In his compelling new book Ciphers, Christoph Gielen shows us the amazing shapes of suburbs, which he captures while hanging out of a helicopter. Gielen’s goal is to use his aerial photography to show us how “off-kilter” our sprawled-out communities have become. He hopes to “trigger a re-evaluation of our built environment, to ask: what kind of development can be considered sustainable?”
The physical forms of these communities in Florida, Arizona, Texas, and California and overseas in Scotland, Germany, and China are otherworldly in themselves. The photographs titles are equally as abstract, mostly marked as Untitled or perhaps simply the development’s name, like Sterling Ridge or Eden Prairie, which are themselves ironic, given how divorced they are from their environment. The photographs of these places, taken together, truly are ciphers, in that they help us understand the underlying logic, the code that shaped these sprawled-out places.
The photographs show us that when a community is totally detached from its surroundings, all kinds of forms are possible. In his introduction, Geoff Manaugh, long-time editor of BLDGBLOG, says “the suburbs are, in a sense, intensely original settlement patterns tiled over the landscape in ways our species could never have anticipated. We are living amid geometry, post-terrestrial screens between ourselves and the planet we walk upon.”
Gielen tells Manaugh that many of these communities, being so separated from their surrounding nature, are “absolutely self-contained.” Many of them are “not changing any more.” In particular, Manaugh describes the Sun Belt suburbs as “static, crystalline, and inorganic.” He adds, “Indeed, many of these streets frame retirement communities: places to move to once you’ve already been what you’ve set out to be. This isn’t sprawl, properly speaking. They are locations in their own right, spatial endpoints of certain journeys.”
In another essay in the book, Susannah Sayler and Edward Morris, co-founders of The Canary Project, describe why these places are so bad for the environment. They point to arguments eloquently made by Kongjian Yu, FASLA, president of Turenscape. In an ASLA interview they quote from, Yu says: “We’ve misunderstood what it means to be developed. We need to develop a new system, a new vernacular to express the changing relationship between land and people…It should address the issue of survival, not pleasure making, or ornament. It should be for survival, because we are now, as human beings, at the edge of survival.”
According to Sayler and Morris, Yu sees survival-based planning and development as fundamentally based in “ecological awareness and environmental ethics.” Yu begins all of his projects with an aerial analysis. He looks for the “ecological infrastructure that will guide urban development.” Yu defines ecological infrastructure as the “structural landscape network composed of critical landscape elements and spatial patterns.” In other words, Sayler and Morris write, “everything that was ignored in the developments that Gielen highlights in this book.”
Galina Tachieva, a partner at Duany, Plater-Zyberk and author of the Sprawl Repair Manual, says the photos illustrate how we are now stuck using a model that doesn’t work. “Such communities do not live up to the promise of an idyllic suburban alternative to the stress and hardship of dense city life — but have failed economically, socially, and ecologically. Yet planning practice in the United States continues to promote and subsidize this type of settlement pattern through codes and policies that would make building traditional cities and towns illegal today. These trends are perpetuated despite what we know about more efficient use of land, energy, and water.”
Tachieva argues, “the time has come to switch from auto-dependent and single-use monocultures to complete, human-scale communities.” Our only option, she says, is to “repair the worst excesses of sprawl — to find ways to restructure and redefine as much of it as possible into livable and robust neighborhoods.” This can happen by introducing new transit options, reconfiguring suburban blocks into denser ones, transforming dead malls into new town centers, and converting vacant sprawled-out communities back into open spaces and farmland. Sprawled-out places can devolve or shrink back.
Following the lead of developers and elected officials, the urban planning and design professions really enabled these kinds of developments to happen. Solving suburban sprawl — really, fixing the mess we created — will then require a long-term, collective effort. And, for some, these places may not even be seen as a problem. As a recent article from The Washington Post explains, liberals see dense urban environments as the answer, while conservatives are fine with their McMansions set within the endless sprawl.