Friday, January 4, 2008

Chickens, Eggs, and Omelettes

First off, we need to consider Bickford's distinction that she draws on p. 358 between Lifestyle, Elite, and Security Zone suburbs. We've been talking so far as though all gated communities were equal, and Bickford has been pretty careful to distinguish between them.

But the larger question right now seems to be the chicken-and-egg issue: did our suburban and urban defensive forms spawn defensive attitudes, or originate from them? Her argument, surprisingly enough, is that the spaces seemed to come first. She cites a study by McKenzie on p. 359 indicating that common-interest developments were a developer tool to place more houses on less land. As greater ethnic blending took place in the cities, a great number of white residents fled for those suburbs, so that the desire for "safety" was innately tied to the housing form. From that point, though, the causality is less important — the desire to avoid "others" breeds separation which breeds avoidance which breeds separation, and the cycle amplifies.

The deeper question we'll need to face is how to break that cycle. Many of you have criticized Bickford for not proposing solutions, but she very clearly does so on pages 366-368 in her examination of regional governance rather than the proliferation of tiny jurisdictions. She believes that the research indicates local control leads toward escape as a primary way of dealing with social problems, and that tackling issues regionally or at a metropolitan scale ensures that we can't just shift problems from one neighborhood or town to another.

But you're all professional architects rather than politicians, and I doubt you're looking to change careers. So what can the designer do to break this cycle of separation, avoidance, and fear? Do you have any tools at your disposal to make social change?


Eric Randall said...


Do you think you could elaborate on what scale you think Bickford imagines as a "regional democratic public"? I understand her point relative to removing governance from the minutia of, say, a homeowners associate or PUD board, but how grand of a regional democratic do you think she (or you, if you agree with her point) proposes?

And as a house keeping question: should we address this next question via our own blogs or through commentary here?

I've certainly appreciated the discussion so far and greatly look forward to our real time discussions next week.

Herb Childress said...

Hi, Eric and everyone.

You can address this question here. Let's get a discussion going in one place on this idea.

Eric Randall said...

Rather than rehash my rather long winded answers I posted on my blog to this question, I'll adress just one of my thoughts here for now.

I wonder if an easy start to reconnecting the community and begin tearing down these imposed barriers of separation is to simply revert back to Jacobs' "eyes on the street" model? Our private residences no longer have a connection to our neighbors and the street via the time tested front porch. The hub of outdoor activity is generally confined to our privacy fenced backyards, and rarely is there an opportunity to see and be seen save for the trip down the drive to the mail box. Could a simple invitation for interaction be all the seed it takes?

Singleton said...

I just wanted to comment on the fact that Bickford makes the impression that fear and "defensive attitudes" drive our decision making. In some ways, I dont think that is accurate. I dont necessarily think that fear is what drives people out of cities, nor fear that keeps them in the suburbs. Safety is a great issue, but she never touches on the notion of economics, which I think plays a HUGE factor.
Lets assume that we are only talking about people who can afford housing anywhere - because unfortunately, those who cant, dont have much of a choice where they live. If you can afford to live in the city, oh, lets say Boston for example with a budget of $2000 a month for mortgage/rent - would you rather live in a tiny apartment with no windows or would you rather live in a suburb in a nice house with a yard for your dogs?
All I am saying is that I wished Bickford had touched on economics briefly, considering what a large role it plays in overall decision making.

jenny chang said...

I agree with what Singleton said about affordability in the suburbs as opposed to being in the city. With the real estate boom down here in Miami, it's not really by choice where we want to live, it's more with what we can afford. What is more affordable is living in the suburbs for the price you would want to pay as oppose to living somewhere in downtown/city where a little studio apt cost the same as a 3 bedroom house with a yard in the back; a gated community. So, it's not really the fear that "drive people out of the city." It's more of the financial situation each one is in. At the same time it's riduleous to see how economically things change and our income should reflect on that, but it doesn't.

Herb Childress said...

Real estate economics is a remarkable thing, really. When you get here next week, you'll be in what Bostonians call "the Back Bay," one of the most expensive residential neighborhoods in America. Right now, buying a condo in the Back Bay will run you $800-1000/s.f. Newbury Street is supposedly the third most expensive retail rent in America, behind only Rodeo Drive in Beverly Hills and Fifth Avenue in New York.

(And yes, we bought the property and built our school back in the mid-60s when the neighborhood was still kind of sketchy, and Newbury Street was still used in part for garages for families living a block over on Commonwealth Avenue.)

So maximizing square footage and yard area isn't the ultimate goal for a lot of homebuyers.

Tim Geiger said...

This situation is what is driving the large amounts of renovations in the high priced areas in my location (central Florida). It is cheaper to buy small and renovate to create the desired finished product. Reading some of the class’s blogs I have found renovations to be a popular hobby, I wonder if this is the same driver for those people?

Nick Graal said...

To revert back to the original post, Bickford's solution to the problem is vary vague. I want to see concrete examples of what she is talking about, not just abstract ideas. I have come up with two examples that maybe could be used here. The first is the architecture of the third reich. This is obviously architecture at it's worst, but the buildings outward projection towards the public had specific intent. The intent being oppression and fear. The second example is the architecture of Rome. This would be an example of positive democratic projection. The point I am trying to make here is simple. The architect is empowered to effect the outward projection of the built environment. Be it the design of a single building or the master plan of a city.
OK, I have said my peace for Bickford, time to shelf this reading for the time being and focus on the next one. Cheers.

Mike said...

It may be that maximizing square footage and yard area is not the goal for all homeowners or would be buyers, but it IS a goal for some -- I for one, grew up with a big backyard, and am thrilled at the idea that I can present the same condition to my son -- a backyard where he can play, explore, learn and just be a boy. The architect in me does occasionally wonder about living in a high-rise condo in the city; but the husband, father and provider in me wants to put first the best interest of my family, even if that means living in a typical suburban, gated (not this time around, but at the last address) development.

OK, I guess I'm meandering a bit all over the place here. I think my point through a lot of my postings on this particular reading / topic is that suburban American (or suburban anywhere) presents society's members with an alternative choice to living in the urban center. And people should have the freedom and the right to choose that, if that's what they desire. After all, isn't that one of this country's founding principles? Freedom to choose (so long as your choices, of course, do not directly violate the laws of the land).

Eric Randall said...

This is becoming quite a frustrating exercise in examination. Considering Herb's previous comment about Back Bay real estate, I tried to frame an alternate way as to how one might interject diversity into a practically out of grasp market for most. The best solution I could come up with is some kind of rent control or government subsidies.

Fast forward to this evening. I was visiting with a friend of mine who lives in Manhattan and I was giving him a synopsis of the Bickford paper - yes, I am a HOOT at cocktail parties. When the conversation turned to the idea of rent control, he was quick to inform me that in his opinion at least in Manhattan rent control actually drives the rental cost up even more. I hadn't even considered this but it makes perfect economic sense - simple shorter supply and greater demand.

So come on Herb, quit torturing steer our thinking down a hopeful path!

Melissa said...

Your friend is right, subsidized housing ultimately drives up rental costs and throws the market out of whack. In a capitalist environment, its not natural.

As for the suburbs, I agree with Herb, despite the money, not everyone wants to live there. I grew up in house in the suburbs with a huge yard with kids all around but all i ever wanted was to able to walk somewhere. I wanted independence, not shelter. So now my husband and I live in an urban neighborhood (remember, urban by midwest standards) so we are on tight lots with small yards. We know all our neighbors and spend most nights hanging out with them. We walk to the store or the local restaurants with our dog. Sure, we could move to the burbs and have an enormous place instead of the one we're in but we like the character of the neighborhood, the architecture, the people, the opportunity for endless activities and the potential for diversity. Across the street, a huge old home was converted to a condo building. Down the block is an apartment building. Up the street families live in gorgeous, expensive homes. Its diverse to a degree. Its a neighborhood where a variety of people can afford to live, depending on what they are willing to sacrifice. If you want cheap, huge and "plain bagel no cream cheese" as my friend says, its not the place for you.