Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Mass-produced Housing

Below is another reading response for my class. There are three class readings cited:
Fuller ("Designing a New Industry")
Jacobs (The Death and Life of Great American Cities)
Duany et al (Suburban Nation: The Rise of Sprawl and the Decline of the American Dream) -- we only read about twenty pages but this seems to be a great book, in the same vein as Jacobs.

In writing this I realized, perhaps for the first time, that mass-produced housing does not explicitly lead to insular suburbs. I think it is the way mass-produced housing is used that produces the suburbs we tend to scorn. For example, if someone were to streamline the construction of high-quality, green and affordable multifamily buildings that could be adapted to fit neighborhood context, I think they would be reaching the goal that I had in starting this blog.

Mass-produced Housing

Though Buckminster Fuller’s idea of retooling airplane-building operations to mass produce light, metal-framed houses never came to be, he correctly identified a nascent peace-time economy that would grow out of the war machine. The postwar housing boom – fueled by increased consumer spending and New Deal legislation designed to promote home ownership – provided many Americans with the suburban accommodations that Ebenezer Howard considered an escape from the terribly unnatural city. However, the effects of suburban lifestyles on both the environment and social relations are largely detrimental. And though the environmental assaults are myriad – highways clogged with commuter traffic, clear-cut swaths through forests for future construction, erosion along streams from increased impermeable paving – they at least tend to be visible, while declining social relations remain somewhat more veiled.

In asserting that “Americans may have the finest private realm in the developed world, but our public realm is brutal,” Duany, Plater-Zyberk and Speck (41) address a physical representation of the social relations that are either created or reflected by mass-produced suburban housing. For example, upon leaving the house, the suburban dweller is typically relegated to travel by automobile – which is, in itself, isolating – and must jockey for position with other drivers for a simple trip to the supermarket. Compared to Jane Jacobs’ description of Boston’s North End, where “working places and commerce [mingle] in the greatest complexity with its residences,” (8) the suburban layout offers far fewer chances for regular interaction with neighbors running errands or going to work. The importance of diverse of land use is a continuous theme of her book and doubles as a call for diverse built environments that promote cross-use and human interaction.

Duany et al continue to describe suburban developments in which housing clusters are built according to selling price. This, the authors stress, is a contemporary example of segregation that follows in the vein of racism, classism and scorn for immigrants – “[The North End is] still getting immigrants!” says a Boston banker to Jacobs (11), citing this as reason to consider the area a slum – and has plagued American cities over time. The authors also assert that clusters are a way to sell “the concept of exclusivity,” since many mass-produced homes are indistinguishable by any other metric. The apotheosis of this segregation is the gated community, where a physical boundary is constructed to separate the wealthy from the not-so-wealthy.

Segregation is becoming increasingly widespread as former suburban residents are relocating to urban cores, where luxury high-rise condominium developments – the urbanized gated community or “islands within the city,” as Jacobs calls them – are sprouting. With block-long podiums housing private amenities and garages in which residents park their cars, these new urban denizens need not interact with other city-dwellers much more than when they were suburbanites. In their article Soft Urbanism: Safeguarding the Private City, F├╝ller and Marquardt posit that private security forces, such as the Metropolitan Improvement District (MID) in Seattle, are necessary because “the production of safe and clean, exciting and lively, convenient and healthy spaces for the former suburbanites does not always get along easily with the so called ‘edgy urban experience’” (7). These modifications to the city are examples of social values from the arena of mass-produced houses colonizing the place where the informal “ballet of the good city sidewalk” (Jacobs, 50) reflects healthy social interaction.

As Duany et al profess, “the segregationist pattern is self-perpetuating” (45). They note that those raised in homogenous enclaves are less likely to be empathetic to people of differing socio-economic status. Rather than having daily interaction with diverse society, these children are socialized “through the sensationalizing eye” (46) of the media. In such an arrangement, the cohesiveness of a diverse society of the future is threatened, even as this has been a goal for which many generations of minorities and activists have striven. Moreover, the authors suggest that segregation is also inconvenient: In a diverse neighborhood, teachers, shopkeepers, businesspeople, and doctors can interact daily, thus helping to establish the elusive “community” that fosters social interaction.

Offering diverse housing options also increases the resilience of a community since “people buy the community first and the house second” (Duany et al, 48). In suburban developments, if one wants to upgrade or downsize, depending on their station in life, it is likely that the only option will be to relocate to another neighborhood. Conversely, in a neighborhood like Georgetown, where housing options range from apartments to townhouses to mansions, it is possible for an individual or family to change homes while remaining in the same community. Similarly, Jane Jacobs considers having “many individuals who stay put” (139) to be an attribute of stable neighborhoods; this assertion is reinforced by her example of Joe Cornacchia, the owner of a neighborhood deli with whom many residents leave their keys when expecting visitors at odd times. Joe gets this role in part because he has established himself in the neighborhood as a trusted individual.

The very possibility of this sort of interaction between neighborhood residents and local businesses can only exist in places where mixed-use development is legal. Duany et al note that the classic arrangements of apartments above retail, which provide customers and “eyes on the street,” and the store-below-the-house are largely illegal in suburban areas, due to “the lingering memory of industrial pollution blighting residential areas” (50). This arrangement stands in direct opposition to Jacobs’ call for the need of primary mixed uses that share the same streets and promote cross-use throughout the day.

While it is evident that many of the tears in the social fabric can be attributed to the rise of homogenous, mass-produced housing, it is important to remember that the mass production process cannot be explicitly blamed for the outcome. On the contrary, it seems as if the social situation that promoted insular suburban housing has been exacerbated by its perpetuation. Rather than merely critiquing the process of mass production, it may be more fruitful to address suburbanization from a sociological perspective, as Jacobs does.

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