Suburbs and their replicating ways

by Yule Heibel on April 18, 2008

Two items about suburbia came across my horizon recently.

One is a USA Today report on Chinese delegations coming to the US to study planned suburbs: Modern suburbia not just in America anymore by Haya El Nasser (today, April 18), which has an ominous (to my ears) conclusion, although there’s a lot of interesting stuff before that. More on that in a moment.

The other is another palpable hit from a couple of days ago by The Mobile City‘s Martijn de Waal, Video as suburban condition. This blog post references an installation by Martijn Hendriks, also entitled video as suburban condition. As de Waal writes, Hendriks has compiled a loop of YouTube video clips showing teens “performing” (as it were) their selves — on suburban parking lots or in “the fluorescently lit aisles of strip mall supermarkets.” What de Waals observes is fascinating: the clips, he writes, aren’t “loose incidents” unrelated to one another, but “part of an ecosystem”:

Teenagers perform their identity, video tape it with their mobile phone or handheld camera and put it on Youtube. Other teenagers watch those clips and in their own distant yet almost similar suburbs re-enact or remix the performance. Japanese teenagers copy funny dances and supermarket gags from their peers in the US and the other way around.

The performances are then copied by other teens around the world. De Waal quotes from Hendriks’ site to explain how suburban places are imagined in these clips: “The videos show people performing in places that would normally lack all interest, like back yards, parking lots, roof tops and malls. (…) Each place, as ordinary as it may be, is re-imagined as a place for doing extraordinary things.”

What’s fascinating is how de Waal thinks this through in terms of the technology: video allows for a replication — a reproduction, actually — of the performance of that identity, and in that sense, we are talking about an ecosystem. A cardinal clue whether something is animate or inanimate is whether it can reproduce. Humans are using technology to reproduce memes, lifestyles, …and identities. This means they are alive.

De Waal writes:

These videoclips show that performers at spaces like parking lots and strip malls now do have a way to find an audience – although the interaction is not in real time and in real space. These spaces declared dead do seem to come alive and work in a way that is comparable to traditional city squares. At least in terms of processes of performance and identification.

Now… what I really like about this approach to the topic is that it honours and recognizes the vitality in the thing.

I don’t feel the same friendly way toward master-planning. And that takes us back to the USA Today, where the author (Haya El Nasser) describes a certain flavour of “master planning” that overpowers whatever those teens might get up to in those videos.

El Nasser’s article starts as follows:

A Chinese delegation from Beijing arrived in Phoenix last month and headed west to the Sonoran Desert, deep into suburbia. Its destination: a quintessential American residential development in Buckeye, one of the many suburbs dotting the sprawling metropolitan area.

It goes on to describe Sun City Festival, a 3,000-acre planned community. Do young people dance or “perform” on parking lots there, I wondered? Nope, this is for folks 55+ of age. The Chinese delegation was there to study how they might “replicate” (El Nasser’s word) that “community” back home in China.

If the kids are having sex, the planners are in the lab doing in vitro “fertilization” it seems….

Ironically, this push to plan is done for reasons of sustainability:

The push is on to inspire developing countries to do what more American communities are doing: steer away from sprawling, cookie-cutter subdivisions popularized after World War II and create sustainable communities that will not deplete natural resources.

That includes developments built around mass-transit stations to reduce reliance on cars and projects that mix homes and businesses so that people can walk from home to stores and other services.

That sounds good, but what does it feel like? Will there be dancing (or miming or performing) in the streets (or parking lots or aisles)?

I’m not defending the existing suburban places that the kids documented by Hendriks are filming (not at all), but I’m just a bit skeptical about the “planning” described in Nasser’s article — irrespective of my basic sympathy with its goals (to have livability, sustainability, all that good stuff — oh, and good design, too…).

I’m wondering, when all is said and done (planned!), how do you plan for something like YouTube, for example? We’ll always be using technology to enhance our replicating ways, and often on unexpected platforms. From the backseats of cars to the digital virus via YouTube, life will find a way…

In the meantime, though, by all means plan better, cleaner, more sustainable communities. It makes sense — sort of like more comfortable plush in the backseat upholstery?

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