Why so many suburbs look the same

Why so many suburbs look the same


You ever feel like you’re just going in
circles? So this is Hallsley, a still-developing subdivision
in Midlothian Virginia. This place won the National Association of
Homebuilders award in 2017, for best master planned community. And there are a ton of cul de sacs. 1. 2. 3. 4. Let’s just go to the map, save some time. Cul de sacs are everywhere. They’re a symbol of suburban sprawl. But they aren’t an accident. They’re physical evidence of how one federal
agency shaped the suburbs — in ways that we’re still grappling with today. English suburban plans inspired early
suburbs in the United States like Radburn, New Jersey, which offered a
unique plan. Founded in 1929, it was designed to be car
friendly. But it introduced a street that served more
like an alleyway or service road. It was almost a prototype for the cul de sac. Cars traveled and parked in the back of houses,
not in front. People walked to and from the train via footpaths
that were car-free. Though Radburn wasn’t totally finished,
today you can see the footpaths that still provide a pedestrian network for residents. But out of those ideas, it was Radburn’s
cul de sac — not its footpaths — that spread, thanks to an agency with the power
to do it. In 1929, the Great Depression crushed the
housing market. The bust dragged on for years. “A decline of 92% from 1928.” “But due to the stimulation of the national
housing act, 1935 presents a different picture.” Before 1934, mortgages required anywhere from
30 to 50% down, paid off as quickly as 5 years. The new Federal Housing Administration, or
FHA, insured mortgages for lenders, shrinking down-payments to 20% and extending the mortgage
to the now standard 30 years. All that made homebuying affordable and kicked
off a housing boom for purchasing and construction. “This tidal wave of new construction is
an important contribution to the economic rebuilding of America. Home ownership is the basis of a happy contented
family life.” I know, you’re probably like, how does any
of this connect to cul de sacs or suburban design. The thing is, is that the FHA wanted to ensure
that all these investments they were making were relatively safe investments. So to do that, they ranked and rated neighborhoods and homes,
and then they created guidelines for those ratings. And that is where things get complicated. Some FHA guidelines we’d see today as roughly
positive, like minimum property requirements. Think minimum standards for plumbing and foundation
of new houses, to guarantee they weren’t just junk. Mostly good. Except for the asbestos. Lots of asbestos. On the other end of the spectrum, the FHA
explicitly endorsed segregation as a measure of housing quality. I.E. segregation equals good neighborhood. This underwriting manual
puts it really clearly: “If a neighborhood is to retain stability, it is necessary that
properties shall continue to be occupied by the same social and racial classes.” So, these guidelines ran the gamut from mundane
to appalling. But developers would be taking a huge risk
to ignore the FHA, since these loans sold houses. Somewhere in the middle of the spectrum, the
FHA’s recommendations also included city planning. They started with car-friendly minimum street
widths and then expanded. In bulletins like “Planning Profitable Neighborhoods,”
the FHA laid out “ideal” suburban plans which were clearly labeled bad or good. They drew from models like Radburn, but focused
on the car and left out the pedestrians. Grid plans were definitively “bad.” Other plans — with curvilinear, or winding,
roads — were good. That included cul de sacs. This FHA-labeled “bad” plan shows why
curved streets really did make sense sometimes. The dotted lines show topography — like
hills. A grid plan would have required a ton of construction
to work around the landscape. The good plan — a curvilinear one — reduces
construction costs and is just nicer to look at. But these plans also insisted on a car-centered
vision of the neighborhood, with cul de sacs designed to slow down vehicles and limit through
traffic — while also guaranteeing that cars were necessary to get around. This bad plan would have worked well for public
transportation and city services, or a walking commute. But developers couldn’t risk bad plans. The “good” plan was the only safe option
if they wanted their houses to sell. Plans drafted the “bad way” were revised
to fit the FHA’s vision of the good life. That was a combination of financial coercion
and a quickly evolving sense of what a suburb “should be.” Listen, I played kickball in cul de sacs. They have a lot of advantages. They really do slow down through traffic,
they create a sense of community, they just have a lot of things going for them. This subdivision here doesn’t have much
to do with those outmoded FHA guidelines, but it does exist in a culture that those guidelines
shaped. The cul de sac — it crowded out a million
other good ideas. Ideas that could have had a different vision
of the suburbs. Ideas that weren’t all about – this. Today, some suburbs are changing the plan. There’s even a way to make existing cul
de sacs more walkable. But it’s a little strange that so many places
are still beholden to the old FHA’s vision of the one good life. This is a proposed black subdivision near
Atlanta, from a 1948 FHA plan. The plan included a “planting strip” to
serve as a visible boundary between white and black neighborhoods. In the same plan, the FHA plotted very elegant
curvilinear streets and cul de sacs. That’s it for this episode about the suburbs. Let’s read some comments from the last episode,
which was about Manhattan’s grid. “These people were smart. They knew it would be difficult to build out
a model of the city in Minecraft if it was made out of circles.” This is actually the philosophy they had! They wanted easy development. Very Minecrafty of them. “But cities like Boston or London have greater
charm and uniqueness but are a pain to navigate.” And this is the big debate at the crux of
the video — which one do you prefer, that uniqueness or navigability. That’s it for this episode, we hope to see
you in the next one, which actually features a lot of contributions from Vox’s YouTube
subscribers.

100 Replies to “Why so many suburbs look the same

  1. What I'm worried about as a blue collar is the rising cost of rent, new homeownership, and that companies/employers are stifling wages. Who will be able to even afford to live in a suburb for my generation or the next few? Hard work amounts to mediocre reward now.

  2. Coming from New Jersey, these non-grid neighborhood designs are the most difficult and unhelpful.
    Neighborhoods are intentionally designed to be full of dead ends and unnecessary curvature, which makes life more difficult for everyone and wastes tons of gas and time by using inefficient routes.

  3. term "redlining" was coined by sociologist James McKnight in the 1960s based on how lenders would literally draw a red line on a map around the neighborhoods they would not invest in based on demographics alone. Black, inner-city neighborhoods were most likely to be redlined. Investigations found that lenders would make loans to lower-income whites but not to middle- or upper-income African Americans.

  4. Hey Vox!
    Can we please have a schedule from you for the different series you upload (Ex. Darkroom every X day or Almanac every Y day). Thankyou!

    Btw, love your videos.

  5. America's car-centrism really infuriates me, more so since returning from studying abroad in Chile, where public transportation and walking got me pretty much anywhere I wanted to go. Here at home in the U.S., the nearest grocery store is a forty-minute walk away from my house – that time gets cut to ten or fifteen minutes if you're on a bike, but then there's the issue of returning and having to go uphill the whole way back. To get beyond the residential sprawl and into the next zoning type, you have to drive a minimum of twenty minutes. For my thesis I'm thinking of investigating what it would take to make suburbs more adaptable and resilient, as I took a class on Architecture and the Environment and the idea of mixed-use and pedestrian-focused developments just made so much sense to me. I'll look into more videos like this one!

  6. i live in a são paulo apartment, a city in Brazil larger tha NYC. Always within walking distance of something (theres a fruit shop just onbthe other side of the road, a complex of 4 different supermarkets (Walmart, Leroy Merlins ((department store)), Pão de Acucar ((dont go there, ig its a bakery) and a Sams Club ((cheaper walmart))). When i visited a municipality really close to me called Jardins (a suburb inside of a bunch of highrises), it felt sad. Lonely. No shops nearby.

  7. a big influence on these ideas – especially radburn – was Ebenezer Howard's theory of the garden city in the 1800s. fascinating to look in to if you get the chance

  8. I literally love the idea of the foot paths. Haha needs to come back. Perfect compromise between old world transport and technology

  9. 'home ownership'… owes the bank thousands of dollards for 30 years. NICE CONCEPT.
    Mortgages are the reason housing has become so expensive because people buy things they cant afford using money they dont own.

  10. Random, but can we get a video about the history of gavels? I don’t even know if that’s an interesting history or not, but if it is, that would be fascinating

  11. I always tell people who visit America, for them to check out cities and the countryside. You may as well skip the suburbs

  12. I live half of the time in downtown Toronto and half of the time into the suburbs. I can very clearly see the advantages and disadvantages of both and the clear objectives between the two distinct styles of city layouts. One is very loud, straight, but navigable. And the other is quiet, curvey and car-oriented with navigability not a priority.

  13. So race was mentioned but still has nothing to do with the subject of the video, just had to do with ways the houses are sold

  14. I like the grid layout better than a housing development with only one entrance and exit to get to the main road grid.

  15. Please do a video on how video games are not the problem to gun violence in America, I think you will get A LOT of views from it and support from both conservative and liberal gamers. Donald Trump said, "Youth are surrounded in a culture that celebrates violence" (video games) and yet he still thinks guns aren't the problem.

  16. If you cut down a tree and use it in a building, and then grow a tree to replace it isn’t that like sequestering carbon? Or am I completely wrong on that?

  17. Laying under a tree outside my "golf course culde-sac" home right now.
    Sounds lovely till u have to deal with an Association.
    I was fined for my "rustic grass" planted in my landscaping…
    Complaints they "looked like weeds"

  18. Can’t watch a video about anything without some form of racism. Is it the video creators fault or the racists themselves. I say both.

  19. I had wondered about the social and economic reasons for suburban housing to look the same- if houses in a community are the same, it homogenizes the identity of the group. Meanwhile it discourages the expression of diversity and keeps us isolated and segregated.

  20. Most houses (at least the 90’s ones) in my subdivision have the same basic layout but with slight variations. That includes my house. But I’ve only seen 2 other houses with the EXACT same layout.

  21. Sometimes I just go into random videos and type comments like this one and then hit the button that says comment like this

  22. I wish people walked more. There is just too much land in America for anyone to get anywhere if they did though…

  23. While the video does make some good points the planning and transportation disaster that we have today were influenced by developers seeking profits regular gridded streets require a larger amount of grading and engineering admittedly the use of the Automobile made the this possible. The chaos we have produced today follow contours and physical features maximizing housing units and minimizing leveling and grading producing a Contour following road pattern. This is why we have long winding roads going nowhere. It also needs to be noted that the cost of these roads is passed on to taxpayers in high maintenance long destination distances and low utility. Today's subdivision long and winding streets inefficiently and poorly connected cud-de-sacs are becoming more often than not an expensive wasteland and playgrounds rather that their parts of a complex transportation network.

  24. Next video involves Vox’s YouTube subscribers?!?! Oh well in that case, hi mom see you next video I’m about to make it big!

  25. That's pronounced "kudsac" not "kewldessacs", that's a French word, half the letters are silent and the "u" is not pronounced like in English

  26. the suburbs have encouraged people of same mentality to live close to each other, which reinforced their paranoia/fear/hate of others..

  27. 5:20 to 5:38, the author says that this scheme has a lot of advantages, and that where he is driving has not much to to with what he is deploring. Eighteen seconds that seriously contradict his thesis. Also, in a country where moving to a place 1000 miles apart or more is common, that many things are similar is an additional advantage. So, yes, past specs were deplorable in terms of race segregation. In all places class similarity is greatly appreciated, so that happens everywhere, even where race is not an issue. What is left? A thesis that has little weight, but helps deprecate how people want to live, in favor of a life that the author (maybe) prefers, in a compact city in much smaller housing. How is that better for everyone? There are plenty of apartments and condos downtown, and if more people want to live like that, many more will be built.

  28. 2:30 What Rebuilding, there were no attacks from anyone on Continental America, Europe was rebuilding in my opinion

  29. Lol in south korea most of us lives in 10 to 20 storey apartments. Even if there are private owned houses, the dont have th suburbs that american houses have

  30. Suburbs are also a problem for the elderly, because they are always far away from anything you can't walk. No public transport, means you either need to be able to drive still or lose some independence and rely on others for things like groceries.

    They really need to be more walkable and America needs to learn that not everyone should have to own a car.

  31. Should probably add info about the money behind the development of suburbs… I'm not sure how early it started, but most "neighborhoods" being built nowadays are funded by super wealthy investment funds. One big consequence of this is the rapid rise of HOAs and Property Management Companies; many Americans no longer have a choice to avoid these type of neighborhoods. Another consequence is single plot home builders are running out of land options in many states. Unless a wealthy developer has already sub-divided the land, small land buyers cannot get local or state governments to allow them to build one home on vacant piece of property. Municipalities have become so painfully dependent on private developers to increase the tax base; it often gives these few wealthy businesses a tyrannical influence over local affairs and politics.

  32. These interest me a lot! You guys should make a video about greenbelt communities! (I live in Greendale, WI and I love your videos)

  33. I would intend to create a community, where there are narrow streets and people could park the cars outside the community and have to walk few meters everyday to get to their vehicle or to take a bus or a train.
    This would reduce pollution inside the community and children could safely play in the streets and corridors. The narrow streets will also keep the locality cooler and would engage societal conversation which is being lost in an era of internet.

  34. I lived in the ideal suburb where it was middle class homes and they all looked different! now it seems like when they build a new suburb they're either affordable cookie cutter houses that are way to close to one another or big MCMansion houses that are also way to close to each other. The middle class is dying even in suburb design

  35. Racism is still very much an institutionalized problem and still deeply marginalizes POC even today. That's why racism isn't "over" and why POC should not be expected to "just get over it". Racial segregation happens today in schools, employment and housing, enforced by old policies still based around racist fearmongering. White people are the single benefactors of racism in America, and are wholly responsible for ending it, and de-segregating housing and making housing more affordable is one of the ways to do it.

  36. When I was a kid, we lived on a dead end street behind a suburb, in a little mobile home. We’d call those suburbs the “rich neighborhood.”

    It always took so long for the water to drain so we’d ask if we could ride our bikes in the rich neighborhood.

  37. In Scarsdale NY, the extremely wealthy cannot go for a walk or have their children of dog walked on a basic sidewalk. When I visit my sister there we go out for a stroll and are consistently honked at and almost run down. They cannot afford sidewalks?!? What a waste of life, sometimes wealth does not equal common sense.

  38. I like freedom. Some people like cities, others like suburbs, others like the country. Let them be. If they aren’t asking for your “solutions”, don’t “help” them.

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