Don’t forget, design has also given us suburbia

18 June 2018 | Design Thinking , Lifestyle

It’s 5pm. You’ve headed out the office. You wait for the train. You finally pile in with a whole other bunch of people looking at their phones, their thumbs scrolling endlessly down and up, down and up, down and up. You’re at your station. You get in your car and drive home. In front of you lays dull, generally flattened, monotony through the streets. Areas which provide little purpose other than to settle your bricks or wood to house your TV for the post-work comedown, bedroom for the nights and lawn for the weekends. Welcome to your bubble.

Was this how they imagined the future all those years ago? When Milton Keynes, the famous economist, predicted during the downfall into depression in 1929 that we would be working 15 hours a week in the future, with most of our time dedicated to experiences and leisure, is this how he imagined it? Is this what you imagined your life would look like? Is this a thriving, healthy suburb you live in?

How did we get here? We can definitely point a finger at the baby boomers, the post war era and people, rightly so, demanding affordable housing. Housing crises that popped up around the world. And not long after, cookie cutter housing was created as a solution to the demand. Each house nearly indistinguishable from the other. Neighborhoods with evenly spaced homes, small green lawns, a car or two in the driveway and a house full of stuff with a spare room to dust.

To Lewis Mumford, an American urbanist writing in 1961, suburbia was:

“a multitude of uniform, unidentifiable houses, lined up inflexibly, at uniform distances, on uniform roads, in a treeless communal waste, inhabited by people of the same class, the same income, the same age group, witnessing the same television performances, eating the same tasteless prefabricated foods, from the same freezers, conforming in every outward and inward respect to a common mould.”

We got a bit wealthier and though dear reader, I personally utterly fail to understand this, wealth fuels space. People with more money, generally want more rooms. And so began the next tragedy; the urban sprawl. So bad has this become that it spread fiercely across the ocean to Australia, who in 1950 had an average house size of 100 square metres (1,076sqf)1 now has an average home size of about 240sqm (2,583sqf)2 to top the list of the biggest homes in the world. To make matters worse, during the same period, the average number of people per household has declined so they’ve tripled the floorspace per person.

Most people in Suburbia travel a couple of hours a day just to get to work & back, spend the entire day at the their job and then get home in the evening to a street where they may be able to pick out their house due to forced variety on the outside (a developers tool to ease some backlash over the years) but inside, they could be standing in any of their neighbors homes and know where to navigate themselves to get to the kitchen.

Everything and everyone has been blamed, from presidents to social policies, economic meltdowns, technological impacts on jobs, public transport networks, the rise of the helicopter-style soccer mom, to developers. Some more of a by product than cause. Its increasing domination is of course a column of our capitalism. But more than that, this is a design failure. A lack of imagination, creativity and skin in the game. It reflects the impact of bad design and pushing the extreme of new design processes. It highlights the dangers of developers with no connections or trusting relationships within the community and no consequence to their profit-making decisions. No feedback loop, morals or otherwise.

Design patterns have taken over our world – that is, libraries one can easily pull from to ensure consistency across the board. They’re shouted from rooftops. It’s effective. It’s efficient. It can be amazing when cared about, thoughtfully executed and consistently updated. And it also created suburbia. Endless miles of sameness. In the case of Perth, Western Australia, a failure of planning & good design has resulted in 150km of suburban sprawl, about to overtake Sochi in Russia as the longest in the world, with a footprint twice the size of Tokyo and only about one-fifth of its population at best3.

Worse still, in the pursuit of efficiency and profit we lost craftmanship. We lost creativity and originality. And we forwent quality. These are not the spaces once imagined for us.

Whilst the original communities and neighborhoods that were envisioned may have been far away better than what we’ve ended up with, it was a solution to a problem. In the pushing of every optimization, we stopped thinking about the user, we stopped thinking of the future, and we stopped practising good design.

Perth Suburbia Urban Sprawl Design Failure

Part of Perth’s northern urban sprawl that stretches on for endless miles courtesy of Google Maps

Suburbia has largely failed. Urban sprawl is entirely unsustainable. It has horrifying environmental impacts. It segregates people, zones them and groups by likeness only. It encourages inequality. It discourages healthy lifestyles with their streets designed for cars and mall-style shopping centres to drive to full of processed food, monopoly chains and take aways. They lower our productivity at work and the time we can spend living.

Spaces aren’t well equipped for easy, friendly use and attracting people for jogging, walking their dog or cycling to a local grocer. There are no enjoyable cafes and local markets close by enough to ride to. They have lost nearly all the shared services that make places liveable, enjoyable and foster responsibility, belonging and pride. Common areas and leisure activities are built in as an afterthought, if they’re provided at all. Life is barely present most hours outside of school. They are quiet. Invisible families going about invisible activities behind their similar curtains and walls. In turn, safety precautions are added as a solution rather than the better design choice – creating inviting, friendly neighborhoods that encourage people to live beyond their four walls and bring people together.

Lack of proper planning often results in problems such as urban sprawl, car dependency and growing inequality. When properly trained, architects & planners understand the important of creating mixed-use walkable neighborhoods together with the value of public open space, culture and heritage. – Peter Oborn, vice president of the CAA (Commonwealth Association of Architects)

We still have an affordability problem. We still have social problems. We still lack true integration. And we absolutely have not met our idea of neighborhoods that cultivate communities, stimulate inspiration, share responsibilities, work with the environment and feel happy.

Problems are what designers and strategists resolve. We have a problem, a really big one, we solved it terribly and decades on, we’re still not coming up with decent solutions. I’m not even sure if we’ve collectively agreed on the problem yet.

Design is nearly always a process of internal selling as much as external. There is as often as much marketing campaign work as their is persuading of stakeholders and collaboration between other groups.

Suburbia does not present a unique problem in this regard. It is a typical design problem made worse by our inability to clearly see it, or lack of willingness to fix it.

In a world where systems are pushed to extremes, design is either celebrated or undervalued. Design is purposeful, always, in what it creates whether good or bad.

Suburbia can work – but we have to acknowledge and fix the problems we created first by placing a value on what design means far beyond the aesthetic.

  1. Statistic from the Australian government can be found here
  2. from the Australian Bureau of Statistics report here
  3. Tokyo’s population is nearly 10million, but the metropolis has a population that exceeds 13 million. The greater Tokyo area has a population that is estimated to be over 36 million, whilst Perth and all it’s suburbs sits well under 2 million. The entire state, more than 1,000 times bigger than Tokyo, houses only 2.5million people including Perth.

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