The Subdivided City
While city boosters boost, global warming slips by. Suburbia is rarely seen, despite the glaring light of day. For myopic urbanists, suburbia is terra incognita. But when you come to realize that the vast majority of Americans live there, suburbia can no longer be written off as mere sprawl.
When the suburban project began in earnest in the late 1940s, it was a complex and fortuitous juxtaposition of social change, postwar euphoria, emerging markets, banking, legislative policy, real estate coups, dissatisfaction with urban conditions, segregation, and technology. In Levittown — the poster child for these developments — the suburban project obtained its potent formulation: The American Dream of the detached single-family house. The lateral shift from the cramped tenement at the center to the isolated dwelling on the periphery constituted at once the emancipation and the explosive atomization of the city.
In the subsequent 70 years, our cultural obsession with suburban home ownership has scarcely been questioned. The liberated house remains on its pedestal — a private plot of land, with a front yard in which to park the new car, a back yard for the customary barbecue, and side yards to keep neighbors at a certain distance — while the costly side plots (car dependency, commuting time, traffic problems, infrastructure cost, food deserts) dogging these “communities without propinquity” (Melvin Webber) have been dismissed as externalities.
The suburban lifestyle inhabits a dimension of apparently endless time and space. While the effects of decentralization on the center have been carefully monitored and the necessary (mal)adjustments of the central city made, the suburban conception has remained blithely unchanged. Steadily growing, subdivision by subdivision, emptying the city of tax revenue and population, hiding from societal responsibility behind county lines, the suburban mindset comfortably assumes legal and ethical isolation.
There has been little pressure for change. Most developers have had no motivation to reconsider the suburban blueprint. They concentrate on refining the business model, not reforming the project. Aside from the rare opportunity to design the odd house, alteration, or addition, architects — self-ascribed change agents — have given little thought to this realm. With the architectural and urban models calcified, our suburban landscapes petrified and the advertised American Dream became a cartoon.
There has been little apparent need to worry — until recently. Between window shutters fixed for looks, detached homes still peer into the doldrums with a fenestrated blank stare. But the frozen smiles that our “housey-houses” now cast across the crew-cut, “crabgrass frontier” (Kenneth T. Jackson) are increasingly robotic. Lights now turn on and off by themselves. Televisions make suggestions. Screens proliferate and expand. Alarm systems scan. Thermostats surveil. Garage doors open and close remotely. Car heaters anticipate commutes. Increasingly sophisticated leaf-blowers and ant-killers maintain the Garden City’s quasi-English atmosphere. Perhaps only gadgetry and buffalo grass evolve in suburbia.
But look closely and you will see the social realm drifting, too. In the isolation of suburban life, the tedium once anesthetized by TV and alcohol is now also opiated by YouTube and devastating chemicals. Between increasingly rare jobs, few hunker down in the garage to invent. Should the gizmo work, the mythic innovator moves to Silicon Valley, Austin, or some other suburban exception to float an IPO. While the ‘homemaker,’ today a rare ornament in the shrinking middle class, goes to yoga (no longer the bridge club) once in a while, most have no time to get bored; they’re exhausted, struggling long hours in the vain hope of making a living wage.
While most have been reduced to ‘the help,’ the ‘lucky ones’ are trapped within the corporate hothouse. Pick any large company that began its migration from the center in the 1970s. By placing the back office in the suburb, the company could tap a well-educated workforce of mothers-at-home. Work and services followed the migrating labor markets. While the suburbs slept, in a process much like cell division, the traditional downtown spawned a new generation of sub-centers, abrogating the long-standing hierarchy of city center and suburban periphery. The morphology of the city — still fiscally, legally, and conceptually a fried egg — no longer perpetuated the established binary relationship. Office parks, strip developments, and shopping malls (advertising pseudo-civic engagement) dropped into the urban pan, introducing new, pale yolks into the white consistency. With this radical atomization, the city and the large corporation entered the polycentric stage. Division by division, sub-center by sub-center, the polycentric city spread its richness and its problems over the entire planet.
Today, while the main office consolidates in a world-city, the branch office is under siege. It is no longer a privilege to work at home; minimizing overheads for the employer, it is the ‘preferred’ mode. The subdivision is the new workplace. The continental ‘eight-hour day,’ extending from coast to coast, demands attention from 6 a.m. to 8 p.m. Our global digital connectivity eliminates downtime entirely. Without dress code or commuting time, the four-dimensional, multi-tasked workspace of email, virtual conferencing, chat apps, telephone calls, texting, and tracking ensures surveillance. Face-to-face is, for better or worse, fading into the past — or is being replaced by the pixelated screen — even as the intensity of the city virtually invades the home. We window-shop in browsers, forage along the infinite shelves of online retail, and socialize in apps. A cadre of ‘concierge’ businesses, from roaming maids to Amazon and DHL delivery, service the privileged domestic interface with well-packaged products and missives from the business ecosphere. Drones have appeared on the horizon. The distinction between work and leisure has disappeared. A precarious part-time workforce has emerged. The world continually buzzes in our pockets, interrupting cohesive thought. Physical isolation, stratification, and segregation intersect with unceasing connectivity, an unrelenting electronic bombardment, and the constant chase for work. An overheated, stormy atmosphere of attention, instant response, constant performance, over-reaction, paranoia, misinformation, and fear dominates our politics and our problems.
While these virtual commotions knock at suburban lifestyles, the polycentric universe proliferates and, whether oblivious or petrified, suburbia offers its ever-present grin. But, more than anything else, one simple “inconvenient truth” undermines our capacity to keep up this facade: Suburbia is an unsustainable energy-sink. As climate change begins to affect our health, our budgets, our insurance costs, our economy, our global political stability, and our prospects, even the most somnolent suburbanite will slowly wake, unable to ignore the facts lapping — or shimmering, as the case may be — at their doorstep.
The rising generation has demonstrated a greater affinity for metropolitan life. Fewer are driving. Fewer uproot their nascent urban lifestyles to plant kids in the fields. Nationally, migration to the suburbs has begun to ebb. In growth areas like Texas, this may not yet be the case. In Houston, 60 percent of the population lives in single-family houses. But the construction of detached dwellings is now outpaced by that of multi-family units. Although these developments lack the yard-worlds the suburbanite once expected, they seldom provide adequate compensatory collective space. Normally, the amenities of the densifying inner ring provide compensation. But in suburbs such as Katy, far-flung from the historic center of Houston, extraordinary compactions of stick-built density rise, scarcely accompanied by public facilities. The four-story, football-fields-long housing developments emerging out of the prairie attract those desperate for affordability. The bucolic field of small houses and private landscapes is becoming an open, windswept plain of gigantic domicile boxes.
Many now proffer their services by constantly circulating from dwelling to dwelling or moving from location to location, attending to the maintenance of one technical device or another. Some still travel 20, 30, 40 miles to a node in the polycentric sprawl. Others, ‘fortunate’ to labor from home, are ensconced in a modicum of outdoor space and an abundance of air-conditioning. In any event, the once idyllic and convenient suburb is increasingly and rapidly becoming a chore and an inconvenience. Peaking above the sprawling rooftops of historic growth and casting long shadows from newer developments is a dawning realization: The seemingly benign and long-ignored externalities of suburbanization, in all its forms — from the emerging nouveau-riche suburbs of the oil patch to the creeping expanses of our established cities — are the culprits in the unfolding drama of our environment.
Although it may not be immediately obvious amid the false hopes and convenient haze of sprawl, things have changed. It is high time we took a closer look at the suburbs. In order to engage the reality of our declining suburban lifestyle, we must see the suburbs as a critical component of the city equation. We should do so, not just because it is blatantly unpopular to argue that we must all live in “the culture of congestion” (Rem Koolhaas) but, more profoundly, because the potential for an enhanced suburbia will contribute to the resilience of society and the planet.
A reformist attitude may not be necessary. Given the immediacy and the implications of the issues we face, suburbia will be forced to change.
If you acknowledge that the resources we rely on — from land to energy — are finite, then you realize that the American Dream is in for hard times. The commonplace supposition of ‘sustainability’ is that suburbia can be upgraded, tweaked, and retrofitted toward energy efficiency, in pace with changing energy costs and our developing expectation for creature comforts. We should be suspicious of the ease with which ‘sustainability’ has been adopted as the fix. Even if we develop the will, it is highly unlikely that suburbia can be re-engineered to meet our environmental demands in this way. The scale of cuts in energy expenditure required to stabilize our planetary atmosphere cannot be attained by individual or piecemeal adjustments. They necessitate a fundamental re-conception of the distributed city itself.
While the basic consistency of our suburban fabric has remained the same, we must recognize that the mid-20th-century conception of the city (a frying egg, with a coherent center and a clear periphery) was long ago subsumed by a polycentric field (a pan of frying eggs), extending as far as topographic limits would allow. As we turn up the heat on the city in the 21st century — as population increases, unbuilt land becomes scarce, and the atmosphere intensifies — the existing conception of the suburbs will need to be upended. We must change the consistency of suburbia to produce a fully integrated omelet city. The operative, divisive logic of 20th-century urbanism must be overcome.
In the single-family house, the consumptive ills of detachment have long been recognized. But the subdivision has been the fundamental agent of divisive growth in the dispersed city. House, landscape, and infrastructure have always been inextricably bound. Agglomerated, this assemblage now forms the vast majority of inhabited space. Our Rice University colleague Albert Pope calls the “ladders” of vertebrate streets ending in cul-de-sacs the “deep structure” of the suburban conception. Oriented to a central spine, the ladder turns its back on the world. Placed beside each other, two ladders or ladder sets (subdivisions) always leave an unattended gap, a frazzled no-man’s land, between them. Unconsciously, the car skips across these voids, displacing geography with energy and speed.
We can no more eliminate this (at present, wasteful) interstitial territory than we can wholly abandon the suburban infrastructure everywhere tattooed onto the planet. But, with no solution to sprawl, we can accept its existence and begin anew. We should no longer conceive the subdivision as an island in isolation.
Frank Lloyd Wright forged a remedy for suburbia before the fact. In 1932, Broadacre City already displayed an answer. Although he never realized his plans, Wright untiringly advocated his dream of an Arcadian city. In Broadacre, Wright incorporated the essential dependencies of human habitation, such as agriculture (glaringly absent in suburbia) and the ‘city’ (which appears in Wright’s proposals as recreation facilities, apartment buildings, laboratories, factories, and discrete civic institutions), that, strategically combined with shaped open space, annihilate the unattended displacements of sprawl. No doubt met by the bemused smirks of his audience, Wright boldly injected hybrid cars and drone-like flying vehicles into his sweeping panoramas. Little did we know that, in suburbia, Wright pursued not nostalgia for the past but a dream of what now seems like an attainable future.
Ever since the development of the spinning jenny, work has been transferring from hand to machine. Today, this transfer occurs with dizzying speed. The messenger of change is about to slip through the gates of the subdivision — not by means of the private automobile that made the subdivision possible, but in a strange new vehicle with no steering wheel and no controls. If the car begat suburbia, this upgrade may lead to its resurrection: The autonomous car is at the door. The pivotal technology of the coming ‘Mobility Internet,’ this self-driving robot will, like the smartphone, transform our sense of distance and time.
Although the exact details and ramifications are guesswork, it is probable that, with a subscription and the touch of an app, hands-free transportation will arrive at the doorstep with the convenience of a horizontal elevator. Operating 24/7 with coordinated guidance, these vehicles will require a fraction of our current parking and road space, drastically reducing, if not entirely eliminating, future garage and road construction, upending land values, and requiring us to rethink our relationship to infrastructure. Yet another of suburbia’s foundational structures is shaken: The home garage and the parking tarmac out front become redundant. Acres of strip mall asphalt will await repurposing. With the home office in place, the commute is already in question. For those who still go to the office (now a reverse commute), work will begin in the fully loaded autonomous car. Distracted by our personal devices, our movement becomes seamless, an unnoticed jump cut. Cars — lighter, smaller, nimbler, and safer — penetrate buildings. As an augmented pedestrian, movement becomes continuous and mobility intensifies. Public transportation may remain crucial, even more necessary, on the more intense routes, and the private vehicle may still dominate the rural landscape. In both cases, however, sites of modal transfer will warp the urban fabric in new and unexpected ways. The urban road network — the platform of a few monopolistic transportation providers — once it is no longer a broadly shared conduit, will have its public maintenance called into question. With the ‘network neutrality’ of the street under threat, the very idea of public space will require defending or re-conceiving. The autonomous vehicle is going to turn the world inside out and upside down.
Since we climbed up on horses, humans have been in the driver’s seat. But it’s not only the soccer mom that is about to lose her job. To give just one example: Otto, the trucking and logistics company, joined by the beer company Budweiser, is testing self-driving trucks. Robot-trucks don’t get tired; their performance is consistent; and they don’t have to stop to take a break. For the moment, the trucker is relegated to backseat driving, no doubt thirstily eyeing the cargo. Soon, the teamster will wait, immobile, hopping into the cab only at the loading and delivery points, if he or she retains a job at all. But it is not just drivers that are being put out to pasture by automation; this has already been the fate of factory workers, miners, agro- and energy-workers. Even the white-collar landscape — from bank tellers to doctors — is being decimated. Work is rapidly becoming a scarce commodity, a privilege for those who can find it.
So what will happen to our vast galaxy of bedroom communities? Will the prairie return or a New Broadacre City appear? Will the social and civic programs and facilities arrive to satiate a disaffected and precarious multitude? Will an intelligent density be grafted into our indelible suburban infrastructure? Will we cultivate the redeemable topsoil between subdivisions? Might robots tend to fields of solar collectors? As old combine harvesters rust in the fields, will mini-autonomous tractors cultivate our suburban green strips? Is it possible that our suburban terra incognita will turn colors?
The coming technologies will not determine our future. How we choose to deploy them will. We must return to the collective project, beyond the subdivisions of identity politics. To open the terra incognita beyond technological determinism is to consider the eternal question, “How do we live together?” We cannot abandon what we’ve wrought, but we can accept it, see it clearly, and begin anew. Whether any of the states envisioned in the accompanying images is “one step closer to Arcadia” is anybody’s guess. Paradise is always a moving target.
Lars Lerup is a professor at the Rice School of Architecture, where he was dean from 1993 to 2009. Scott Colman is an assistant professor at Rice.