Is living in the suburbs in one’s own home a dream come true or a living hell? Does homeownership, space and a certain amount of freedom within one’s own four walls outweigh the financial burden, traffic snarls and uniformity that suburban life represents? We’ve taken to the skies to take an aerial view of residential communities around the world and found 15 amazing examples of suburban beauty – a result of the patterns formed by buildings that from ground level would appear somewhat less enthralling.
The Pet Shop Boys sung of “suburban hell”, boredom and running “with the dogs tonight” in their 1986 hit song “Suburbia” – a response to Penelope Spheeris' 1984 film of the same name and incidents of urban and suburban violence in the Eighties. However, these images show suburbia in a quite different light: seemingly peaceful, somehow streamlined, and uniform in a way that is strangely fascinating and beautiful in its monotony.
Though the term and concept of suburbia have been around since the days of Ancient Roman city development, the rapid modern expansion of the suburban sprawls we know today was tied to the development of better rail and road transport links within cities worldwide.
What might once have been considered the boondocks became prime land for property development once cars, trains, buses and commuting systems in general made it easily accessible from the city. In the United States, 1950 marked a turning point as the year beyond which more people lived in suburban areas than anywhere else.
Nowadays, cookie cutter homes with the same yards, garages and – depending on their location – perhaps a pool are loved and loathed in equal measure. On one hand, for many people, owning a home is a dream come true; yet on the other, for those of a different mindset, living in mind-numbing sameness is the ultimate horror.
Yet, whatever your take on the matter, the fact is that the ‘burbs are here to stay. While individual urban sprawls may run out of space sooner or later – either by reaching city limits or geographical boundaries such as mountains, rivers, lakes and the sea – suburbia in general is expanding all around us. In the US, for example, says Chapman University, CA’s professor of urban development Joel Kotkin, “more than 80 percent of new metropolitan growth… since 2000 has been in suburbs.”
However, at the same time, according to research by New York University urban planning professor Shlomo Angel, megacities are on the decline: the amount of people living in the world’s top 100 megacities shrank by almost 5% between 1960 and 2000, even as the urban (and suburban) population grew.
Today, hundreds of millions of people worldwide live in the suburbs – whether they’re defined as belonging to a city, as in Australia and New Zealand for example, or as independent residential communities around a city, as they are in Canada and the US.
Taking a closer look at the term “suburb” reveals its somewhat negative connotation from the beginning: the Latin suburbium has its roots in sub (meaning “under”) and urbs (“city”). Living “under the city” referred to the fact that the poor in Ancient Rome resided at the foot of the hills populated by the rich – where the air, view and sanitation were presumably better than they were down below.
Even today, not all types of suburbs in different parts of the world are attached to the image of single-family houses in more affluent neighborhoods, the way they tend to be in North America. The suburbs can also consist of concrete housing for low-income inhabitants, economically and socially segregated from the city proper – as in France or Sweden, for example.
Yet the social problems of the suburbs do not always lie at the surface. Those who watched the 1990 movie Edward Scissorhands – starring a young Johnny Depp in the title role – will remember the identical cookie cutter homes that set the scene from the start. They epitomized the feelings of isolation that director Tim Burton experienced first hand while living in California’s suburban Santa Clarita Valley as a teenager.
The highly popular TV series Desperate Housewives went a step further by creating a microcosm of suburban life in the fictional town of Fairview, with its interestingly-named Wisteria Lane – a place full of neighborly mistrust and dark secrets.
But is suburban living really that bad? And is inner city living the non-plus ultra? Far from it. Both types of living come with their own distinct sets of problems. For example, there’s car dependency and being cut off from the community and cultural institutions in the ‘burbs. Meanwhile, cramped living conditions, pollution and a host of resulting health conditions face inner city residents. In fact, viewed in this light, maybe suburban life isn’t so bad after all.
What’s more, it’s not just a simple question of urban versus suburban living; there are other living options too. There’s small town and rural living to consider, for example, as well as future – and perhaps yet unforeseen – choices that an ever-growing population will surely demand.
For the time being, though, we’ll marvel at the way our built landscapes have changed – from rural to urban to suburban – creating surprisingly captivating patterns in the process. Well, at least when viewed from the air.
The next time you walk through your neighborhood, think what a bird’s eye view might reveal – and what suburbia as a concept says about modern living.