That cookie cutter feel

While there are plenty of economic and cultural arguments for dense, walkable neighborhoods connected by public transit, there’s also the aesthetic argument: Suburban streets are boring, cookie cutter shells of a community. This argument was among the first against suburban development. Before New Urbanists had fully articulated the myriad reasons dense cities are preferable to car-dependent suburbs, critics of suburbanization took aim at the monotony of the suburban landscape. Even today, when people reach for reasons to oppose suburban life, aesthetics are among the first things they mention.

The argument goes like this: Surburban homes must artificially create variation in their facades through useless architectural flourishes, whereas the juxtaposition of many different homes in a single area creates a pleasant natural variation (as in the photo above).

I wonder, though, how useful or fair this criticism is. For one, it signals a certain elitism that is associated with city dwellers. To be sure, there are plenty of eyesores in urban areas, yet somehow these are glorified as charmingly authentic—a reminder to millennials that they’re a “real” Brooklyner/Washingtonian/San Franciscan.

Furthermore, it’s not exactly fair to criticize standalone suburban homes for having constructed variation in their facades. Country homes have long featured interesting gables, dormers, and even turrets. For reference, see this Victorian-era plantation estate in South Carolina.

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As you can see, the various extensions from the frame give the viewer something interesting to take in without being overbearing. Why shouldn’t suburban homes follow this example?

This understanding doesn’t change the fact that most suburban neighborhoods are, indeed, built with only a handful of models. One street can look eerily similar to another street, since they contain the same exact homes.

How can we add some more variation to suburban (and even urban) streets? One solution is to allow homebuyers to customize certain aspects of their homes as they’re being built. Certain developers like American Classic Homes let the buyer change aspects of their homes, which, altogether, can give a neighborhood a spice of difference to break of the monotony.

Another solution is to empower homeowners to continually update their homes with property improvements such as home additions, swimming pools, decks with retractable awnings, gardens and other things. An additional solution is to have them renovate their homes through open source designs. That’s the mission of WikiHouse, the first attempt to democratize the home construction process. All you need to create a home are pallets of wood, a CNC machine (a 3D carving device), and a team of 3 people. With these tools, you can create a home from what is, essentially, a big IKEA kit. After the first frame is completed, you can extend your home with more open-source designs. In a neighborhood of these homes, each residence would be unique, simply because each home would develop differently. (To learn more, see Alastair Parvin’s TED Talk on open-source homes.)

Ultimately, urban aesthetics are important, but we must fight the tendency toward elitism. Some honestly do prefer the uniformity of the traditional suburban subdivisions, but there should be at least some choice in customizing homes according to the needs of the occupants.

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2 Comments

  1. Your first line of this post had me thinking about walkability scores for homes and apartments, and I started wondering what you thought about those. They rank a number of cities on the basis of walkability here: https://www.walkscore.com/cities-and-neighborhoods/ How well can that shell around an urban place be designed to be more than just a shell? I like your example of the Victorian home and its wrap-around facade adding some uniqueness to a street, but what about planning parks and unique median strips on some streets?

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