Let's talk about suburban living. There is a basic problem with the American Dream: it is bound up with the idea of "home, sweet home." The way we see ourselves and the way much of our economy operates is based on the notion, established over two centuries ago, that the ideal state of being American involves owning and living in a free-standing home, inhabited by a nuclear family. This idea is environmentally wasteful—in the building and maintenance of all these homes, as well as getting to and from them every day—and the idea also perpetuates a notion of social cohesion (the nuclear family) and separation that has, to say the least, some serious issues. I think this much is something we can all agree on. What remains a question is what to do about it.
The standard response is to somehow ask or force people to move back to compact cities, where they can share resources as well as party walls. The problem with that is, first, that it is not always pleasant to live in a city, and second, it is difficult to access vital resources there, from low-cost quality education to the very green that we would like to preserve. Until we either have a revolution that makes services free or low-cost to all, or redesign our cities to correspond to Le Corbusier's vision of living together in towers and blocks spread around parks, that problem will not be easy to solve.
At the same time, inner-city housing is becoming unaffordable to almost all, as Richard Florida, among others, points out, and argues that we are headed for another housing crisis. Our over-leveraged McMansions in the semi-desert or -swamp are now joined by pencil skyscrapers [Ed. note: See 432 Park Avenue, by Rafael Viñoly Architects, pictured below.] and Brooklyn townhomes, in skewing the system to the rich and away from affordable housing. In New York, the disappearance of middle-class affordable housing under the Mitchell-Lama program is on the horizon after most cities have long since lost such facilities.
Ironically, the rise of loft living and the hippification of inner cities have at least created alternative communities where people live more or less communally, have access of many services, and are forming social bonds that go beyond the restrictions of the nuclear family. In Europe, such new forms of living are even being formalized, as Susanne Schindler points out in Places. We can only hope, though not without holding our breath, that something like this will happen in the U.S.
As I have tried to argue for a long time, the most intriguing model for future housing that develops and opens up the American Dream, rather than denying it, is right there in suburbia. Alan Hess, one of the most acute and underestimated critics of the designed environment, recently previewed in Places the research work he has done about the history and current state of Orange County. He points out that the original plans for Irvine and other planned communities in the county learned from the mistakes both cities and suburbs made elsewhere. The planners for these communities created walkable, dense places with access to shared open space as well as cultural and educational facilities. They took the forms, shapes, accoutrements, and styles of the American home and adapted it for multi-unit apartment buildings, condominiums, or townhomes. Despite the county's reputation of being a lily-white bastion, the result was a remarkably diverse and lively suburban scene. As Hess puts it:
"…the plan's key concepts—the integration of nature and open space with daily living, logical organization of functions, creative design of homes and public places, civic landmarks that orient visitors and communicate character, the balance of unity and diversity—were imaginatively and effectively expressed at the human scale in the architecture. These designs were by no means avant garde, but they were certainly Modern."
Problems remained there and elsewhere in Orange County, most notably the reliance on the automobile, though we are seeing improvements there in more small-scale mass transit (I keep saying it: jitneys, not light rail, are the real answer) as well as in the development of the car itself towards something that makes more environmental sense—in everything from its power source, to how it moves (self-driving systems), to ride- and ownership- sharing programs, to new asphalt that drastically reduces noise and pollution.
The message is clear: the American Dream is there to be rebuilt and built on, not rejected in favor of the pie in the sky penthouses for the rich and dark hovels for the poor. Yes, center cities should be more diverse in every possible way, but what we really need is to make suburbs into better places to live, work, and play.
Aaron Betsky is a regularly featured columnist whose stories appear on this website each week. His views and conclusions are not necessarily those of ARCHITECT magazine nor of the American Institute of Architects.