A design competition tries to reinvent the suburban wasteland with flying ships and big box gardens. What they really need is as simple as a gin and tonic.
Big house. Vinyl siding. Manicured lawn. Two-car garage, maybe three. Backyards to hide from neighbors. Faux brick front.
Pavement for miles. Parking lots. Stores with acreage of stuff. Stuff to eat, stuff to build, stuff to consume, stuff to waste.
Work in the city. Drive on the interstate. Eat in the chain. Home. Rinse. Repeat.
Suburbia spreads like bindweed, one interconnected, land-swallowing swath of humanity. Beige blooms in the brown desert while its denizens stare at high-definition television shows about life in paradise. They bought their homes to live the American Dream, and spend the rest of their lives dreaming of escape.
Escape they will, fleeing to the latest and newest refuge. Maybe it's the "green" subdivision with colorful houses, maybe it's the high-rise condominiums with restaurants on the ground floor and a freeway entrance within walking distance. Maybe it's a boat, a cabin, an RV. Or maybe it's similar more of the same, super-sized.
America is a very young country, as anybody who has ever visited Europe can attest. Many Europeans have houses that are older than America, yet we as Americans search for everything new. We created a democratic civilization built with the most adaptable legal document ever created, yet we cannot adapt as a people to minor nuisances. Need four outlets in every room instead of the one in that 50-year old house? Buy a new house. Ipod adapter in the car because you cannot listen to the radio? Buy a new car? Bored with the long-standing cafe run by your neighbor? Hey, there's an In N' Out burger opening!
This ceaseless need to fulfill every want and desire has a number of negative impacts, most of them on a person's soul. But there are also smaller ones, such as the eventual desertion of the existing new for the New New. That leaves behind empty homes, deserted lots, and discarded shopping malls. Eventually, something will have to be done with them.
To that end, Dwell Magazine and inhabit.com are sponsoring a ReBurbia contest. Entrants proposed new uses for these existing buildings that litter suburbia. While the impetus was the current economic crisis, which has greatly compounded the problem, this is a noble effort for what is going to become a continually bigger problem.
The focus of the finalists on sustainable energy, environmentally-sound travel, and bizarre urban agriculture (trellis gardening over parking lots, for example) is laudable. However, reading through them still left me feeling empty because, once again, they are simply the New New. A Big Box garden is great, but what happens when people tire of that? Once again, empty building.
I want to know my neighbors, know their children, know the neighborhood. As much as people protest otherwise, suburban development generally discourages community because community is not a cost-efficient method of building. Cookie-cutter houses built on straight roads is cost-efficient.
All of these entries lacked possibly the most essential aspect of any home I live in: a front porch. If you want to reinvent suburbia, embrace community. Oh, and keep the ingredients for every neighbor's favorite drink (even if it's Diet Coke) on hand, and learn how to properly mix them.