Cities and Suburbs – sitchensis – March 09(1/2)

hello LF

my name is sitchensis (used to be OysterOnion but I lurk more than i post so who cares)

this is a big post about human communities, i.e. cities, towns, villages, suburbs, that hippy commune down the road

i am making it because it was either create this thread or be a dick and purchase a giant red title for apathetic poster that said “GEE GUYS SHOULD I MAKE MY FUCKING THREAD ABOUT SUBURBS?”

So this is my attempt at creating a catch-all for suburb and citychat.


I guess I should really say at this point that I have had no academic exposure to city planning at all, so please realize that most of this is me editorializing and conjecturing. Being interested in cities, planning, infrastructure, and communities is like a “hobby” of mine, which is p. cool because it means I read stuff and then go to public meetings about golf courses and shout at developers at city hall as a past time.

Anyways I make my living studying plant communities and forests. What I’ve come around to realize is that forests and human communities are actually kinda similar and function in ways that aren’t entirely different from one another.

Forests are multi-layered organic structures that tend to create a patchwork pattern of variation across a landscape. They continually adapt and change as the environment determines it, and are influenced by disturbance events that create gaps in the canopy, eventually being filled in by a set series of plant communities until they reach “climax” and either atrophy or get destroyed by a natural disturbance event.

prettiest skyline in america imo

Cities could be said to work in the same kind of way. They are socially, economically, culturally and politically multi-layered human communities that tend to create a patchwork pattern of variation across a landscape. They continually adapt and change as a host of outside factors determine it, and are influenced by disturbance events (such as an industry decline, massive redevelopment, immigration, etc.) This can create entirely new neighborhoods, the destruction of old ones, or even just vacant lots that eventually get “filled in” by more human development until they reach “climax” and either atrophy or enter into a disturbance cycle again.

A very good (and hilarious) visual example of this sort of thing is R. Crumbs illustration “A Short History of America” which documents the first half of this cycle:

I say “first half” because in my opinion, most modern suburbs are not what I would classify as being “climax” human communities (i.e. if I were to use the forest example again, “climax” human communities would be akin to old-growth forests) and instead more closely resemble a plantation of a single tree species. This is a theme I’d like to explore a bit further in this post because it’s something I’ve been meaning to write down for a while and an internet thread seems like just the place to do it.

Of course, looking at a city the same way you look at a biological community isn’t a new way of looking at things. Most of what I’m bastardizing in this post can be attributed to works by Jane Jacobs who is really awesome and if you are at all interested in this kind of stuff you should immediately run out and buy “The Death and Life of Great American Cities” or any of her other work. Then you should get depressed because these ideas have been floating around for the LAST FIFTY FUCKING YEARS and we are still making REALLY SHITTY PLACES TO LIVE.

I am really awful at introductions. Maybe I should get on to some meaty stuff.


apathetic poster posted:

comrades, there is good interest about the topic of urban planning in this forum but less so actual knowledge (goonsmugsay) i wanted to make a thread where us planning pals can educate you, the unwashed masses, in revolutionary style. that being thrilling 8 hour dialectics in lowercase.

seriouspost i believe that planning is a democratic process and every person can have insight into planning issues without formal training. unless youre mongolian or something each and every one of you has lived in an organized human settlement for the vast majority of your lives so you should know something about how they work. so then this thread is where we discuss concepts and issues related to planning in a literate, technical way without punctuation, ideally equipping you with terminology to impress female grad students at parties

Table O’Contents

1. Why should I care about urban planning?
2. Why should I listen to you?
3. Disclaimer
5. Introductory Readings

1. Why should i care about urban planning?

as long as white collar knowledge is useful, the earth is only going to become more and more urbanized. a crushing majority of human lifetimes have been lived, loved, and ended in cities. the bulk of the world’s wealth, knowledge, art etc. is produced in them. cities surround and sustain your life, even if you are the unabomber.

in most cases cities are locally governed with a fair amount of popular input. if you’re going to be a responsible voter on bond issues and the like it would be a good idea to be able to independently gauge the effects of each decision!

also if you care at all about social issues like poverty you should learn about the structural elements of cities which reinforce and perpetuate. once you know how gentrification and spatial mismatch are linked you can do more to help

note here that i am using a very broad definition of city, by which i mean “any grouping of more than a handful of structures.” small towns, rural towns, networks of villages, military outposts, burning man, and increasingly suburbs by themselves are all examples of cities. there is a strong subset of urban planning called rural planning, which deals with down home issues. yes rural planning is a branch of urban planning. my point is don’t feel like the only urban planning issues worth mentioning happen in dense downtowns

2. Why should i listen to you?

i am pursuing an advanced degree at a good school on top of other planning related degrees plus i have worked in the field for a few years on both private and public terms. i know there are other accredited planning pals on these forums who can assist me in this noble task but if i dont recognize you and you are dumb and wrong i will make fun of you!

3. Disclaimer

i have a definite Perspective on planning issues. i’m concentrating on regional economics, governmental policy, suburbs and how they tick, and other issues important to wealthy white people. also, i’m speaking from the perspective that planning is a necessary and vital role in government. i’m not so well read about social issues or planning in guatemala or whatever so i won’t post as much about those things but they are still important issues worthy of discussion!

fun side story: i was gonna go to ghana this summer to study regional planning and economic development as practiced in the african rural upland but the fuckin economy >_< maybe i should have begged lungfish for an educational grant


-anecdotes about your city with no point that advance no argument. nobody cares
-any anecdotal variation of ‘i love the suburbs’ or ‘fuck the suburbs’ no FUCK YOU
-cities are the bastion of culture, seventh rome / cities are stacks of little boxes not meant for human emotion <- gtfo
-james howard kunstler. he is a motherfucker supreme and you really shouldn’t take him seriously

5. introductory reading

The Death and Life of Great American Cities by Jane Jacobs. an early working title of this book was Why Modernism Sucks: I Hate Robert Moses. written in the early sixtes by a social commentator about street life in new york, this text is like the cornerstone of modern progressive planning.

Edge Cities: Life On the New Frontier by Joel Garreau. you dont know a single god damn thing about suburbs until you read this book. garreau charts out the past and future growth of suburbs into urban clusters and explores one of the biggest questions in regional planning, namely ‘what the fuck are we supposed to do with all these suburbs’

Readings in Urban Theory by Susan S. Fainstein, Scott Campbell. a collection of articles that is a good approach into heavy duty planning shit for the layman.

Crabgrass Frontier by Kenneth Jackson. a great comprehensive history of american suburbanization

some books that are cool but not worth linking

Sprawl by Robert Bruegmann, is an impartial look at excessive suburbanization
Suburban Nation by Duany, Plater-Zyberk et. al. is kind of stuffy but has a good intro to new urbanism, form based codes, and the concept of ‘transects’
How Cities Work by Alex Marshall is a great primer into land use pricing and transportation
Architecture and Suburbia by John Archer is a nerdy read about architectural morphology and how european villas are the progenitor of the american suburban ranch
The High Cost of Free Parking by Donald Shoup will blow your fucking mind up with economic analysis of parking subsidies
City of Quartz by Mike Davis is a socioeconomic analysis of modern inequality and spatial mismatch in contemporary LA
The City in Mind by James Kunstler is a cool book about planning in history. okay, he’s not all bad but his recent books have been trashy. Home from Nowhere is also alright i guess.

Also most anything by these authors is great:

Robert Cervero
Peter Calthorpe
Ellen Dunham-Jones

further, you can usually pick up some good texts while browsing your local chain bookstore. look out though, because a lot of people like to write anti-suburban polemics that don’t really advance your understanding at all!


Types of suburbs
i. Intro
ii. Streetcar suburbs
iii. Suburban sprawl

Problems with suburbs

1. Water
2. Transportation
3. Future Development
4. Walkability
5. Social Issues
6. Democracy

i. Intro

There is a lot of conflict that comes up in these types of threads when people talk about suburbs, because the reality of the situation is that there are two completely different kinds of suburbs. What you are thinking about, the “family” movies, are usually set in real-life locations that are one kind of suburb (the good kind), while the majority of the rest of the suburbs that have been built are the ‘bad kind’.

Here are the two kinds of suburbs that I stratify ‘suburbs’ into:

i. Streetcar suburbs

Most of these (although some are still being built today) were built in the early twentieth century as low-density residential housing serviced by streetcar lines (hence the name). They are typified by relatively small residential lots, parking concealed into a garage in the back (which was connected to a lane that ran behind the houses), and the street frontage facing onto the front of the house.

They were serviced by public transportation, and in essence acted as their own ‘bedroom communities’, where a commuter could depart/arrive at a common location shared by all, which would then (over time) transform itself into a business and commercial district as the commuters turned into customers who wanted to get some shopping done before walking a short ways home.

A fantastic example of this would be Cook Street Village in Victoria, British Columbia. Although it is located only a few minutes drive from the downtown core, it has its own thriving community of local shops, grocery stores, businesses, and artisans that rely completely on the surrounding low to-mid density residential neighborhood and pedestrian traffic for their business. It is far enough away from the city that it does not attract the homeless or vagrants, yet close enough to being a town that it retains a distinct feeling of community.

From a planning and sustainability standpoint, these suburbs aren’t perfect but they are really damn close to being what an ideal low-density development should look like.

ii. Suburban Sprawl

The primary difference between sprawl and streetcar suburbs are, if you haven’t guessed already, the method of transportation that they were built on assumption of. Streetcar suburbs were built with the assumption that streetcar lines would run into perpetuity — that hasn’t happened. As a result, most new developments have followed the assumption that cars would run into perpetuity– which is correct for now, but increasingly the future for the car remains hazy at best.

Sprawl was built to provide large lots, large houses, large affordability, and larger than life living. This is what people typically refer to as the ‘American Dream’, a giant stucco house with a garage that has a commanding view of the street, built to fit two or three large SUVs. The street patterns found in Sprawl are usually windy and are adverse to connecting with one another. Usually these windy streets drain into a collecter avenue, which itself then drains into a parkway of some kind that transports you into where you need to be — whether it be retail (in the form of large box-stores surrounding the parkway) or business (suburban office parks, usually mid-rise towers surrounded by acres of parking).

Go to Google Maps. Pick a point in Pheonix Arizona. Zoom in. You will find this development everywhere.,-112.02527&spn=0.012642,0.02105&t=h&z=16

From a planning and sustainability viewpoint, these are a fucking nightmare.

The article mentions that there might be hope for both of these situations (although it doesn’t really define what kind of suburb it’s talking about). I would argue differently, and say that really the ‘Streetcar Suburb’ is the only one that has a chance of surviving into the long term and transforming into anything resembling a meaningful human development. Sprawl is… well, destined for catacylsm in the short term and in the long term will make for some great urbex threads.

In my opinion, there are several reasons why sprawl is destined to fail spectacularly, and why there has to be a pressing need to figure out what human developments are worth sustaining, and which ones are worth abandoning. In no particular order they are:

1. Water

Municipal systems across most of the southern and western United States are facing a huge fucking issue right now: how in the hell do we encourage growth while retaining critical water supplies and ensuring that they remain protected and stable into the future?

Sprawl is really awful for this. The low density, coupled with the psychotic need to keep a green lawn that’s never used, a pool that’s never used, showers & sinks & dishwashers that are used way too much, and washing the car or boat every now and then, and you get a real issue that cannot be ignored for much longer. The suburbs waste staggering amounts of water. If you don’t believe that this is a problem, just look at Atlanta, Georgia a couple of years ago. No one has any good idea how this will be solved. Like the Atlanta example, the solution ended up being a large weather system that dumped a fuckton of rain in the region. Think about what would have happened if a city of three million people woke up to no water one day.

2. Transportation

Let’s get something out of the way right now: At this point in time, the car is probably facing an uncertain future. Gasoline is not going to last forever, and it is looking less likely by the day that a suitable, environmentally friendly alternative that lets people drive around in large SUV’s will be coming online anytime soon. In this respect, the design of so many places to be “automobile friendly” has been a catastrophic mistake. As the gas crisis of last year showed us, once people are hit in their wallets, they quickly turn to “alternative transportation”, that is, “the bus” or “the train”. In my opinion, the only suburbs that have a chance of surviving and transforming into meaninful developments are those that retain the “grid pattern”. Those that were build along windy, disorientating, nonsensical road designs are doomed to failure.

Why? Well, the reason is that those that are built in grid patterns encourage the use of public transportation and walking. It’s also far less disorientating than windy streets. How do you know whether you are looking for Oak Street or Oak Avenue? Simple, your neighbor told you that his house is close to the intersection of Evergreen Street. If you find Evergreen Street and walk up it, chances are you’ll find it will intersect with the Oak you are looking for.

What about if you are in a windy cul-de-sac hell? You are on Oak Street, but you are not too sure whether you should be on Oak Drive. Your neighbor told you that it is close to the intersection of Evergreen Street, but you have no way of knowing where that is, because the farther you walk the more bendy the street gets, never allowing you a view of whether or not there is actually a fucking intersection ahead.

3. Future development

Let’s say you bought two houses. One house is a bit of a plain old box: four sides, two storeys, not much. Every house on the street looks utilitarian like this house. They all look the same and it’s rather boring.

The second house you bought was designed by a famous Starchitect. It has jutting spikes, plate glass windows, corners and weird angles everywhere, stainless steel, it looks completely modern and you absoloutely love it because it is a piece of art and encapsulates perfectly the type of image you are trying to project.

Fast forward a hundred years to your descendants who have lived in both houses:

The first house doesn’t look the same at all! The windows are completely different, the layout is completely different, there are additions everywhere. The street looks lived in, but it’s homey. You can tell that every house looked similar at one point, but over time people have added on and modified the homes to make them truely unique and human.

The second house looks exactly the same. No one likes it because it’s outdated in style. No one has added onto it because it is impossible to do so thanks to the Starchitect wanting weird corners and angles everywhere. It’s the same with every other ‘unique’ house on the street — people dislike them because they are all horribly dated and have contributed nothing of value to the street except to serve as projections of a certain type of image.

This is essentially the same way that suburbs develop over time. If you want a suburb to turn into a viable community in the future, you need to make it modifiable. If a suburb is created with a specific “image” in mind, it is virtually doomed to failure. Sure it might seem romantic to live in the Italian Crescendo Development, where everything is made to look like Sicily, but unless it can be modified to support needs outside of its immediate desire to make-believe Italian Villas, then it will be a failure. A suburb has to be able to develop its own transportation centre, business district, and commercial districts in order to be successful. Which leads into the next point…

4. Walkability

How do you get a suburb to ‘evolve’? First off, for a business to develop there must be some sort of reason for it to start. The biggest reason: there are customers that need to be served. If we accept the notion that the car is NOT going to be around forever, then we need to focus on developing walkable communities. Most suburbs, as outlined above, are predicated on the windy-twisty path of road development. This does not encourage walking. In order for an evolution in suburban living to occur, there has to be a focal point where pedestrian traffic can accrue and congregate. This is one of the reasons why I believe ‘grid patterned’ suburbs will survive, as they have the layout necessary to encourage transit centres and pedestrian traffic.

5. Social issues

In all honesty, I am completely surprised that the waves of crime that have been reported in suburban locations recently hasn’t come sooner. If you think about it, the qualities most people look for in a suburban neighborhood are very well suited to a criminal lifestyle:

a) Total anonymity
b) Large, cheap residences
c) Far away from other criminals
d) No one poking in your business

As home values plummet and as the foreclosure crisis gets worse, there is going to be a significant rise in suburbia crime rates. The reasons for this should be obvious: a sudden glut of unoccupied housing, coupled with strained municipal finances that see police spending getting cut as a result of lower tax revenue, plus a lot of unemployed people = bad news for anyone who lives on Creek Crick Crescent.

happy_seniors_collage.jpg lmao

Aside from an inevitable rise in crime, the suburbs are going to be a living hell for seniors. The baby boom generation is entering into its golden years, meaning that we’re about to get an avalanche of retirees. These people will need quick access to medical care, easy access to everyday living necessities (i.e. groceries) and strong community support. With gas prices going up and most RRSP’s being reduced to useless bits of paper, it’s not hard to imagine that a lot of retirees living in sprawling developments are going to find themselves struggling. If you live in a very “individualistic” community that is miles away from the nearest hospital and shopping centre, and you barely have enough money to pay for medications, let alone gas for your car, well, chances are your body won’t be found for a few decades after you die.

Although not perfect in the least, the communities that do well with seniors are those that encourage them to be out in public and sharing in the lifestyle everyone else enjoys. Haven’t seen Widow Mary around for the past few days, even though you always bump into her at 4 o’clock at the local grocery store? Maybe you could drop by her house and check on her. Which is pretty easy, because you know it’s next to the intersection of Evergreen Street and Oak Avenue.

Or was that Evergreen Street and Oak Street?

6. Democracy

Look’it dem frenchies.

All protesting and shit.

Hell yeah, wouldn’t you want to be part of that protest, wearing stickers and carrying banners, yelling, meeting some hot protestor chicks or boiz?

Damn right you do.

Oh wait. You live in fucking North America.

In Michael Moore’s “Sicko” he has a part where he commends the french on their protesting. The french are very political dontcha know, there are regular large scale protests in Paris on all sorts of things, from student debt to the plight of palestine. Moore laments that the same kind of thing doesn’t happen in America.

The reason why is basically because most Americans live in Suburbs.

Compare the two pictures above. Paris is a very dense city, with apartments, tenements, squares, shops, transit, government offices, places of business, and transportation networks all mashed together in a great big city jumble. Chances are, if you get a group of people together supporting a popular cause and begin marching down the street, you will soon start to accumulate people who agree with you who might have been eating at a cafe you just passed, or looked out their kitchen window and saw you on the street, and decided to spontaneously join up.

Most North American cities are not structured in the same sort of Euro style. The majority of Americans are unable to contribute to participatory democracy because being part of a protest essentially takes a huge amount of effort on our part. Sprawl is laid out in such a fashion that it is incredibly inefficient to begin a protest on your neighborhood street and march downtown. Not only will people just stare at you from their big houses and think you’re an idiot, but chances are that if authorities are called in you will be quickly cordoned off, as most suburbs are designed with a singular “collector” avenue that drains traffic onto a highway and is easily blockaded.

So what’s left? Well let’s say you organize a facebook group to protest the lack of affordable transit in your county. You get everyone together and plan to march on City Hall. Ironically you will all have to drive downtown and park in order to get there effectively and on time. Then you set up the protest. No one joins because Downtown is full of office parks that are filled with office workers who would get fired if they joined up with you, and chances are they drive cars and don’t take the bus.

Soon your protest stretches into the night time. No one pays attention because no one actually lives downtown. The streets are empty at night because all the office workers have driven to their homes in the suburbs. Your political protest, which had a very valid point, gets half an article in the local paper and fails to attract any attention whatsoever.

See what I mean? OK, so it’s conjecture, but outside of “Zombie Invasions” most political protests in North America take a huge amount of effort. Not to mention that any physical lobbying of the Federal Government requires a massive sustained effort to get people down to Washington D.C., which is pretty damn impossible if you are an impoverished college student.


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