The Call of the Suburb

Here is an excerpt from an essay I’ve just finished for the Ecopsychology module of my MSc in Human Ecology.
“The soil and the pavement grow different crops, even though the soil is cut up into minute suburban plots.” – Harlan Paul Douglass

One Step Removed
Perhaps humans were never meant to live in cities; arguments against are based on the theory of our evolution in small groups—that these cannot be scaled to a metropolis. (Rees, 37-40) However, counter-arguments propose we can construct cities as groupings of small self-contained communities that mimic our evolutionary background (see Ackoff on his model for new urban design). Some contend our only “natural” living space is the countryside; yet the countryside as we know it is almost always a man-made (or heavily altered) construct. If one considers the countryside a wild place, one might imagine the suburb as a happy middle-ground—not urban, not wild, but a median of the two. However, in this paper I will propose the suburb is perhaps the most unnatural amalgam of environments we have yet devised. In the city, we can at least see some shadow of our prior organisation into small communities with shared space for common use. In the country, we often organise into groups that provide mutual benefit (farm collectives, fire brigades, etc.). However, the suburbs tend to separate out each family or individual into an isolated unit (an isolated unit that relies heavily on outside resources for maintenance). If one is habituated into such an environment where everything and everyone is siloed off into discreet controlled elements, what is the psychological impact? This essay will briefly explore this and some reasons behind the growth of contemporary suburbs.

But what’s it for?
If green space in an urban environment is for common public use and enjoyment and country land is for agriculture, what then are suburban lots for? One would assume that, considering the size of many suburban house lots, homeowners would use the land for growing vegetables. Despite the early prevalence of “greenbelt” garden suburbs (in the US), most suburban homes now have little space allotted for vegetable growing. Whilst the average suburban lot has land for gardening, it is often only landscaped or covered with grass. It is somewhat against the suburban ethos to grow one’s own vegetables; the idea being that one has attained a status where one’s wealth has negated the need for self-sufficiency in this manner:

Although the elaborate lawn would be attainable only by the wealthy in England, in the United States carefully tended grass became the mark of suburban respectability. In 1870 Frank J. Scott published The Art of Beautifying the Home Grounds and Jacob Weidenmann issued Beautifying Country Homes: A Handbook of Landscape Gardening, the first American books devoted entirely to “the methods by which every landowner may improve and beautify his suburban home effectively and with economy.” Explicit in such books was the notion that the only reason for living in the city was to make enough money to retire to the country. The well-manicured yard became an object of great pride and enabled its owner to convey to passers-by an impression of wealth and social standing—what Thorstein Veblen would later label “conspicuous consumption.” Such a large parcel of land was not a practical resource in the service of a livelihood, but a luxury in the service of gracious living. As Weidenmann noted in his very first sentence: “The location of the house . . . should be sufficiently back from the public road to afford ample room for an unbroken ornamental lawn.” (Jackson, 60)

So the self-sufficiency underlying “country living” is written off as a hindrance in the suburbs; the ideal is a place meant solely for leasure–a private park removed from the city or a formal garden removed from the countryside. Many suburban estate regime rules explicitly forbid non-ornamental gardening to preserve the uniformity of the neighbourhood (the thought is that vegetable gardening is unsightly and might damage property values). So, here the province of wealth has allowed many to live in an environment that neither calls upon them to work sustenance from the land or be remotely dependent on it as city dwellers are.

Considering recent rises in fuel and food costs, there may be renewed interest in suburban self-sufficiency. The ingrained structure and psychology of the suburb will make this transition difficult. Not only is it impossible to travel to and from most suburbs for basic goods and services without the aid of motor transportation, the formerly rich soil of most suburban tracts is gone; it is often lost during construction when the soil is moved about with heavy machinery. It has been replaced with a monoculture of sodded grass that does not maintain itself without the use of chemical fertiliser and supplemental water (or, at least does not maintain itself in the Desert Southwest to look like a green in the North of Scotland that’s been grazed by small sheep). Again, according to many regime rules, the homeowner must maintain a certain specification lawn and often non-native ornamental shrubs and trees.

The Lost (or just somewhat misplaced) Agrarian Ideal
The irony of our removal from both country and city is that the suburb, even from the early beginnings in the late 1700’s and early 1800’s, was meant to become the happy mix of the two. As these early suburbanites had no notion of the automotive economy, the only sensible (and practicable) suburb was one that was in some manner self-supporting.

It remained for Ebenezer Howard, the London court reporter, to propose specific arrangements for this marriage of city and country in his influential 1898 book, Garden Cities of Tomorrow. Howard’s proposals were welcomed on both sides of the Atlantic. . .Clearly, the proposals are motivated by agrarian sentiments: “It is well-nigh universally agreed by men of all parties, not only in England, but all over Europe and America and our colonies, that it is deeply to be deplored that the people should continue to stream into the already overcrowded cities, and should thus further deplete the country districts. . . .” How should we go about restoring people to the garden, “that beautiful land of ours, with its canopy of sky, the air that blows upon it, the sun that warms it, and rain and dew that moisten it–be very embodiment of Divine love for man?” The restoration can be accomplished, Howard wrote, only if we reject two-valued, black and white thinking, and consider instead a third alternative. “There are in reality not only . . . two alternatives–town life and country life–but a third alternative, in which all the advantages of the most energetic and active town life, with all the beauty and delight of the country, may be secured in perfect combination. . . .” (Donaldson, 26)

The post-war years saw a dramatic rise in American suburbs; many people who had lived for generations on family farms moved into new suburbs and a completely different built environment (one that, in some respects, became a new frontier for American families–one without the physical dangers and economic risks connected with the frontier West). The construction of these new frontier towns coincided with the mass production and mechanisation of agriculture as well as the home economy; in one generation, the housewife was freed from the “drudgery” of kitchen gardening, cooking, and cleaning. (Cullen, 151-52) The man of the house no longer needed to plow the field or tend cattle; vegetables were available a short drive away at the supermarket and the milkman brought bottles cold to the door. The many skills previously necessary for maintaining a household were now defunct and new terms and methods were needed (witness the mid-century boom in university “home economics” programs and household gatherings for women to relate these new skills–often with the underwriting of product manufacturers). Men and women were simultaneously removed from the domestic roles they had played for millennia and made consumers of a new pre-packaged culture.

We will need to visit briefly the concept of The American Dream. There is some dispute over who coined this term and when; however, the earliest literary reference is in James Adams’ The Epic of America (first published in 1931). Adams was attempting to write a psychological history of sorts concerning the ideals that underlie American society and the individual’s drive for maintaining it. He imagines:

. . .that American dream of a better, richer, and happier life for all our citizens of every rank, which is the greatest contribution we have made to the thought and welfare of the world. That dream or hope has been present from the start. Ever since we became an independent nation, each generation has seen an uprising of ordinary Americans to save that dream from the forces which appeared to be overwhelming it. (Cullen quoting James Truslow Adams from The Epic of America, 4)

The early 20th century saw the birth of mass advertising and the marketing of–nearly everything. A term like The American Dream readily appeals to marketers as it connects aspirations of material wealth, family and national pride, and implies a unified goal among the American people. How better than to match it up with mass produced housing and appliances! Whereas we had once sought the security of farmland or, through the Industrial Revolution, jobs in the city, the new American Dream found that middle ground between and set up house there. People left both town and country to populate a new kind of landscape with a promise of leisurely living in an ad-hoc community (though many of the people moving into suburbs were whites seeking racial homogeneity in a time of turbulent race relations; the suburbs hit their peak in a perfect storm of social and economic conditions).

The Substance of Suburbanite
In a sense, the suburbia we consider here is already past. There is a growing trend of urban gentrification and the (often quickly and poorly built) post-war suburbs are falling into disrepair. New suburbs, yet farther out from city centres, are often densely packed with little semblance to any sort of pastoral country garden. As prices for housing and goods rise in urban areas, low-income families move to the first ring of mid-century suburbs on the outskirts of the city. This greatly increases the difficulty of social-service work with these groups as, instead of having a fair concentration of constituents in the city, they are now dispersed in the suburbs. This in itself points to one of the main issues with suburbia—everything is apart from everything else.

And so, I wonder if the physical distance, the separation between house and house, between home and countryside, and between individuals fosters a psychological disconnection as well. Much of this, of course, depends on the physical design of the suburb. Early “greenbelt” suburbs were purposely designed to somewhat mimic village life and there is research that shows this does encourage a sense of community; however, in contrast, the contemporary automobile based suburb can be wholly designed around a traffic grid. (Brown and Cropper) The needs of cars are given primary consideration (evidenced by a lack of pedestrian walkways and houses that are dominated by garage doors). Many new developments are “gated communities”; they are literally walled off from the world. I recently saw a suburban development with an adjoining shopping mall; there was physically no way to walk from one to the other without jumping a fence. In order to go shopping, one must drive round the front of the development into the car park of the mall.

What does such a hard line of separation engender? I propose it distances people from the reality of the world in which we live; without a sense of the communal groups in which we evolved nor a sense of real connexion with either agriculture or wilderness, suburbanites are contained in a wholly artificial construct—one that is fed by and depends upon a culture of consumerism. The suburb is the perfect target for advertising and sales; it is (again, traditionally, this is changing) a largely homogeneous economic zone with a defined set of needs driven by its construction (as opposed to the true needs of residents and the natural environment). What it encourages, I fear, is a society devoid of the connexions that define us as a species. Also, as the otherwise positive mixing of race and income begins in suburbia, I wonder if it will further distance and disenfranchise its residents; I wonder if we are facing a diaspora of poverty in what was once the symbol of our wealth.

Ackoff, Russell, Redesigning Society (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2003).

Brown, Barbara B., and Cropper, Vivian L., “New Urban and Standard Suburban Sub Divisions: Evaluating Psychological and Social Goals,” Journal of the American Planning Association 67, no. 4 (2001).

Cullen, Jim, The American Dream: A Short History of an Idea That Shaped a Nation (New York: Oxford University Press, 2003).

Donaldson, Scott, The Suburban Myth (New York: Columbia University Press, 1969).

Jackson, Kenneth T., Crabgrass Frontier: The Suburbanization of the United States (New York: Oxford University Press, 1985).

Rees, William E., “The Conundrum of Urban Sustainability,” in How Green Is the City? Sustainability Assessment and the Management of Urban Environments ed. Dimitri Devuyst, Luc Hens, and Walter De Lannoy (New York: Columbia University Press, 2001).

There is extensive literature on suburbs (particularly the post-war expansion of American suburbia). One book in particular that helped summarise several author’s thoughts on consumer culture and the link with middle-class suburbia was Daniel Horowitz’s The Anxieties of Affluence: Critiques of American Consumer Culture, 1939-1979 (Amherst, MA: University of Massachusetts Press, 2004). His chapter synopsis on the writings of John Kenneth Galbraith, Vance Packard, and Betty Friedan was especially helpful in forming my conclusions.

Though I opened with a quote from Harlan Paul Douglass, I did not cite any of his works in the essay itself (he is not an author I’ve read or heard of before researching for this paper). However, he apparently was an early pioneer of social research in the 20th century and his writings set out a framework for those who would follow in this field. For a brief biography see Hadden, Jeffrey K., “1979 H. Paul Douglass Lecture H. Paul Douglass: His Perspective and His Work,” Review of Religious Research 22, no. 1 (1980): 66.