There may be an evolutionary reason suburbia feels so miserable


Unless you’re in the market for a new home, you’re probably not taking Sunday drives through the suburbs just to appreciate the scenery.

And why would you want to?

As Alex Balashov recently outlined for Quartz, so much of American suburbia is characterised by its surplus of cookie-cutter homes, odd and winding streets, and random smattering of trees that barely qualify as nature.

The feeling you’re often left with in these towns is one of general malaise, a vague sense of unnaturalness that’s hard to chalk up to any one factor.

Research from evolutionary psychology suggests there is a reason for this feeling, and it lies in humans’ natural preference for socialisation and well-defined spaces — both traits suburbia often lacks.

Human beings have an innate need to socialise with one another. A neighbour may ask for a cup of sugar simply to follow a recipe, for instance, but there’s also evidence to suggest she may be catering to a more primal desire for connection and support.

The same principle could help explain the (occasional) joy of running into people in public or the rush of a dinner party. It all reinforces the idea that humans are social animals.

The trouble with the suburbs is that big houses with big yards, set behind wide streets and long driveways, make socialising much harder. And since everyone is driving from A to B, unlike in large cities were residents walk or take public transportation everywhere, people who live in the suburbs have to make a much more active effort to socialise.

Suburbs housing development

”A culture of impersonality has developed in the suburbs by the way they’re laid out,” Jonathan Barnett, author of “The Fractured Metropolis” and former professor of regional planning at the University of Pennsylvania, told the New York Times in 1999.

Even 17 years later, many of the same design problems remain — perhaps the biggest being the lack of planned order often found in urban environments.

While the suburbs have wide-open roads to ferry people from their homes to shops and restaurants, cities stack apartments on top of those shops and restaurants. Trees flanking the streets create both a natural tunnel and a border between the footpath and pavement. In some suburbs, you may have to cross a highway to get some milk. In cities, you just walk downstairs.

Not all suburbs are guilty of lacking cohesion. The best suburbs tend to borrow elements from their nearby metropolitan region, such as public transportation or highly walkable downtowns, to create public spaces that don’t require lots of driving or space.

But in some sense, the order and organisation of a city is more natural. Urban planners, for instance, rely on the notion of “organic order,” which says people naturally want to live in places that have well-defined paths, edges, districts, and landmarks.

Psychologists have suggested the human preference for order is also what guides people to hire professional organisers and allows us to feel the unexpected joy of one thing fitting perfectly into another. We like when things make sense.

Unfortunately, in places without that natural order, such as the suburbs, we’re left with that dreaded malaise we can’t seem to shake. It’s not our fault — the roads and homes and general lack of planning don’t make natural sense.

Cities are more intuitive. The suburbs — those we have to figure out.

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