Infrastructure

The Psychology of Sprawl

A suburban neighborhood near Pittsburgh, Pa. Jon Dawson on Flickr

This piece originally appeared on Rust Wire.

The psychology of suburbia is paradoxical: It’s about comfort and security, yet it has produced more discomfort and insecurity than most would have thought imaginable 50 years ago.

At its onset the suburbs represented an escape: From disease and dirt, from crime, from congestion. This escapism went beyond personal need and was manifested in defense policy out of existential concerns at the federal level. Consider it the untold story behind American suburbanization. As scholar Kathleen Tobin wrote in “The Reduction of Urban Vulnerability: Revisiting 1950s American Suburbanization as Civil Defence“:

After using atomic weapons in Japan and witnessing the beginning of the Cold War conflict with the Soviet Union, US experts became keenly aware of the vulnerability of its densely populated cities as targets of attack, and advised that strong measures be taken to disperse urban populations.

Enter the federal highway acts. Federal-backed mortgages to feed suburban supply. And that American Dream concept that was a contrast to the reality of urban vulnerabilities.

In all, that suburban form of homogeneity, orderliness and spacing was an outward response to internal desires for security and control. But there was a cost to such an approach. Namely, the texture of life. Because sameness breeds sameness, which breeds stasis—hence, the “soulless” suburb moniker that has come to permeate the pauses in between suburban praise of “good schools,” “abundant parking” and “safety.” Hell, even religious institutions have gotten into the fray. From a recent editorial in The Trinity Tripod:

If suburbia is the counter to increasingly pluralistic inner-cities, then it can also be seen to represent the static over the dynamic, and the group over the individual. By effectually closing off the borders of a town or institution to one favored group, those being denied admittance are also being denied any concept of self.

That’s the end of the story then, right? Back to the soul-realm of Jane Jacobs. Nah. For there is an antidote to soul-sucking long commutes and isolation via design. It’s called consumption. And here’s how it has worked to keep the status quo of suburbia in check.

In the book American Mania, author Peter Whybrow talks about the primal core of the human brain, i.e., “the lizard brain.” The lizard brain is all about survival, or about physical safety, food and reproducing. Eat. Attack. Run away. Mate. That’s the lizard brain, and it’s governed by fear. In the hierarchy of human needs, the lizard brain can take precedence over the more evolved mammalian component of the brain that governs social interaction. In other words, in a modern America defined by abundance, the lizard brain is soothed by nursing it with stuff, with this primeval satisfaction serving to fend off the social loneliness that breeds in this country’s anonymous, sprawling conditions.

So we feed the pain, doing it constantly. We feed it with mother’s little helper—with new things—and with foodstuffs. In fact food is a big opiate in America, particularly because we’ve created artificial economics to keep it so abundant and cheap. And so it is perhaps food more than anything that salves modern American isolation, and big-box marketing knows this. Consider the marketing language by the grocery chain Giant Eagle who just recently won a rezoning vote to plop a gargantuan big box in a Cleveland fringe suburb:

Each Market District® location buzzes with a sense of excitement uniquely its own and no two stores are exactly alike. Whichever location you visit, you are sure to have an amazing food experience. Enter our foodie destination and let all of our best food ideas and discoveries delight and inspire the food lover in you.

Hot, eh? Of course consistently appealing to the cheap seats has become a problem, as it comes with a constant need for consumption, which has costs. There’s the housing bubble, the soaring of debt, and obesity rates that are quite frankly unbelievable: 67 percent of Americans are overweight, and 31 percent of the U.S. is obese (Mexico is second at 24 percent and Japan has a 3 percent obesity rate). And our bigness is costly, as 2 percent of America’s GDP goes toward the treatment of diabetes.

And while obesity affects a variety of American landscapes (e.g., urban and rural poor), research is increasingly pointing the finger at the exurban environment where sprawl is correlating with sedentary behavior which—coupled with ever-increasing consumption levels—is the perfect storm for more ill-health. In fact one study found 25 percent of the country’s increased obesity rate during the 1990s to be attributable to an increase in sprawl alone.

Yet the illusion persists, particularly that notion of the exurban/suburban good life—of security and comfort. At least as long as the lizard brain is made predominant in modern America’s hierarchy of needs.

And if it continues, then how will it end? Well, Michael Lewis—in an excellent article in Vanity Fair about the glut of public pensions—speaks of the (true) parable of the pheasant (via Whybrow):

The previous winter at Blenheim had been harsh, and the pheasant hunters had been efficient; as a result, just a single pheasant had survived in the palace gardens. This bird had gained total control of a newly seeded field. Its intake of food, normally regulated by its environment, was now entirely unregulated: it could eat all it wanted, and it did. The pheasant grew so large that, when other birds challenged it for seed, it would simply frighten them away…It didn’t take long before Henry [as it was named] was obese. He could still eat as much as he wanted, but he could no longer fly. Then one day he was gone: a fox ate him.

So here we stand—over 50 years after the Soviets drove us into the perceived security of all that space—to see the enemy. And the enemy is us.

Tags: built environment, midwest, cleveland, sprawl, suburbia, food politics, diabetes, obesity rate, peter whybrow, kathleen tobin