Places define us

Places communicate to their users. The physical patterns that evidence particular ways of life communicate to other current or potential users. What is more, they speak in language that is often difficult to codify, but can be nonetheless well-understood.


Consider the analogy of music. Some music lovers may know exactly what comprises a certain style of music: why tonality makes one feel a certain way, why a steady beat can frame a different mood. But most people, it is safe to assume, do not know exactly what it is that they like about a melody, other than that it communicates something to them. What this suggest is that music, as a series of elements and groups of patterns, produces a certain common language which communicates to the listeners of that style. Similarly, living environments hold particular, perhaps instantaneous, meaning which resonate information. Socio-physical elements of Suburbia inform and reassert the values of the persons who use it, just as the same elements create a different language in the inner city. Yet, as the middle class is generally the undisputed resident of the suburbs, suburban living, and by extension mainstream American culture, has become its only language. In a similar quest to make environments more livable, the New Urbanism movement, which has produced such new suburban towns as Kentlands and Laguna West, taps into these pattern languages in order to make a suburban environment more urban. The opposite route — exploring ways to make the city more suburban — has rarely been tried. Making the city more suburban however is to realize that urban environments cannot communicate to middle class families the way that suburbs can. But if cities want to attract middle class families, and if, among all of the other city problems, the socio-physical aspects of the living environment they provide for this group does not sufficiently communicate the same language, the efforts will be doomed to failure. Indeed, the legacy of countless urban renewal projects attest to this.


Of course, the city should never become completely suburban. Urban culture has its own positive features which needs to remain urban to function as such. Moreover, middle class families are not immune to the charms of city life. But they will not give up the stronger daily claims of the suburbs as a penalty for enjoying urban uniqueness. What is needed instead is a hybrid form which, in a sense, accentuates the positive features of urban living and suburbanizes the negative. In either direction, the mixing is a hybrid and for either the decaying central city or for the sprawling, inefficient suburb, such hybrids are positive contributions to the variety of living environments. Yet, the suburbs do not suffer from being unable to sustain the middle class as residents, whereas the city does. And as such, the issue of hybridizing its environment is all the more pressing


May 26, 2018


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