Tuesday, April 12, 2005

Volume 1, Issue 2

To simulate is to feign to have what one hasn’t.(Simulacra 167-169)

-Baudrillard, Simulacra and Simulation (1983)

Today we return to the subject of Suburban Sprawl. Whether you call it “Sprawl,” “Suburban Sprawl,” or “Junkspace” it is a cancer that is eating our culture from the inside out. Simply put, S”prawl” is what is left over after Modernization has run its course, the built product of modernization. What went wrong?

The Five Components of Sprawl

The dominant characteristic of sprawl is that each of its components is strictly separated from the rest. Another characteristic of sprawl is its relative simplicity. Traditional towns combine the events of daily life in an infinite number of combinations. In sprawl, life is abstracted into only five components or systems that make up the entirety of daily postmodern living. Any two components may be adjacent to one another but always occur separately. These components are: housing subdivisions, shopping centers, office parks, civic institutions, and roadways. (Duany Plater-Zyberk 5)

Housing subdivisions are large tracts of land developed by wealthy land developers consisting entirely of homes. “They are sometimes called villages, towns, and neighborhoods by their developers, which is misleading since those terms denote places which are not exclusively residential and which provide an experiential richness not available in a housing tract.” Furthermore, most subdivisions are given ridiculously romantic names that signify natural or historic resources they have replaced. Subdivisions, which incorporate curved roads and cul-de-sacs, are inherently disorienting; “no wonder that so many people associate visiting suburbia with getting lost.” Such subdivisions offer only a few places to enter and exit the development forcing traffic onto collector streets and reinforcing traffic congestion. (Duany Plater-Zyberk 5, 34)

The death of the traditional neighborhood or village has caused these labels to become free floating signifiers, labels that have lost their meaning and are applied chaotically wherever it serves a capital purposes to the developer. The names of housing subdivisions, such as “Blue Plains” and “Starling Heights,” are third level images, masking the absence of the basic reality that nothing exists there but houses and parking. (Simulacra 170) Furthermore, the romanticized names are a pastiche of powerful stylized memories in our collective nostalgic meta-history. Like the natural resources, the original references for these romantic names have been lost and are randomly cannibalized, the context with which they were originally intended utterly forgotten. (Jameson 16-25)

The Suburbs

Suburban homes are all the same, simulacrum of some lost referent home immortalized in our combined subconscious television memory of family sitcoms from the 40’s and 50’s or the Brady Bunch. While you drive through them you get lost in the lack of difference. Each house is no different from the next, each subdivision no different from the rest, except in the imagery chosen to lend an air of class to fragile suburban egos. (Schlosser 60)

Shopping centers, a component consisting of retail space such as strip malls, shopping malls, and big box stores are places only for shopping. Shopping centers come in every conceivable size, from small convenience stores to the “Mall of America,” yet most are only one story tall and not one of these is a destination that many may reach by foot. This is because people in subdivisions don’t want them anywhere near their houses. It is not that the neighbors don’t need convenience, it is that they are afraid that a one story, aluminum and glass building with a dirty parking lot flooded with florescent light from a plastic sign might lower their property values. And they are right. No one wants such blight in his or her neighborhood and no one considers a good view of the local shopping center an amenity. The corner store, the traditional main street counterpart to the convenience store on the other hand, was compatible with the residential buildings in the neighborhood and accommodated office and residential space with its multi-story format in a way that lent value to the surrounding properties. (Duany Plater-Zyberk 6, 26) Shopping centers and strip malls also have romantic, idealized names such as “The Village” or “Camelot Place” just like housing tracts.

Fast food chains, a particular kind of shopping experience where people in cars shop for food, thrive among sprawl. They often lead the way by building in areas with low property values where the population is about to boom and where huge amounts of traffic is predicted and set the precedent for future development. Schlosser says that fast food chains accelerate suburban sprawl and help set its tone with their trashy parking lots, flashy signs, and plastic architecture. (Schlosser 65) It is exactly this kind of plastic cheapness that people want to put as far away from their homes as possible. This only reinforces a destructive pattern of growth in an endless quest to move away from the sprawl that only results in creating more of it. (Duany Plater-Zyberk 26)

Office parks are places set aside exclusively for work. The contemporary office park was born from the modernist vision of skyscrapers surrounded by a utopian park like environment to preserve open space. However the office park today is merely a collection of large buildings surrounded by parking lots and encircled by busy streets and accessible only by the automobile. Nonetheless, office parks maintain their idealistic name despite being surrounded by traffic and pollution instead of countryside. The environment features the bear minimum number of trees necessary to fulfill the developer’s obligation to provide vegetation as per zoning regulations and beautification ordinances. The sidewalks provided between the speeding traffic and the parking lots are not for pedestrians because no one ever walks to work. The only pedestrian activity that happens at the base of these buildings is walking to and from an automobile. Lastly, during the lunch hour the workforce is obliged to commute half the time to a shopping center only to rush through a meal at a franchise restaurant. By comparison, in traditional neighborhoods the nearness of the workplace to retail and restaurant space that provides cafes and convenience stores with daytime customers is an essential component to the successful balance of urban life. Furthermore, the closeness of the workplace to homes also gives people the option of walking or riding a bicycle to work. Without this kind of interaction between the different components of life the urban pattern quickly falls apart. (Duany Plater-Zyberk 6, 28)

Office Park

The fourth component of sprawl is civic institutions. This is space zoned for public life, such as town halls, libraries, schools, churches and theaters. In traditional neighborhoods these buildings were given places of importance in the community, accessible to everyone, and often creating the focal point of an entire city, perhaps at the end of a scenic boulevard. In suburbia this form is radically altered. Schools and churches for instances are becoming more like shopping malls, surrounded by enormous parking lots, signs at the road, and located on the fringe. Schools have become too remote to allow children to walk to school forcing the school districts to bus children in at a great expense to the taxpayers and inflating class sizes marginalizing the educations of American students. (Duany Plater-Zyberk 6)

The last component of sprawl is roadways. Thousands upon thousands of miles of paved surface that serves to link the other four disparate components. Traffic is congested because everyone is forced to drive. The average suburban household generates 13 car trips per day. Since sprawl separates the different activities of daily life into segregated zones, it is necessary for most people to spend a lot of time in their automobiles, often alone, to travel along roadways to get to the different places that a wide variety of activities demands. Even if someone lives 75 yards from the front door of Wal-Mart, they will not be able to walk there because of a wall meant to separate the retail component of suburbia from the residential component. He or she will most likely get in their car, drive out of the subdivision, drive down the strip for about a mile and a half, then turn into a parking lot and back track all the way to a parking space, only to walk the remaining 75 yards to the doors of the store. (Duany Plater-Zyberk 7, 25)

When you drive on the collector streets, the mega corporation restaurant chains mysteriously repeat themselves over and over again every few miles. The exact same building each time, a simulacrum, it makes you think you are driving in circles. (Schlosser 60) Our culture thrives on disorientation and honors manipulation. Koolhaas describes the suburban strip as “Superstrings of graphics, transplanted emblems of franchise and sparkling infrastructures of lights, LED’s, and video describe an authorless world beyond anyone’s claim, always unique, utterly unpredictable, yet intensely familiar.” (Koolhaas 410)

It is easy to see that Sprawl is not just the postmodern condition of our built environment only but the total end result of the Modernist Programme on absolutely every aspect of life that has led to the breakdown of reality into images that mask basic realities and images that mask the absence of basic realities. We are bombarded with these images day and night until the pervasiveness of the hyperreal fills not only the homes we live in but cloths we buy, the cars we drive, and even the food we eat.

Bibliography of Works Sited

Baudrillard, Jean, Simulacra and Simulation, 1983

Duany, Plater-Zyberk Andres, Suburban Nation: The rise of sprawl and the decline of the American Dream, North Point Press, New York, 2000

Jameson, Fredric, Postmodernism or the cultural logic of late capitalism, 1990

Koolhaas, Rem, Junkspace, Harvard Design School Guide to Shopping, Harvard Press, 2003

Schloser, Eric, Fast Food Nation: The Dark Side of the All-American Meal, Houghton Mifflin Company, 2002


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