Surburbia has never appealed to me. Until ten years ago, I had almost always lived in places where we couldn’t even see our neighbours, let alone hear them. The Australian bush will spoil you like that. As a consequence, hearing my neighbours’ conversations or showers running doesn’t make me feel peaceful in my own home. I tell you this so that you can temper my thoughts here with the assumption that I’m not predisposed to surburbia in general. I like my landscape less manicured and more rugged. I don’t mind my roads dusty, and I really don’t mind if the garden is slightly overgrown. If it gets a chance to be overgrown where I’m from, then it usually means that there’s been enough rain; and complaining about the side effects of rain, if there’s been any, isn’t liable to make you any friends.
In an unnamed city on the west coast of the United States, there is a largish housing community that surrounds a private lake – a slice of suburbia. There is a big bricked arch at the entrance and a private police force. There’s also a Home Owner’s Association which employs the public safety officers who patrol the community, and write citations when regulations are contravened.
These public safety officers are also responsible for approaching anyone using any of the facilities – including playgrounds, common walkways, the private beach, and basketball or volleyball courts – to show their Association identification. This identification costs approximately 1500 dollars per homeowner per year and permits the use of the common facilities. No ID or Guest Pass? Then no use of the facilities.
The Housing Association charter (which you must agree to abide by contractually if you purchase a house in the suburb) also details the strict rules for how your property is to look and be maintained. If you do not abide by these rules, which include things like not leaving your garbage bin out for more than one night, then you will be cited and fined. If you continue to break the rules, your association membership (if you have one) is revoked.
On the one hand, I understand that the desire to maintain aesthetic standards contributes to property values and so these rules seem to be one way to enforce a social contract. However, there are some quirks that made me ponder whether this community demonstrates an extreme of how much we all try superficially to meet the prevailing expectations of society while missing the point in terms of developing community. One such quirk is the rule that will see you cited if you have a patch of dirt or dead grass on your lawn, but which also permits you to be able to avoid that citation if you place plastic (yes, I did write plastic) flowers in the ground.
Can one sum up an aesthetic that gives primacy to the superficial and manufactured over the natural? I’m not sure I can.
Such a situation leads me to wonder how we might think theologically about peer-regulated aesthetics in a surburban environment in a way that might encourage authentic and healthy community? The maintenance of property values is a laudable commercial goal and could even be important to a home-owner seeking to be a good steward of their property. It seems to me that our theologies of place and community must extend to the practical considerations of how we live in our neighbourhoods, how our gardens contribute to the health of creation, and how we contribute to the development of authentic and constructive communities.
What are the aesthetic aspects of surburbia that we might want to encourage that speak to the good, the true, and the beautiful?
What do we want our communities to collectively promote aesthetically? Is homogeneity a good thing? Does punitive punishment damage community?
Image: Photograph by Racineur, used under CC-BY-NC-ND licence