Monday, June 30, 2008

Developments Explained

Red: My home. Purple: My favorite bike route. Yellow: Housing developments.
Made using Google Earth. Click to enlarge.

A lot changes in 18 years.

That's how long I've lived at 63 Ruth Avenue in Phoenixville, Pennsylvania. In the scheme of things, that's no time at all. And yet, look at all of the yellow circles above.

Those circles mark housing developments which have gone up in the time I've lived here. You can see these four all within two miles of my home, with one just beyond my backyard. By convention, these places are named after that which they supplant: "Kimberton Meadows;" "Brimful Farms;" "Foxfield;" "Heritage Place." They are also known as "what's wrong with America."

My ears bristled at the sharp criticism that my friend leighcia, with some help from Jane Jacobs, leveled against the suburbs. Simulating nature? That's not what I learned from all of those bike rides growing up, or from the tall maples and soft moss in my front yard.

I think what leighcia was really addressing, as clarified in the comments section and by her husband Matthew, is not what lies along the purple bike path, but what lies within the yellow circles. Here we are on the same page.

Two questions surround these developments. First, why would anyone build these houses? Second, why would anyone want to live in them?

The explanation to the first question is simple, if unsatisfactory: economies of scale. It's much easier and cheaper for one company to build a lot of nearly identical houses all at once than if each house were to be built to order by its future inhabitants. While that makes economic sense (often the only sense something needs to make for it to happen), it leaves out much of what should go into making a home.

I believe the central flaw lies in that the people designing and building the homes are not, in general, the people who will be living in them. Design ingenuity centers on modularity and ease of construction rather than on quality of final product.

From the point of view of construction workers, since the homes are to be built and never seen again, why take pride in them? Why make anything sturdy, or unique, or (dare I suggest) beautiful? Certainly not for personal credit - that will go to Toll Brothers. It becomes a job to complete, not one to do well.

Blame cannot rest entirely on the builders. They are only in one sense giving people what they want. Going back to my second question then, why would anyone want to live in these houses? I present a hypothesis.

First, the homes are generally expensive, which makes them symbols of status. They carry characteristics that give the appearance of wealth, such as high ceilings and large square footage. This is true regardless of how ugly they are.

So young couples looking to start a family go right for the houses which broadcast that they are already successes. They may not be able to afford them, but is success really something you can afford not to buy?

Since the houses are built at the same time, lots of young couples at the same stage of life flock in at the same time. They bring vehicles which broadcast success and drive around their children who broadcast success. The homogeneity of the neighborhoods becomes homogeneity of the neighbors.

The removal of many differences between people in these developments might sound like a recipe for a close-knit community, but I don't think that is what usually develops. Community breathes through interdependence, but this vision of success is built on independence.

Instead of community then, residents find an individualist conformity. Since everyone pursues the same vision simultaneously, the way to be most successful is to deviate the least from that vision.

This is exemplified in the classic suburb exercise, mowing the lawn. Because of builder demands for house density and buyer demands for near-mansions, few development houses have yards to speak of. Regardless, on Saturdays everyone mows their postage stamps at the same time.

We see then why people build and live in droves of hideous houses. People will take success in whatever package they are told contains it. None of the success signals outlined above require houses to be of any aesthetic quality. So they aren't.

My description of the mentality of those who live in these developments may sound a bit extreme. While I would be reluctant to apply it to individuals whom I know and love, I do think in the aggregate these ideas go a long way toward explaining the four yellow circles around my house.


Batman said...

Excellent analysis, but you are missing a key ingredient - the government. Zoning prevents clustering houses, and definitely prevents the classic 1st floor retail, apartments above building. Most zoners see the seperation of uses (commercial, residential, industrial) as necessary and demanded by inhabitants. I would argue though that it forces us to drive everywhere, because it seperates things too much to walk or bike. All of this driving alone may also add to the seclusionary mindset of subrubia inhabitants.

Ben said...

I'd like to offer a slightly different perspective. I find it encouraging that our nation is prosperous enough that even a young familiy can be "successful". My previous house was built by Toll Brothers in the 60's, and I must say it served my young family very well. I was indeed in a neighborhood with many similar families, and I cherish my time spent playing with all the other kids on my block, romping through all of our yards. It was a quiet, safe area where everyone knew everyone, three blacks from school and maybe 15 minutes from work. The houses may have looked similar, and homogeneity is standard fare in the upper midwest, but what I grew up in was a community. All the families had their dreams, and many of us/them moved out as worldly success was realized, but I couldn't characterize our time there as individualistically conformist.

btw, zoning is necessary and I demand it. I'm not looking forward to living on a busy street 50 feet from a fine commercial establishment next year that will be noisy at all hours of the night. I'm willing to pay a premium to have a little breathing room. Everyone needs to live somewhere; why not let it be somewhere comfortable?

Nicholas said...

Hey Ben,

Thanks a lot for the thoughtful comment. I do think what I wrote here was too judgmental of too many people.

I appreciate hearing about your background. I think there's a slight difference between what we're talking about, though. The situation you're describing seems to be one in which houses were all cheaper by virtue of the economies of scale realized in producing them at the same time. Therefore, development houses were more affordable than alternatives, and helped younger couples afford them who perhaps couldn't otherwise own a home.

In the situation I'm more familiar with, development houses are actually more expensive than their older, more individually built counterparts. A major reason is they have lots of bedrooms/bathrooms and huge amounts of square footage. (So not only do the houses all look like each other, they're behemoths completely divorced from any context in place or time. People around here often call them "McMansions.")

So instead of young folks getting a jump start on a first home they wouldn't otherwise be able to have, you have young folks really stretching themselves to buy more house than they need or often can afford, perhaps because of the associated success signaling. Other, I would argue better, homes in neighborhoods no worse (but perhaps not as homogenous) are more affordable and perfectly available, but for whatever reason these folks don't opt for them. You can say that's their prerogative, and it is, but I think literally everyone would be better off if some different values were in place.

I mentioned that the idea of a development could be a recipe for real community, and I'm glad to hear that your upbringing reflected that - it really does sound cool. But I think the difference in why people live in development houses I'm more familiar with - as attempts to display prosperity - instead leads inhabitants to have the kind of individualist conformity that I described.