Architecture & the City

Cities & Suburbs: Density & Boundaries

“The brutal reality is that newer, more sprawling suburbs – and especially the cheap boom-years exburbs – aren’t just a bit unsustainable, they’re ruinously unsustainable in almost every way, and nothing we know of will likely stop their decline, much less fix them easily.” – Alex Steffen

On the 9th of May, 2017, we asked a question to our followers on our Social Media Pages page (Facebook page link here): Would you rather living within the city or the suburbs? and most importantly, why?

This is an interesting question which I must admit I have changed my view of after reading some of our friends’ insights. It is first important to define the term “suburb” and not confuse it with the “gated community” phenomenon. While these gated communities often are found in suburbs, it does not mean that all suburban areas fall under the gated community or sprawling definition. A suburb is essentially an area that exists along the outskirts of the city proper – whether it is well designed or not is a completely different story. Many of the comments that we have gotten over the past week understood suburbs as sprawling units that are often devoid of character – and I have personally made that assumption as well – but a select few opened my eyes to see that there are many examples of lesser density populated areas that are successfully integrated within the city proper.

In the architectural community, there has been an outcry against suburban developments over the past few decades. Many (including us at RiadArchitecture) see these kinds of developments as unsustainable as they do not utilize land space-effectively. Creating seemingly picturesque meandering streets with Mc-Mansions laid out on cul de sacs is not the most effective design layout when it comes to the utilization of space, and pretty soon we are going to run out of land because of all the spaghetti roads and paths we keep on construction in the hopes to create a more “scenic” route. At the end of the day, these curvilinear paths we create to our cookie cutter houses does not end up as we have imaged, as the houses we build end up looking like boxed eye sores popping up like pimples on the surface of the land as opposed to the intricate landscape features which the picturesque path was designed to emphasize.

We see these type of developments as unsustainable because of its heavy dependency on automobile transport – where each house must have at least one car per household and cannot move anywhere without them. A trip to the grocers would be a few kilometers or miles away, and would force homeowners in such developers to waste a large amount of fuel on a daily basis on doing a small number of choirs that could have been done elsewhere on foot or bike – not to mention the amount of pollutants released into the environment. Inhabitants of such developments would then park their cars in the mega parking space placed in front of the mega shopping market / mall, creating vast numbers of inefficient areas of space in order to create a space where we could temporarily park out car. These developments are typically un-walkable and not pedestrian friendly.

We also see an issue with gated communities in the fact they are “Gated”. This idea of building walls that surround you comes from the historic tradition of building walls around the city to protect its inhabitant from their enemies and predators. Separating and enclosing walls are an important factor in the feeling of security of any individual; we feel safe in our homes because of the walls that enclose and shelter us from what is outside. Traditionally, we would normally two sets of walls that separate us from the outside walls: Those of our immediate home, and those of our city/community. The walls of our home would create an intimate zone between us and our family, while the walls of our city would create a social zone between us and our neighbors. These walls sets up an instinctual boundary between us and the outside world, and sets us to create an “us vs them” feeling upon two levels: those outside of our family, and then those outside our community. We perceived anyone outside these walls as a threat, and often reacted violently against them.

While our cities grew, our boundaries grew and our community expanded. Cities are now porous, and the walls that separate us have been removed in the hope to establish a more harmonious society. But this has made many rather uncomfortable and wanted to separate their clan from the rest – so they built walls around them to turn their back against the rest of society and form their own click. If this is someone’s conscious choice to do so then we should respect their wishes and intentions, but the problem arises when someone chooses to live in a gated community while not being fully aware of what these boundaries can imply to their family and children in the long run. The boundaries for these gated communities have become tighter and more closed off than the traditional city, all under the pretense of “security”. We often also tend to build walls around walls around walls (a wall-ception if you will – please excuse the painfully horrible pun), where our room (boundary one) is situated in a house (boundary two) which includes a beautiful garden surrounding be a fence (boundary three) in a gated urban development  also known as a residential compound (boundary four), located in the outskirts of a city surrounded by a natural boundary of woods or desert (boundary five). This creates two more boundaries than the city (even the historical walled city, as I would argue that the natural boundary would cease to exist as the city dweller would seldom leave the confines of their walls, as opposed to the modern suburban dweller). What kind of psychological impact would such boundaries have on us in the long run, and on our children in the future who grew up only knowing life in boundaries? Should we not design our urban spaces to become more inclusive and less exclusive – especially that the past grass roots populist movement of the last decade has been demanding more inclusive social liberty and equal opportunities? How are we expected to practice empathy or compassion from the other, when we keep on placing or bodies, minds, hearts and souls through several degrees of separation? How many of these boundaries will it take to set up before it starts to feel like we are imprisoning ourselves?

Nevertheless, the current trend finds such developments to be quite attractive and these concerns seldom resonate with the masses. To my surprise, most of those who seek to live in such communities are those that are champions of social equality causes – which I found to be quite ironic. Are these individuals full of shit, or are they simply unaware of these boundaries that they are setting themselves up in.

After a series of conversations, I started wanted to understand their point of view and hear them out, and what surprised me is that all their concerns are rather valid. First, there is the concern of density, where the city proper proves to be too dense for them and the collective energy seems to be rather suffocating. It is true that the way our cities are built nowadays may provide the complete opposite problem; while in suburban areas we tend to wear many layers of boundaries, in modern cities it seems that our boundaries are often being encroached upon. The overcrowding in most cities brings about an unfortunate side effect in terms of physical boundaries, which is the invasion of our perceptional boundaries. What do I mean by that – think of our human bodies having a number of invisible bubbles around us: the intimate bubble, personal bubble, & social bubble (these ideas of bubbles are borrowed from Edward T Hall’s proxemics of space idea in his amazing book “The Hidden Dimension”). Our intimate bubble is often confined within our bedroom walls, personal bubble within our homes, and social bubble within the confines of our city/community.

Imagine that you are sitting in your own room – perhaps laying on your bed, enjoying your own privacy – and suddenly you hear the neighbors screaming and yelling at one another, or someone in the floor above you suddenly decides to move around furniture at 2 am, or the walls of your neighbors start to do this soft rhythmical banging sound because someone is doing the hanky panky, or perhaps worse, you are able to smell what your neighbors had for lunch this afternoon. This is an invasion of your intimate and personal space. No one is physically within you in your boundary, but you do not feel safe anymore. You feel that your right for privacy has been violated – and the more paranoid of you may feel that you are being watched (or spied on). You may be separated from your neighbor by a physical boundary like the walls of your apartment, but you often notice that you share the same acoustic or olfactory space.

Now let’s say that you have been able to shield yourself from the outside world, and have installed triple glazing, double foam insulation, and turned on white noise equipment (ACs, ventilators, or other mechanical equipment that produces that slight hum you don’t notice unless it is switched off) to completely isolate yourself from your neighbors – are you able to shield yourself from the invasion of your personal space that occurs outside your lonely island? Let’s say that you brushed against someone on the street and they ticked you off the wrong way and a yelling match ensued … as you come home to your city apartment, this level of anger and annoyance that stems from this type of unwanted social interaction stays will arguably stay longer with you in a dense city apartment than a suburban dwelling, probably for the mere fact that you still feel physically close to your civil opponent. This is also an invasion of your personal space … such are enough reasons to make many flee the city and live in their own private bubble, and I totally understand that.

I believe the solution lies within a deeper understanding of spatial social decorum and the socio-cultural ramifications of space and its boundaries. Going to one extreme or the other is not an answer, as each would have its drawbacks. It is almost like a spectrum, where at suburban end one becomes more and more isolated from society while at the higher density city one gets too much unwanted social interaction that makes them want to flee the city – a vicious cycle. The solution may be trying to incorporate more medium density neighborhoods that can act as autonomous entities that both the higher density city and lower density suburb could feed on. The medium density cities must be pedestrian friendly and incorporate mixed use functions that allows the inhabitants to be able to do all their choirs within walking distance. It must be able to travel into the city and to other medium density neighborhoods through a good network of public transportation and bike friendly paths. It must have the ability to incorporate a good building to greenery ratio with a number of public parks, and it must provide many cultural nodes (movie theaters, concerts, vast mix of restaurants…etc) to keep the neighborhood alive and excited while ensuring its longevity. These developments need to occur on a neighborhood level, not be gated but porous to other neighborhoods (a blur between neighborhood boundaries would be beneficiary in this case). These developments need to be divided by a good plot layout design and sold to developers by plot or blocks and NOT entire neighborhoods to ensure diversity in typology options, design styles, and amenity offerings.  You may think that what I am describing is already being implemented in many neighborhoods, and you are correct, but the trend in development is either to serve rather high densities or lower with the middle often neglected; all the middle density neighborhoods that you know and love are probably those that already existed over the past hundred years and have recently gone through regeneration, but the new middle density communities seem to be lagging.

Untitled-1

If I am to make an urban Diagram of density as the utopian diagrams of Ebenezer Howard’s Garden City or the famous Nucleus City – I would make a rather simplistic one called the “Gradient City”. As shown in the figure above, the heart of the city would be the high density photogenic skyline (shown in orange) and as one radiates outwards the density would decrease. Missing from this diagram would be the general distances to eliminate opportunity for sprawling, which I hope to study in the next coming months and come back to you with.

See you next week 🙂

Mahmoud M M Riad

Director of RiadArchitecture

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