Trees in the suburbs

nature

Most Americans live in an in-between place, neither quite town nor country. Sometimes there are sidewalks, and sometimes there aren’t. Such places still tend to be called suburbs, but now that so many of their residents work as well as live there and don’t commute into a city at all, that term seems more than a little dated.

My South Jersey cousins referred to the place in these photos as “our development,” which I found interesting. They’ve lived there for ten years, in a house that was new when they bought it; the oldest parts of the subdivision go back twenty years, they told me. But they continue to think of it as a development: something new. Something without a history yet.

Lowe's

But the land has its own history, of course, suggested most visibly by the trees. Although many of the trees in front yards were planted when the houses were built, many backyards had larger trees that were obviously decades older than the houses. This particular development appears to have been built on top of a mosaic of farm fields, wooded hedgerows and small woodlots. The trees in the above photo marked one edge of the development, a beauty strip separating the community park from a commercial zone. The park is basically a sports field circled by a running track, with only a single clump of trees next to the swing sets. We’re looking across a muddy construction site toward a new Lowe’s — a mega-hardware store that includes an indoor lumber yard. To the right of the picture, a five-acre chestnut oak and mountain laurel woods is fiercely posted with “No Trespassing” signs. At its heart: a private residence of about the same age and design as those in the adjacent development. This is a graphic illustration of one factor driving the growth of suburbs: our love of privacy. And by “us,” I don’t just mean Anglo-Americans. The overwhelming majority of immigrant homeowners live in the ‘burbs, too.

fencerow

One of the things that distinguishes many of the most recent housing developments, at least in this part of the United States, is the plethora of fences. Very few back yards were without a tall wooden fence separating them from their neighbors. Does this reflect a growing concern for the safety of children, I wonder? By contrast, older towns and suburbs tend to have, if anything, low fences that one can see through — the proverbial white picket fence.

Though my cousins’ development seems to qualify as a genuine neighborhood, where kids play in the street and residents of all ethnic backgrounds mingle easily, I think most activity still takes place either indoors or in backyards. I saw vestigial front porches on a few houses, but I don’t think people spend a lot of time sitting on them watching the cars go by and chatting with their neighbors, as they might in an archetypal small town like the one near me (Tyrone, PA).

The typical American home is becoming positively Arabic. In place of a courtyard or pergola we have the pressure-treated deck, but the spatial emphasis on a private walled garden (or lawn) inaccessible from the street is identical to what you’d find in old Damascus, from what I read.

street light

Trees play a vital role in the modern exurban landscape. For one thing, they provide visual relief from the uniformity of lawns and fences. A small woods like the one at the end of this street can add several thousand dollars to the value of each adjoining lot. My cousins were more practical when they bought their house, though, realizing that the developer was making no promises about preserving any woods. They settled for a thin strip of pines in their backyard.

Trees are often signifiers of place, as well. Where small towns had Oak and Elm Streets, the suburbs have Maple Drives and Cherry Lanes. And it’s not uncommon for suburban subdivisions to bear names like The Pines, Park Forest Village, or Gray’s Woods.

pine tree playhouse

Under the backyard pines, as in so many of the other yards that I could see into, my cousins put a playhouse for their kid. As a species, I think, we are drawn to the company of trees. The other thing fueling the spread of the suburbs, aside from our love of privacy, is our love of nature — or at least a certain vision of the bucolic. Natural habitat is disappearing not because we hate nature, but because we want to live in the middle of it. I include myself in that.

flowering cherry

Front-yard trees are more for show. The cherries were in blossom when I visited in the middle of April, held for a couple of weeks by the unusually cold weather. For some, this might evoke New Jersey’s official nickname, the Garden State. But in fact that nickname dates back to when the sandy fields of South Jersey grew crops instead of houses. Before the invention of the refrigerated truck enabled California’s Central Valley to supply produce for the entire nation, New Jersey’s small farmers kept much of the northeast in fresh vegetables.

grove

What will happen when the price of oil becomes too high to support the shipping of food across continents? At about the same time, if Peak Oil Theory predictions are correct, much of the suburbs will become uninhabitable, unless they are quickly reconfigured to put essential goods and services within walking distance of most residents, and unless the larger houses, increasingly expensive to heat and air-condition, are replaced with earth-sheltered, passive-solar structures. The big box stores will go out of business when their centralized supply chains collapse. So it doesn’t require any great stretch of the imagination to suppose that within our lifetimes, my cousins’ development — by then, if they’re lucky, a true town — may be ringed by farmers’ fields once again.

white oaks

During the painful, forced transition to sustainability, most of the trees in these pictures will probably disappear, cut down for firewood. The lawns will be dug up for vegetable gardens. People will probably spend a lot more time outdoors, whether they want to or not, and will come together in ways we haven’t seen since at least the Second World War. The summers will be hotter and longer than anyone can remember. And because people will need plenty of shade in the absence of air conditioning, I predict they will lose no time in planting more trees.
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18 Comments


  1. Interesting observation that our homes have become more like those of oil-producing countries, but will probably lose those attributes as the oil becomes less abundant. I’ll be thinking about this.

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  2. Well, yes. But of course it wasn’t oil that shaped traditional domestic architecture in the Near East; it was the climate. Which makes that model even more relevant as the climate in many parts of the U.S. becomes hotter and drier, I should think. From a page on Islamic architecture:

    The most striking feature of all Islamic architecture is the focus on interior space as opposed to the outside or facade. The most typical expression of this focus on inner space is in the Muslim house. Rectangular dwelling units typically are organized around an inner courtyard. The facade of this house offers high windowless walls interrupted only by a single low door.
    […]
    Yet the traditional courtyard house is an advanced structure. The open-air interior courtyard performs an important function as a modifier of climate in hot, arid areas. The courtyard allows for outdoor activities with protection from wind and sun. The courtyard also serves as an air-well into which the cool, night air can sink. And the plain, thick-walled street facade of the house with few or no windows is designed to withstand severe elements like hot winds and sand.

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  3. Really lovely photos. Captures the desolation and inertia of the ‘burbs perfectly. I hope you’ll do more black and white.

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  4. Dave, so if this apocolyptic view is accurate and the priceof oil goes thru the roof where will all those people go when they leave the burbs? We don’t have room for them in the citys. Unless we use covert some of the offices and stores to living space. Maybe they will go to the countryside and carve out living spaces.

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  5. Teju – Thanks. The desolation is hardly indigenous to the suburbs, though. You can already see it in Edward Hopper’s paintings, or in read about it in Henry Miller’s The Air-Conditioned Nightmare.

    Fred – Uh, why would they go into the cities? The cities will be even less sustainable than the suburbs.

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  6. More thsn a touch of the J.G. Ballards about these fascinating speculations, Dave. And to deepen the English association, many of these pictures could have been taken in a well-to-do Home Counties.

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  7. twitches, marja-leena – Glad you liked the post. It was surprisingly easy to assemble – I guess because I’d been mulling over it for two weeks.

    Dick – I wondered how well this would resonate with folks from overseas. As far as England goes, I think one of the best things I’ve ever read on this subject (housing subdivisions and planned communities replacing natural habitat) was a novel by George Orwell, Coming Up For Air.

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  8. I can see how climate would shape architecture, but that seems like a stretch here, even within the context of global warming — although my saying that may seem ostrich-like. Or near-sighted. I was really considering the social aspects you pointed out in your post of people’s being increasingly attracted to privacy (fences, etc.), and I wonder how that might be connected to wealth/comfort.

    If that makes sense. 27 poems in 27 days, written with three preschoolers, has turned my head into a sieve. So thanks for the diversion, anyway.

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  9. It is as if something from another planet (and I mean that in the nicest way) were snooping around my neighborhood, taking pictures. I recognize my neighbor’s house in one of these; there’s the fence surrounding the park; but something is just a little off, a little scary.

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  10. angie – I know the feeling. But I agree, it does seem like a stretch to expect that American’s will be able to make the drastic changes in architecture I’m suggesting would be necessary to weather global warming in relative comfort. And yes, it has everything to do with weath and comfort — or at least our perceptions of them.

    Peter – That something would be me, I guess. :)

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  11. Drastic changes in architecture? Architecture?!!

    Dave, Dave, Dave….what are you smoking? (Never mind.) Your bucolic portrait of post-oil suburbia simply doesn’t jibe with common sense.

    Suburbs will be quickly reconfigured all right, but not so that essential goods and services are nearby. Armed marauders and vigilantes within walking distance? Certainly. Ya think there’ll be “earth-sheltered, passive-solar structures”? Well, yeah, if that’s your euphemism for “foxholes.”

    Trees will be cut down for firewood…d’oh. (Please also mention that household pets and young children will be snared and eaten, ‘kay?) Lawns will be dug up? Yes, for burial grounds. People will spend a lot more time outdoors? Of course! We’ll be 24-7-armed-guarding our pathetic little garden patches of succotash. And will we come together in ways we haven’t seen since WWII? Mais oui! We shall engage in hand-to-hand combat over our pathetic garden patches of succotash, and perhaps over the week-old corpse of our shar-pei puppy, as well. (“Hot dog, Mama! We’re eatin’ Chinese 2-nite!”)

    But your prediction about people losing no time planting trees? That one is so funny I forgot to laugh.

    I theenk you’re just a teeeny leeetle beeet out of touch, my dear Dave.

    But yo, I still love yer pretty blog! ;-)

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  12. I like this discussion. Cities may be more sustainable than one might think. People have always lived in population centers. I refer you to the books of the late Jane Jacobs.

    Maybe we could turn this around and make this whole discussion a blog written in the future where people are remembering “the crisis”. Might be fun!

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  13. Honey Girl – Thank you for that challenging reaction. I admit, your vision is perhaps more plausible than mine, especially given Americans’ penchant for paranoia and violence, and the likelihood that fascistic leaders will exploit our fears during the coming crisis. In defense of my own vision, I would point to our still-robust civil society, and our stong tendency to come together in times of crisis. (Look at New Yorkers in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks.) I seriously doubt that things will be extreme as you suggest, because most individuals derive no benefit from an every-person-for him/herself reaction. I also question the value of making public prognostications that don’t allow some room for hope, because all prophecies have some potential of self-fulfillment. Apocalyptic thinking arises from laziness or exasperation, I think: we want complexity to end, even if it means a violent cataclysm. Those who actually long for an apocalypse do worry me, but I’d like to think we still have them outnumbered.

    My upcoming post will also feature a sort of oblique answer to your comment, though I wrote it before reading this.

    Fred – I think cities will survive, but they’ll have to shrink quite a bit.

    I have written posts set in such a future, I think. A whole blog set twenty or thirty years ahead is a great idea, and would doubtless — if the internet survives — provide people living in that time with a great source of entertainment.

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  14. Americans’ penchant for paranoia and violence? As exceptional as we like to think we are, we’re not the only human beings in existence, Dave. What we’re talking about here is a universal human reaction to extreme scarcity, and a universal human response to intense competition for survival. In circumstances like that, leaders are simply the dudes who brought in the last food and water; “fascistic” is kind of beside the point. And any civil society, robust or otherwise, will break down quickly when its infrastructure collapses. New Orleans right after Katrina offered us a G-rated sneak-preview of that phenomenon.

    New York after 9/11 is a bad analogy, though. In post-power (sub)urbia it’ll be more like “Escape from New York.” There won’t be a mere few minutes of terror and destruction, followed by a coming together in numbed relief. There’ll be an endless stream of daily battles to secure just enough food and water and shelter ’til tomorrow, especially during the winter months. So yeah, an every-person-for-self strategy will be typical, and probably more effective, too.

    But this isn’t lazy “apocalyptic thinking,” which itself is a lazy man’s epithet — “apocalyptic” meaning nothing more than an uncovering or a disclosure, except when it’s employed as a rhetorical device to evoke Biblical images of end times, which is why you describe it as “public prognostications” and “prophecies,” I suppose, for similar emotional effect, not to mention easier dismissal. But no, it’s just neutral mathematics.

    (How you came to know that prophecies have some potential for self-fulfillment would be a much more interesting and informative post than this one, though!)

    And since you’re already (or still) of an “us” vs. “them” mentality, and you’re hopeful that “we” are prevailing, I’d say you’re about as well prepared for this publicly prognosticated scenario as anyone! :-)

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  15. Oops…that last ramble was from me, sorry. Somehow I lost my name before posting. xoxo

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  16. Found via FOTT. The photographs are so evocative of Jersey suburbs. I’m intrigued by the remnant woods you found and how children interact with these trees, and in general, with trees in the “development” landscape.

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