Are the Suburbs Modern Frontier Settlements?


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Spending the holidays in Florida has left me wondering about the wild west. I realized the suburbs are the modern equivalent of the frontier town. Sprawling out across the landscape consuming resources as if they were kids in a candy store. They may not have been built as quickly as the gold rush town’s of the West, but the modern suburban development performs under strikingly similar principles.

First, profitable natural resources spark hysteria (after 1848 it was Gold, recently it was cheap land & gas). Second, the masses built as quickly as possible to consume and capitalize on the resource. Third, society turns a blind eye to the lack of civility present in these places (then it was gun fights in the streets, now it is half hour drives to buy milk). Fourth, the resource is consumed. Finally, no further financial growth occurs and investment into the infrastructure specifically design for harvesting the natural resource deteriorates. Ghost towns, prairie outposts and, luckily, San Francisco were left in the wake of the Gold Rush. What will we do with the suburbs now that the resource of cheap land and easy mortgages have come and gone?

Frontier development is inherit to American culture. By reframing our view of the suburbs as the modern equivalent of a typical America typology, frontier development, are we able to better forecast the proper course of action for the future of the suburban landscape now that the boom is over? How will the end of this cycle change the perceived permanence of sprawl development? This temporal manifestation of capitalism must be accepted as a frontier experiment. Will the deeply rooted opposition to change and growth that exists in the exurbs of America today be able to accept the urbanization of these places? The suburbs are either the first step for the establishment of a new settlement or the are the begin of the modern ghost town. 

I hope our governments current stimulus package takes into account the grand retrofit of suburbia that will have to occur in the coming decades. Instead of building bridges and highways, why not build parking structures and public transit systems that will support the compact development a sustainable future requires.

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  1. Pingback: LIFE & URBANISM » Blog Archive » “What Will Save the Suburbs” by Allison Arieff

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