Abolish Suburbia

August 28th, 2018

The City of Redding is working to fast-track permits to rebuild houses lost by the Carr Fire. On one hand, I salute the city planners for putting aside bureaucracy for human need. We should continue to do that. But on the other hand, I see that this will lead to the same circumstances that caused the fire.

When the fire ripped through West Redding, it encountered a loose, wide, configuration of houses. The fire quickly moved from forest to subdivision and through the tinderbox despite its occupants having known for years about defensible space and all the advertised fire defense protocols. It’s clear that the arrangement of the houses meant much more than the material, but it’s also clear that the market-price wood holding up the houses didn’t help save the owner’s belongings. When the fire killed Melody Bledsoe and her grandchildren James and Emily Roberts, they were alone in an evacuated subdivision. No one had known they were there or that Melody didn’t drive. This reflects something fundamentally broken about the way we organize our neighborhoods. We have friends, but they’re not usually the people we live near.

So when I hear that permits are being fast-tracked to rebuild, I feel a wrenching in my gut that says “They’re going to build it the same way. And if they change something, they’re going to put their faith in ‘fire-retardant materials’ and ‘automatic sprinklers’ instead of wondering if the whole premise of their design was flawed.”

When these subdivisions were put together, they were built by developers intent on razing land, building efficient structures on small parcels for whomever could afford them. This led to sprawl that encroached into wilderness. This led to cheap buildings. This led to not enough space to create proper defensible space and too much space to stand and defend a proper cluster of buildings. This led to neighbors not knowing that their neighbor’s mother was still in her house. This is the hell of suburbia: not quite the city, not quite the country, and without the benefits of either.

The builders may or may not have known this when they built the subdivision. They were copying patterns they had seen elsewhere, and money has a strange way of clouding vision. And the inhabitants of these subdivisions didn’t know either: they were sold what seemed like the American Dream: Their Own Home, complete with a little plot of land. But now that we have seen the destruction wrought by this kind of planning, we must not repeat it.

Since we are to bend the rules so that these people can have their house back sooner, we should bend them in more inventive ways, ways that don’t just cause us to rush back into the same mistakes. Let’s use this opportunity to replan the burnt subdivisions, use the lessons learnt since their were built to make more livable communities. Let’s copy better patterns. Let’s consider redistributing the land so that people know their neighbors (Mosaic of Subcultures, Community of 7000, Subculture Boundary, Identifiable Neighborhood). Let’s consider ringing the city with farmland to prevent the encroach of fire (City County Fingers). Let’s consider new housing arrangements, not just ones that fracture family into neat nuclear divisions (House Cluster, Housing Hill, The Family). Use natural materials like cob which both don’t burn as easily and are much more sustainably available than wood. This may require further modification of existing permit requirements. Study the lessons in Christopher Alexander et. al.’s pattern languages and the myriad of research referenced therein to create high-density, cheaply-made, durable and personal human construction instead of merely convenient and generic subdivisions.