Just over a week ago I was fortunate enough to attend one of the seminars at the CNU 17 (Congress of New Urbanism annual conference) here in Denver. The seminar was called Retrofitting Suburbia, and it was given by the co-authors of the Retrofitting Suburbia book Ellen Dunham-Jones and June Williamson.
It’s obvious that suburbia is based on the ease of use for the automobile – the wide streets that allow faster speeds, the ample parking lots that at most times of the year remain for the most part empty, and the ubiquitous driveways that demarcate the garage door as being the new front door into our homes. Suburbia comes across as a haphazard “train wreck” development that is more driven by the profit margin of a development company rather than creating a livable environment (i.e. an environment that offers any other option other than getting in ones car and driving to a destination) for the populous.
This train wreck development is sorely lacking in any kind of meaningful design. And by meaningful design I don’t mean implementing an aesthetic that is pleasing (which of course is highly subjective), but instead I mean injecting a sense of purpose into the design, to create connections between buildings and open spaces, and ultimately build an environment that fosters personal interactions and promotes a democratic society. What suburbia does promote is a reclusive society that travels primarily in their cars and interacts with other people with their car horn and their middle finger.
So why has the last sixty years erased our knowledge of how to create viable communities? Has capitalism over-reached its bound and become more centralized to our society than democracy? We as a society are heading into a future where we know the current status quo can not carry us forward. The solutions for many of society’s problems – a more fuel efficient automobile, urban sprawl, obesity, a failing infrastructure – could be answered by asking one question – what if I could walk to the store?