Suburban Sprawl: Serpentine Sameness from the Skies

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Helicopter photos by Christoph Gielen reveal the beautifully-designed patterns and shapes of our auto-dependent homes on the range, walking not preferred, neighbors as yet uncontacted, wildlife unwelcome, sustainable future in question.

Christoph Gielen, suburbia, USA

The river of our suburban lives flows around serpentine curves, dammed by cul-de-sacs planted with tropical greenery to separate us from the world beyond. Photo: Detail of Untitled V – Christoph Gielen

Car-Dependent, Hidden Behind Walls, We are all the Same

The automobile is our master, our enabler, our key-started-companion and fossil fueled best-friend-forever. It commutes us to work, Sunday-drives us to play with friends, shuttling us to shopping mall strolls. Our garage-fronted homes face driveways and to-and-fro streets, connecting speedy highway strips for yoga and frozen yogurt, parking lots spreading out the space between us and everything else.

The ever-repeating serpentine lines, units placed at angles with hue enhancements, punctuated by strips of green and blue, are considered by many as the family-friendly freeway-close happiest home on earth. The design-engineered-beauty of the lines and patterns defining sublime suburbia are evident in the recurring shapes of Christoph Gielen’s aerial photographic essay.

Detail of Untitled IV Arizona

Paseos are stippled with patterns, dressed with Mexican-imported tilework, uplighted with fountains splashing water on your shoes. Walking is promoted in specified locales, oversold under shady eucalyptus and tropical hibiscus, cutting through the yard prohibited, as are pool-hopping and freedom-running over the gazanias. No commercial signs, neon-lights, billboards blinking, hawking, manipulating the behavior of youth and the aged alike, not here, maybe there, out of view of homes. Covenants, codes, and restrictions keep the trees clipped, lawns shaved, Recreation Vehicles camouflaged.

Land uses are separated in zones, stipulated by general plans, codified by city administrators, and interpreted by councils and supervisors. Residences stay with like-residences, density, median-income and land value grouped with their analogue.  Mixing median-income condos with expensive single-family homes might create a diverse community, but like-zoning prohibits.   Shopping centers, public plazas, parks and housing do not mix, townhomes don’t dwarf ranchettes, the working poor take buses to service the inner-workings, offices relegated on the left side of the freeway, industrial zone proximate to the railroad.

Mixing uses, like having a kitchen next to a living room, is strictly prohibited. Separating sulfur-belching factories from Fido’s exercise lawn might be good planning, but siting post offices, taco shops, elementary schools and public squares walkable from your front porch should always be encouraged, yet largely impossible in modern-day suburbia.

Image: “Skye Isle II, Florida” (2009) by Christoph Gielen from BldgBlog.

We invest our wealth to reside in bucolic-designed havens, protected from interaction with the millions upon millions. Talkative neighbors fenced back to restrict the dialogue, many spotted gesticulating through windshields, suspicious characters kept behind gates, monitored on video. Separation means safety, control over that which may be uncontrollable, eliminating predators and unwanted sight lines, keeping interactions limited to those on our “Friend” lists. Suburbanization sublimates the wild open and the many-too-many for regulated human-centric, without the need for having to say hello to everyone. The benefits are seductive, at least on paper.

Car-dependent urban sprawl reaches everywhere, consumes trees and bogs, rivers channelized with cement and box culverts.  Impervious surfaces make driving smooth, direct the falling rain out of puddles and into segregated channels that will never fill the living room floor, no matter how close that winding river. Mountain lions and rattlesnakes are held at bay, with the view of the hills accentuated with trees imported from the Seychelles. Indigenous plant species are crowded out by tropical garden-varieties, migration routes blocked, wilderness habitat fraccionated. Designing suburbia for alternative species should also be encouraged, avoiding grading of ravines, channelization of watercourses, allowing habitats to be contiguous and connected despite the presence of luxury Italian-villa condos.

Image: “Untitled Arizona III” (2010) by Christoph Gielen from BldgBlog.

From the air, it seems a  mesmerizing pattern, classical built-environment minimialism, people taking space to breathe their own air, inhaling freedom and their own landscaping products. This land-intensive human consumption pattern requires urbanization of raw land (i.e. conversion of open space or wilderness into human-stuff) that significantly exceeds the rate of population growth over time, dependent solely upon automobile transportation to navigate the wide distances.

Yet, this model can be retrofitted with alternative transportation: light rail, long-distance bus rapid transit, shuttles, and park-and-rides can create a slow transformation of our disparated neighborhoods. As the open spaces are filled and densities increase, mass transit alternatives become more financially and operationally viable.

Suburbia is home, comfortable, aesthetic, but with deeper consideration can also be created as a walkable human-scale community, integrated with the wide-open wilderness, designed with environmental sustainability and reduced carbon footprint in mind.

Updated 14 September 2016

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About Jack Eidt

Novelist, urban theorist, and environmental journalist, Jack Eidt careens down human-nature’s all consuming one-way highway to its inevitable conclusion — Wilder Utopia. He co-founded Wild Heritage Planners, based out of Los Angeles, California. He can be reached at jack (dot) eidt (at) wilderutopia (dot) com. Follow him on Twitter @WilderUtopia and @JackEidt