Back to the Future?

July 23, 2008

The current crisis of American suburbia (at least its most speculator driven and least socially embedded developments of the last decade or so) is remarkable in the image it offers of the effects of radical suburban decentralisation. It is also quite a disaster for many of the people caught up in it, some of whom will have been sold mortgages they can’t afford and are now facing eviction and debt.

In some respects it is redolent of the scene in Back to the Future II (Zemeckis & Spielberg 1989) where the main protagonist (Marty McFly played by Michael J. Fox) returns from the past to his ‘typical American small town suburb’ in 1985 only to find that he has travelled along a parallel timeline and is the wrong 1985. Rather than the reassuring image of the picket fence and his parents’ homity pie, he finds that his suburb has become a dystopian ghetto of gangland violence and community breakdown. The reason is that the villain of the film (Biff) was able to become a powerful figure in the town through a gambling fortune amassed because Marty had accidentally left a sports almanac behind in the past.

The moral is clear – the ‘good’ American Dream of self-sufficient family and community life is capable of being subverted by greed and power and needs to be saved by the good little guys who live there. However, the point I want to make is that, from the perspective of space, we should not make the mistake of just saying ‘decentralised suburbs = bad’ on the basis of what is now happening in the US. In many cases life is still going on in these suburbs though we may not recognise it as fitting pre-conceived notions of ‘suburban’.

In other words, these places (and the people in them) should not become invisible just because they are perceived to have failed. We do not want to sound some triumphalist ‘mixed-use’ fanfare. All suburbs, all centres can be ‘successes or failures; most are a combination of both – the point is to understand the relationship between society and space and the factors affecting this relationship at any given time (and over time). If the cost of credit and transport were to fall again (for whatever reasons) these dystopian images of suburbia that are so prevalent at the moment may give way to revitalised images of the suburban American Dream – though, one would hope, a less gas guzzling version…

In Back to the Future II Marty goes back in time and prevents Biff from getting hold of the almanac – unfortunately we can’t go back in time to implement sustainability best practice and educate financial elites in social responsibility. However, we can ask whether these sprawling suburban developments are capable of sustainable development according to some model, rather than be complicit in writing them off as sinks of social problems (as some commentators have predicted – see references elsewhere in this blog).

The question is: are we travelling along a parallel timeline (i.e. experiencing a blip) where solutions will become available to preserve something of what people value in suburban living and allowing us to return to the ‘suburban mainstream’, or are we really going ‘back to the future’ in the sense of returning to denser, centralised urban environments with the socially excluded pressed tight up against the city walls? What role if any, can our existing suburban (post suburban etc.) built environments play our urban visions of the future? In terms of the SSTC project formlating a response to this question involves an emphasis on the importance of smaller, distributed centres of activity in urban regions.

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