Radiant City - Looking at Suburban Sprawl

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Environmentalists often talk about 'monoculture'. The word automatically invokes images of miles and miles of semi-sterile land, packed stalk to stalk with the chemically induced growth of a single crop.

But, today we're not talking about agricultural monoculture. Rather, we're talking about social monoculture. The parallels between these two forms of 'culture', however, are profoundly similar.

The energy costs associated with agricultural monoculture are immense. Loss of natural diversity means the disappearance of beneficial insects. Chemical pesticides are thus used, ineffectively, to 'maintain the balance'. The ignoring of natural systems for building soil, and the removal of crop debris, means that this form of farming is a finite extractive process. Chemical fertilisers are thus used, ineffectively, to 'maintain the balance'. The loss of soil structure necessitates an inordinate application of water, as healthy living soils (that can hold up to 90% of their weight in water) turn into stuctureless, lifeless, inert matter. Because often a single crop is grown in a given area, it requires lots of energy in terms of transport fuels to distribute the harvest (depending on where you live, for many people, if you were to only eat locally, you might be reducing your diet to just genetically modified corn, or soy, or sugar), not to mention the packaging involved in said distribution.

Attempts at improving 'efficiency' by single-crop farming are thus tempered by a loss of efficiency due to the knock-on consequences of the whole paradigm of modern agricultural production, distribution and marketing. And, it's all precariously based on a waning supply of fossil-fuels.

The social monoculture I'm referring to, specifically, is the cookie cutter style sprawl of urban suburbs. Like with farming, where the resulting plant (specifically its appearance and shape) is the focus of efforts (the tunnel vision view obscuring other aspects of health and sustainability), with contemporary U.S. housing the desired result is the home -- large and affordable (at least, they were) and, perhaps, bought with a narrow view of what constitutes a healthy living environment. In focusing on house size and a perception of privacy, new homeowners may well have missed the big picture.

On this topic I recently had the pleasure of watching a thought-provoking examination of suburban sprawl, via the critically acclaimed documentary Radiant City. The documentary is centred in 'Evergreen', a paradoxically treeless 'community' (to use the public relations nomenclature of housing developers) of suburbanites -- and follows the daily exploits of several individuals in the area, examining how monoculture housing development has created inefficiencies with serious personal, social and environmental consequences.

Radiant City is an unapologetic examination into the cookie-cutter life that has become more omnipresent with suburban sprawl. Across North America, the landscape is changing dramatically -- blasted clean of distinctive features and overlaid with Potemkin village shopping plazas and Orwellian office parks. In this innovative outing to the 'burbs, co-directors Gary Burns and Jim Brown venture into territory both familiar and foreign, crafting a vivid account of life in The Late Suburban Age that turns the documentary genre insight-out. Using a cornucopia of cultural references, from Jane Jacobs to "The Sopranos," the filmmakers create a provocative reflection on why we live the way we do -- from railing against the brutalizing aesthetic of strip malls to building dream kitchens to sitting mindlessly in commuter traffic. Riffing off sitcoms and reality TV, Burns and Brown play fast and loose with a range of cinematic devices to consider what happens when cities grow sick and mutate. Along with cinematographer Patrick McLaughlin, they transform drab suburbia into painted cloudscapes, mesmerizing rivers of traffic and eerie tableaux of dystopia. -- Press Release
Interspersed with the comical tour of daily suburban life are appearances from various experts on housing development, and their alternatives. Not least amongst these is a liberal sprinkling of " target="_blank">James Howard Kunstler, a man whose biting and satirical sense of humour we've enjoyed before (recommended watching!). A classic moment in the documentary, for me, is when Kunstler is sitting on a development-provided park bench, absurdly enjoying the view of a traffic-clogged freeway through a chain-link fence.

Many interesting statistical facts are shared throughout -- for example, did you know that in 1969 50% of U.S. children walked or biked to school? Compare that to the 2001 figure, where 90% of children were driven, and you start to get an idea of the energy costs associated with reducing diversity within communities and centralising every aspect of our lives. Where a few generations ago you could walk to your local butcher, baker and candlestick maker, today people drive not only to their local big box store -- often several miles away -- but also from store to store within the vast expanse of car-park found at these sites.

Although largely an exposé on tunnel-vision development, the documentary is not content to complain only -- sharing views on how things could be improved, including the potential to retrofit oversized retail parks to become like the city centres that were the standard and sensible pre-World War II design approach. As Kunstler astutely puts it, in a world running out of oil, the energy-intensive lifestyles of suburban dwellers will not even be on the menu in the years to come. As such, now is the time to contemplate why we continue to erase natural habitats for the short-term profit of developers when we're just painting ourselves into a corner in the process. Like with our mechanised manipulations of nature, we see that cookie-cutter housing is not healthy or efficient, but, rather, just plain simplistic, and something that will require a lot of work to retrace our steps from.

Undoing generations of urban development is an overwhelming and virtually impossible task, but such documentaries will certainly help arrest the attention of prospective new home purchasers -- making it a valuable aid in balancing one's thoughts against the marketing efforts of those who would sell you a home miles from important amenities and the cultural centres that add dynamism and enjoyment to one's life. Just like a plot of agricultural land, our social structures and housing developments need to be seen as living organisms -- increased diversity within each community equates to reduced vulnerability, increased overall efficiency and improved physical and social health.

All in all, a worthy, and, again, thought-provoking watch. Order here


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  • Posted on March 17, 2008. Listed in:

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