127: Dolores Hayden’s Building Suburbia

Dolores Hayden’s Building Suburbia: Green Fields and Urban Growth, 1820-1900, is an extended essay on the 180 years of metropolitan development in the US from the perspective of the “urban periphery.”    Taking a network approach to the history of suburban development, Hayden studies maps, town plans, housing designs, pictures of households, aerial photography and other sources for clues as to the particular configuration of real estate entrepreneurs; natural and built environments; the lives of women, children, and men; and class, race, and political orientations that went into the development of the suburbs, and she divines 7 distinct types, each with its own characteristic development practices, building techniques, marketing strategies, architectural preferences, and environmental attitudes.  The resulting book is both a history of suburban development and a critique of suburbia; throughout, Hayden argues that the suburbs have historically reproduced the conflict between people who seek the “triple dream of home, nature, and community” and entrepreneurs who “search for profits through the development of greenfield sites.”  She thus brings the suburbs to the forefront of landscape studies and reconfigures them as a site of struggle over the realization of the American Dream.

Briefly, the 7 different vernacular suburban patterns, and some associations with each:

  1. Borderlands (1820s): modeled after gentleman’s estates; single family homes, wide lawns, women do housework, men do yardwork, and neither has servants’ help; marker of the new middle class (not poor enough to live and farm out there, but not rich enough to have both city and country house); Catherine Beecher’s encyclopedia and Albert Downing’s housing manuals
  2. Picturesque enclaves (1850s): the first planned communities, designed by architects to have curving roads that followed local topography; single family homes with extensive plantings and common green space for that old country feel; less socially isolated than borderlands; first suburb to address the “triple American Dream” of house, land, community.  Tools of secular communitarian social reform.  Llewellyn Park in West Orange, NJ and Riverside, IL.  Commodified by the 1920s as a way to save money for developers.  Bourgeois utopia and alienation from the industrial mess they created.
  3. Streetcar buildout (1870s): developers began subdividing land closer to cities to create cheaper versions of picturesque enclaves; these began as linear development along expanding transit lines and were marketed to second generation Americans who had grown up in tenements.  Houses were relatively small and built by homeowners or small builders; included single-family, 2-family, 3-family and some commercial and apartment buildings.  Architecturally, developments vary widely by region, but residents are never as separate from paid/unpaid work as in picturesque enclaves; called the “zone of emergence” (from the tenements) by sociologists; crowded by the 1880s, but provide good models for development today.
  4. Mail order/ self-built (1900s): after 1910, entrepreneurs encourage car owners to move out beyond the streetcar suburbs; in a complex building environment, pre-fab houses are cheap for homeowners and builders in a hurry; stimulates massive, chaotic growth, but mass-produced houses all but kill the regional vernacular; by the 1930s, low-density growth is straining existing infrastructure.
  5. Sitcom suburbs (1940s): politicking from the 1920s to the 1940s resulted in federal support for private-market, single-family housing; massive post-war subdivisions were deliberately planned to “maximize consumption of mass-produced goods and minimize the responsibility of the developers to create public space and public services.  Huge suburbs were built all at once, with 50,000-80,000 residents in Levittown, KY, Lakewood, CA, and Park Forest, IL.  Federal guarantees for private developers reshaped the public/private divide, while developers conveniently left out the community part of the triple American Dream; it was only cheaper to build this way because the Federal government subsidized it.
  6. Edge nodes (1960s): edge cities have more jobs than bedrooms; they are products of the information age, are very flexible, and aren’t really places. Think Tyson’s Corner, which “resembles an older commercial strip with all of the buildings exploded in scale, or a model with all the building blocks for both suburb and city thrown on the ground by a two-year-old having a tantrum.”
  7. Rural fringes (1980s): the suburbs of the edge nodes; very spread out; more square miles than central cities, older suburbs, and edge nodes combined
Hayden concludes by saying that further development should look inward and revitalize older suburbs rather than build new ones, even if those new ones follow New Urbanist design standards, and that more participation by all stakeholders, including people previously left out of suburban development, would make a more democratic, egalitarian, participatory suburban landscape.
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