In praise of sprawl


I love sprawl.

OK, I don’t love it, but I don’t hate it either, like so many out there do.

I respect it as people’s choice – the suburbs, highways and byways, strip malls, cookie-cutter houses, whether small semi-detached or McMansions, the whole lot of it.

It gets a lot of bad press, it has got a lot of influential haters, ridiculers and deriders. There are the urbanists, the town planners, the architects, most of whom can’t abide the sprawl. It’s ugly, inefficient, unsustainable, it lacks amenities and it lacks a sense of community, it prioritises – or privileges, as they would say – cars over pedestrians, it wastes space and it wastes resources, it’s barbaric. Those much smarter and more creative than us have offered a lot of alternatives: high-density living, modernist spaces, La Corbusier’s houses as “machines for living”. They tore down the slums and erected high rise projects, council flats, banlieues and osiedla. They designed and built whole new districts, rich in concrete and wide bare expanses of public space.

Then there are the cultural as opposed to professional haters, and they too are as old as the suburbs themselves. The sprawl is a prison, a conformist hell. It deadens imagination and stifles creativity. It’s full of dumb people leading dumb lives. It’s a triumph of materialism, selfishness and narrowmindedness over selflessness, community and commonweal. From literature through movies and music to TV shows, suburbs don’t get a break; they are the hotbed of reaction, sexism, racism, homophobia, xenophobia, intolerance, prejudice, oppression and kitsch. “Revolutionary Road”, “Stepford Wives”, “American Beauty”, “Weeds”, “Little Boxes”, Stephen King novels, the list is endless, but you get the drift.

There are many differences between the suburbanites and the suburbs haters, but the one big one is this: the suburbanities are the live-and-let-live crowd – they know what they like but they don’t give a shit if you don’t like it. It’s your business and it’s your life – you can do whatever you like. The suburbs haters, on the other hand, not only know what they like but they believe that everyone else should like it to, and if they don’t, tough luck, they should be forced to change for the sake of what’s really good for them and for the whole community. Suburbs are not something that can be tolerated as an option; they should be destroyed, land reclaimed, ideally by nature, their former residents corralled and concentrated.

In many ways it’s yet another example of the old elite versus the masses cultural clash. The masses essentially just want to be left alone. The elites want to remake the whole world so it accords to their vision of what’s good and useful. The masses’ is not to question why…

Screw the elites, I say.

Sure, the suburbs might appear boring, unimaginative and tawdry, but it does not seem to occur to many of their critics that this is exactly what a lot of people want. That what the suburbs offer – a free-standing house with a few bedrooms, bathrooms, kitchen and living space, with a garage, some garden and all the public utilities – is the best and the most comfortable accommodation that an average person has ever been able to enjoy in the entire human history. That it satisfies all the basic needs and longings of individuals and families: space, privacy, safety, security, comfort, autonomy, independence, amenities, freedom – having a castle of one’s own. Most people are not robots or insects that like to live in a human hive, on top of each other, realising somebody else’s dream of optimal efficiency and ideal community.

Not that there is anything wrong with such dreams – as long as they are voluntary. Some people do prefer what can be contrasted as urban, inner city or high-density living. They enjoy the closeness and proximity, the hustle and the bustle, walking or public transport, vertical rather than horizontal, the crowd and the sense of liveliness it embodies. Good on them. There are plenty of options for those people. No one is forcing them to live in the suburbs while pining for the cities.

It’s the same with the cultural critics of the sprawl. Sure, you might see the suburbia as a prison, but it’s not. If you’re 16 or 17 or 18, no one can keep you there, so for God’s sake move somewhere else that’s more in tune with your needs, aspirations and values. You might be a nerd, a creative artistic soul, a rebel, a non-conformist and I can understand how you might find life in the suburbs stultifying and soul destroying. I get it, it’s not for you. It’s not for everybody. But again, most people are not like you and they actually enjoy what you find so off-putting and offensive: material comfort, simple pleasures, ease and convenience, commercialism and conformity. Leave them alone and leave it all behind; there is a whole different world out there for you, somewhere else.

Sprawl represents what people want: an affordable sanctuary for an average person. It might not be pretty, but it’s freedom made of bricks and asphalt. It’s democracy as a location. If you don’t love it, leave it. But keep your hands – and your superior moral and aesthetic sense – off it.

Main image: Photo by Michael Tuszynski on Unsplash