Why Suburbia Fails, and How to Succeed
by Philip Allsop

Obesity and the Built Environment
September, 2005--Over my dual career in the fields of health care informatics and architecture and urban planning (strange bedfellows, one might think), I have seen a growing convergence around the theme of healthy environments. On the public health side we have huge national concerns about obesity, depression, isolation, skyrocketing costs of health care, and a staggering 45 million of us in the US without health insurance of any kind. On the urban planning and architecture side we have a widening debate about automobile use vs public transit investments, energy consumption, and the growing problems of unsustainable car-oriented suburban communities, where delinquency and adolescent crime are commonplace, and which feature bloated developer-inspired McMansions which are perfect containers for encouraging dysfunctional families and unhealthy lifestyles.

The Dreamland of Plano, Texas
In 1992 I was relocated to Plano, Texas, from Princeton, New Jersey. Housing in Texas was a great deal cheaper than in NJ, the homes were new, and they were full of built-in modern conveniences. Plano at the time had a population of about 125,000. By 2000 it had topped 200,000 and sported three massive high schools with over 800 students apiece.

My job kept me traveling a good deal--more than I think is healthy--so I was not as embedded as many residents in the glitzy suburban lifestyle that was "Plano." I do recall, however, that to walk from my house to the grocery store involved my taking my life in my hands and crossing a 6 lane highway with a paltry median that had been shrunk from several yards across with trees to a 3 feet wide strip of trash-infested desert--to accommodate another two lanes lane of fast cars and SUVs. Even getting to one of Plano's bike paths offered similar challengers to life and limb.

At first, the idea of having a new house with brand new built-ins was appealing. The houses were spacious by east coast standards, but after a time it became clear to me that within these suburban tracts of super-sized McMansions, few if any real homes were being created. They were houses, for sure, but the sheer volume of space (from 3,000 SF upwards--way upwards) encouraged a sense of internal isolation that made the term "home" seem inappropriate.

About a year after we moved into the house, the building itself started going wrong. Cheap caulking material instead of proper flashings meant that in the extreme summer temperatures, critical junctions between wall and windows and roofs and walls began to fail. Rain and damp were a problem in the winter months. So, it was clear that long before the warranties on the built-in appliances had run out, major repairs to the building fabric had to take place. The "no free lunch" applied here too--cheap, large houses, but you get nailed by costly and frequent repairs and crippling utility bills in the summer months.

The cavernous houses, the isolation magnified later by intense internet use, the shoddy construction always needing some significant repair, the inhuman scale, and the inhumanity of the bizarre zoning rules soon began to turn the Plano Dreamland into a living nightmare. It was time to move. With our son off to college, a 4,000 SF house was simply ridiculous. In the Suburbia of Plano we never, ever had a home, and we were worse off for it.

Can We Do Things Differently?
Our bizarre zoning regulations that force single-use zones (housing only--no mixed housing and shops or offices etc.) in order to preserve property values, which in turn feed local tax bases, have already wreaked an unintended and hazardous consequence for those who have to live there. We are less fit, less healthy; we use more health care services more frequently and earlier on in our lives than ever before; we spend $12.00 going to the local strip mall just to get a pint of milk (gas cost, car loan/lease or cost of capital plus the car's depreciation); and we have become so afraid of outsiders from having spent three generations riding about in our hermetically-sealed cars that we incarcerate ourselves in super-sized McMansions and starter-castles behind high walls and security gates.

The idea of community went out of the window long ago when General Motors (see the movie "Taken for a Ride" for more on this) started buying up and destroying suburban transit lines to encourage people to buy cars instead of riding the tram. What was good for GM was good for the country, so the saying went. So, in the re-build of New Orleans and Biloxi for example, chances are that what's good for the developers will again be deemed "good" for the country. Once again we will probably see tracts of McMansions being extruded from the mud, and unsuspecting new owners happily occupying them, not knowing that those houses will not outlast the warranties on the shiny new built-in appliances. Meanwhile the developers brought in and encouraged by federal and local politicians "to re-build the community lost to Katrina...." will soon be skipping and high-fiving it all the way to the bank.

Today, community remains an idea, but its manifestation seems to be limited to syrupy realtors' brochures that describe sylvan settings for new developments with "fwightfully Bwitish" or "European" sounding names. These gated tracts are the places that developers and politicians deem proper for most Americans to live in--and it's killing us by the tens of thousands every year. The great American dream of having a home of one's own in a nice, clean suburban neighborhood is, I believe, proving to be a waking nightmare with insidious consequences for us, all and from which there are precious few avenues of escape if we continue doing things the way we do them today.

"New Urbanism" communities like Seaside and Celebration in Florida and Poundbury in England do offer real alternatives to the standard suburban tracts. However, the danger is that in their drive for fast profits and turn-arounds, developers, realtors, and the Bob Vilas of the world will be as quick to label their latest creations "New Urbanism" as they are to label half-round windows "Palladian" or a piece of dark wood slapped onto a brick veneer as "Tudor". One of our greatest challenges is to bring knowledge, appreciation, and understanding of the built environment, what makes it work, and what makes it fail to a far broader audience than exists today.

If suburbia as we know it is to change, and cities are to be more livable places, we have to start this education early and often as part of the standard school curriculum. "We shape our buildings; thereafter they shape us" (Winston Churchill). Churchill's saying is as true today as it was in his lifetime. As a consequence, it is too important to leave the planning, design, and construction of our homes to the developers, the realtors, the builders, and the "architectural designers" who have already amply demonstrated their ignorance about the built environment, as well as their contempt for community.

Philip Allsop