thoughts on our urban future

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.

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  1. It is a rant. And it is a known rant 😉

    The lack of a sidewalk is a symptom; with sidewalks incorporated nothing would necessarily be improved. And there are important elements that do work with American suburban houses and how they engage with the street. They are not walled and sheltered from the street; they typically don’t have front-to-back issues; there is a visible investment in the front facade to make it more attractive; and the common landscaping that bleeds from one property to another gives a sense of a communal vocabulary, punctuated with manicured plants and trees.

    Yes you may argue how this could be improved, but at least it is a start. And I do ask, what are the top three rules you would put in place to improve such places??

    • My feeling is that you are speaking more of ideals of the past as opposed to current implementation. Suburbs, where houses used to be no more than twenty feet from one another (if that) led to a certain level of density that still encouraged ‘community’ and presence on the street. Today these things have been taken to extremes, losing all of their original intentions and becoming a mockery of the reasons for why people wanted to move to these places to begin with.

      It should be clear from my photos that the road drainage creates a moat that disconnects the houses from the road- something that is certainly not part of ‘pleasant frontage’ of the suburbs of yesteryear. I should also explain further, when I say that there were no yard separations, I mean at the back yards as well. These homes, in this particular development, but also in many in the area, have no fences to define one back yard, the traditional ‘more private realm’, from another. The houses become more like objects in a flat green landscape rather than part of the landscape.

      As for top three rules, first, I would include sidewalks. Or I wold spend the money to homezone the entire roadway, but sidewalks in this instance would be much cheaper. I would also not encourage dwellings at such a low density, although obviously this is difficult to enforce. The low density of this area contributes to it’s lack of character and community. These particular developments certainly have enough room to infill new housing within them, but unless two adjacent homeowners are looking to sell off part of their lot or develop it, I can’t see that happening. The reality is I can think of ways to improve the place, but most require either full buy in of all home owners or full ownership of the development. My point isn’t so much how to fix these existing places, rather that they create environments that are not fulfilling the intentions and that it is the role of designers and planners to strive not to create any more.

  2. Did you discuss any of this with your relatives? How do they feel about it? Whilst I totally agree with the principles you are defending here, I wonder how much it affects the residents, if at all, considering that they must have chosen to live in this kind of environment. I would like to know what they say.

    • I did not. I was afraid I might not be unbiased in my questioning, and it was Easter dinner. I could tell you however that I observe that they have too much space. That the kids only want to be on their phones or watching television or at the mall. That they have to have two cars to get by, and I don’t doubt that when the oldest turns 16, there might be another car on the way. In fairness I haven’t been there loads, but when I have, no one ever goes outside. Why would you? There’s nothing to go to. I don’t doubt that the adults like their home, it is after all, spacious, comfortable, and tastefully decorated. I wonder if it does the kids any favors, but you could say that about a lot of suburban upbringings and bored teenagers with nothing better to do.

      I don’t know. In many ways they are ‘living the dream’. Would anyone in that situation be able to comfortably address whether or not it actually makes them happy, or if there was another alternative they might prefer?

      I know it’s not what -I- prefer. And while I accept that some people do prefer it, the ones who I think really deeply prefer it tend to take advantage of things like the yard, and the outdoors. If you just spend all of your time locked away inside your house in the middle of no where… well…. what’s the point? You could be anywhere really, so why fuel the car dependency and the lawn chemicals? Do people really want to be so isolated from society? Humans are social creatures after all.

      • Well case in point: they are ‘living the dream’ to their expectations. So the issue isn’t so much their isolation, lack of common spaces, etc, it is that you wouldn’t like to live there. Actually it’s more. The cost of such a lifestyle is a burden from the moment the development is constructed, and throughout its life. Petrol, roads and mortgages in the US are subsidised. So I would add the missing third point to your response above: appropriate taxes for said lifestyle.

        As for the issue of density, I would relate the lot size to taxation, or ensure that the large lots are actually a series of smaller ones. Therefore, if ONE landowner (not two) wanted to develop a house in the future, they could. These small steps could help future-proof this suburban landscape into one that could more easily grow and evolve into an urban landscape.

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