, but to invasive species that crowd all the others out and will destabilize the area ecologically in the long-term. So just letting nature take over *after* "domesticating" land might not be an answer either (though Michigan's winters might help keep the growth "controllable"). If nobody is there to populate the area, nobody wants to put resources into developing infrastructure for the area, farming would cause desertification or other development-related problems, and abandoning the area would encourage the growth of invasive species and therefore is ecologically unsound...I'm not sure what you do?

Where I am, a project that they're working on is to restore stream-beds -- as I understand it, they do that by temporarily diverting the stream, putting in soil to replace the soil lost to erosion, and building in a floodplain so as to keep the soil from eroding again, then connecting the old/restored stream-bed with the still-diverted stream. So I suppose that we have the societal know-how to recreate an area's nature well enough to replace what we (temporarily?! domesticated/developed/destroyed). That's infrastructure, too, in a way, though -- and so of course that's not something that a hard-up region or maybe really any region of the US has the resources to do on a large scale (though of course the expertise and the resources *do* exist -- it's a distribution problem, the most frustrating kind of problem of them all, in my opinion).
posted by rue72 at 8:30 PM on July 5, 2014


If these homes are not well cared for, if the jobs required to maintain them become ever more scarce, and if they become devalued the residents and their neighbours don't commit to taking serious interest, these could become some very nasty, anti-social ghettos.

I've seen it happen. Go to St. Louis. Concentric suburbs around a (mostly) empty urban core. The inner-ring is fairly prosperous, and looks like it should, by rights, be part of the city. Second ring out, things start to look a bit shabby. Third and fourth ring out, as your travel north of the city, things get dire. This is where you see "ghetto suburbs". These places exist and they are nasty. Some of them look like they should be "normal" suburbs, but beneath the surface, all kinds of drugs and gangs, and a shocking level of poverty.

Intetestingly, as you head west from the city, things start to pick up after the second or third ring, until you wind up in West County, which the bougiest of the bougie. This is what I think of when I think of "suburban nowheresville". What's funny, though, is the people in West County have already seen what happens when these "rings" go bad; remember, those shabby second-ring suburbs and some of the scary third- and fourth- ring ghetto suburbs of North County were the bougie suburbs of their day. So people are moving even further out into what you could call exurbs, but in some cases are actually their own towns, e.g. St. Charles. It's like St. Louis county is this semicircular monster that eats land and poops run-down, no-longer fashionable suburbs. And it's always, ALWAYS hungry...

(of course, none of this would be possible were it not for STL's shameful history of segregation and uniquely broken city/county division, but that's a different story for another time)
posted by evil otto at 8:39 AM on July 6, 2014 [1 favorite]


I grew up in the woods, in a house my dad built with his own two hands, surrounded by trees, no neighbors for half a mile. But I always envied my friends who lived in housing developments for their cul-de-sacs. They were fabulous! So much flat, smooth pavement to play on. My gravel driveway was shit for bike riding or basketball bouncing, and we didn't even bother buying sidewalk chalk.

Grass is greener, etc etc.
posted by lollymccatburglar at 11:13 AM on July 6, 2014


Where I am, a project that they're working on is to restore stream-beds -- as I understand it, they do that by temporarily diverting the stream, putting in soil to replace the soil lost to erosion, and building in a floodplain so as to keep the soil from eroding again, then connecting the old/restored stream-bed with the still-diverted stream. So I suppose that we have the societal know-how to recreate an area's nature well enough to replace what we (temporarily?! domesticated/developed/destroyed). That's infrastructure, too, in a way, though -- and so of course that's not something that a hard-up region or maybe really any region of the US has the resources to do on a large scale (though of course the expertise and the resources *do* exist -- it's a distribution problem, the most frustrating kind of problem of them all, in my opinion).

Unfortunately, no, in spite of spending millions of dollars a year, we don't have the slightest idea how to restore streams, and the projects you are talking about are very expensive landscaping that will likely function nothing like the stream that was destroyed and will all wash away in a few years anyway. We are very far from knowing enough to restore most ecosystems. Conservation must remain our priority for the foreseeable future, and therefore, dense infill development in already developed areas is much better than further sprawl.
posted by hydropsyche at 4:43 PM on July 6, 2014 [1 favorite]


I really wonder what it does to you when your house and property (for most people the greatest assets they'll ever own) are interchangeable pieces of some planner's grand design.

What it did thirty-five years ago was to enable folks to use their cookie-cutter house as a template to personalize a home:

SIL bought a house in small Boise suburb. Four plans, four exterior colors, two colors of roof. Lots all pretty much all the same size. Pretty awful.

The first thing you saw changing was the addition of spindly trees and bushes and a few flowerbeds. Different people put out clothes lines, swing sets and sandboxes, laid down pavers, put up different types of fencing--picket, privacy, chain link. The built porches and patios. The trees got bigger. One house burnt down, and the people rebuilt in a totally different style. People did exterior painting in various hues, re-roofed with different colors/materials. Some took off the old fake shutters. The guy down the street put two deer in his yard under the pine tree. People converted a garage to a family room, or added another bedroom, built a bigger garage or put in a garage with a MIL apartment above, maybe added a small office/studio in the back. The trees got bigger, and people planted more. Some people sided their houses. SIL added an entryway to her house and put up exterior brick wainscoting. The neighbor added a bay window and a carport. Trees got bigger, and some were cut down. Kids were born, grew up, moved away. People moved out, moved in, moved and rented their house. Some folks are meticulous in the upkeep, some are lackadaisical about mowing or keeping up with the painting. There's a school and a park within biking distance. You've got to go a couple miles to shop. Overall, it's a pretty nice place to live now. Even with the housing dive, her place is worth six times what they paid for it. There's a certain sameness to the bones of the neighborhood, but it's a unique place.

Once upon a time you bought a house, then you made it into a home, and it said something about who you were. Now it seems that people buy a house, then they keep it as an "investment." They want it the exact same color, nothing exuberant about the landscaping (if any--sometimes it's a patch of grass, a bush and ground cover.) HOAs mandate the same four color exteriors, no additions, can't have lawn ornaments, etc.


Where are the trees?

THIS!!

If there are healthy mature trees, developers should be required to leave them standing and/or plant at least one new one per house built. No spindly little four footer either. Put in a nice 8-10 foot quality native species, better yet, put in two--one slow, one fast growth.

I've noticed the "investment" house buyers don't want trees--OMG leaves to rake, root problems, might collapse on roof, or overhang property, etc.
posted by BlueHorse at 5:57 PM on July 6, 2014 [1 favorite]


Unfortunately, no, in spite of spending millions of dollars a year, we don't have the slightest idea how to restore streams, and the projects you are talking about are very expensive landscaping that will likely function nothing like the stream that was destroyed and will all wash away in a few years anyway. We are very far from knowing enough to restore most ecosystems. Conservation must remain our priority for the foreseeable future, and therefore, dense infill development in already developed areas is much better than further sprawl.

If I could favorite hydropsyche's comment a million times I would. The authors in the article she links have written extensively on this; Palmer and Lave are particularly interesting and accessible. There are other researchers focused more on the western US (eg Roni), and others looking at restoration work in Europe, which follows a different legal framework and restoration techniques. But the unifying thread is that we have thousands of years of developing the science and engineering for "how to screw things up," and only a few decades of attempting to make repairs -- the smart approach is to slow the damage while looking for better restoration tools.
posted by Dip Flash at 9:14 PM on July 6, 2014


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