The effect of suburban development on social behavior is undeniable. What is surprising, however, is that despite that realization, there is little discussion of the ways in which it has affected us and its place in the overall development of human settlement. While suburbia was only one of the models of physical development available, it became popular just over a century ago because it perpetuated the dream spun by writers of the late nineteenth century of an age when humans had so organized their world that each finally had access to the perfect life, made possible in large part by the invention of the automobile. For thousands of years before that, man had formed communities by focusing on their similarities and the things that made living together safer and more beneficial. Now the dreams were of the improvements in personal situation offered by the zoned development – clean air, landscaped villas, safe, tree-lined boulevards, an egalitarian society. It was not the job of those dreamers to predict the effect of these new conditions on the ways in which people would behave. Their job was simply to expose the possibilities. It would be the job of social philosophers and journalists of the twentieth century to help us understand its impact.

A century later, however, it is surprising to find that there is still almost no acknowledgement by planners that the change in physical settlement patterns has had an effect on social behavior. Yes, for a brief period in the late 1960’s, studies like “Family and Kinship Patterns in East London” and “Form Follows Fiasco” proved that the “New Town” solution (planned communities) and the Zoned Master Plan had had unexpected (and by and large negative) results, but their influence was limited to classrooms in architectural and planning schools, and had little or no effect on policy-makers. Almost around the globe, the march towards the suburban dream was unaffected as it took root and spread. Today it is the universal standard for physical development of towns and cities.
So what’s the problem?
The problem is this: Communities are built by the development of those elements that bring people together. The subdivision (the planning element basic to suburbia) thrives on what keeps people apart. In other words, one of the reasons most societies are witnessing deterioration in their social fabric is that communities have been replaced by constituencies. What built close social relationships has been replaced in our built environment by what protects them from each other. As attractive as it looks, suburbia is a poor model for the development of societies.
It is time for a new model.
July 2009