Where the Sidewalk Ends
This is a bit of a rant, but it’s also about design. Certainly about the impacts of certain design decisions. Over Easter I was in the States and spent some time at the house of my step-sister somewhere in Maryland. It’s in a suburban area full of McMansions. My relations live in such a house. Everything is large and oversized. I sat in the den (not the living room, nor the sitting sun-room, nor the office, nor the kitchen, nor the dining room, nor the breakfast area- and that was only on the ground floor) and considered that the den alone was probably the size of my entire 2-bed flat or if not, pretty close.
But this is not a post about the excess of the size of the housing for a family of 4 and a small dog. Nor is it about the abundance of green lawns that just bleed into one another with no definition or identity or other purpose except to be large and green. No, this is a post about the approach to the house and the layout of the development, and how there are no sidewalks.
The above picture here is taken from the edge of their driveway, looking towards the main entrance to the development. There is a drainage ditch and these trees which have grown up over the years, but there is no sidewalk. There is no place for pedestrians in this place designed to supposedly provide a better relationship between man and the landscape. Instead, people drive in their cars onto their driveway and enter their house from the garage and never through the front door.
There is a walkway that connects to the front door, but it connects to the driveway, not to the street. This is a view in the other direction, to the cul-de-sac that ends this particular arm of the development. You can see that the mailbox doesn’t even connect to the driveway. It’s just out in the street.
Why are we still allowing developments like this to be built? This is not a suburban ideal of families joined together, rather it is a sort of mausoleum where families isolate themselves into their disconnected houses. There is no ‘street life’ here, at this density, with this complete lack of attention to the shared and interstitial spaces. They are pleasant to look at but otherwise vacant. It is pure car space, this quiet residential road. A transportation corridor to get people from the main road and into their garage – where they can look outside their windows at their manicured lawns that they rarely go on to.
Of course the problem is, if a sidewalk had been built in this development, what would it connect to? This development is situated off a a small though busy road, whose only purpose is to funnel people from their houses onto highways and into the larger cities which are up to an hour away by car. Perhaps 30 minutes away (by car) is the village, or the strip mall, or the shopping plaza where one can get groceries and Chinese food. This funneling road, which is the main connecting road for this area has no sidewalks either. There is no place to walk to here and one could argue that even a cycle ride would be a stretch.
So the only way to inhabit these spaces is through dependence on the car. There is no other way to live here without starving to death. I suppose one could work remotely and rely on delivery for sustenance. To be fair, the yards are large enough to probably sustain a small farm holding with at least a pig or two and chickens. But this isn’t really the point. This type of development is short sighted and wasteful. It turns its back on the idea of community. It boldly brushes off the idea of the pedestrian and by doing so, also does away with the notion of the individual, and I would argue, of the humanity. This is a pretty, yet sterile place. It suffers the humans but it does not encourage them.
When designing places, maybe we should be asking ourselves- is there a sidewalk here? If there is no sidewalk here, what sort of place is this? What sort of future does it have? I know in these tough financial times, most practitioners can not afford to have such stringent design morals, but sometimes I think we should. Or certainly the planners who approve such developments should. Or at the very least, if you are a designer who must work on a project like this, can you not find a way to justify a better engagement with the street? Don’t let it get value engineered out. The sidewalk is fundamental to the way that we interact with each other and with the street. It promotes a sense of continuity and connectivity.
It is a sad and lonely place, where the sidewalk ends.