June 2010 Archives

Once in a while, someone takes a cheap shot at a place like West Des Moines, and when pressed to back that cheap shot with a real argument, they might fall back on the tired old argument that the suburbs are filled with cookie-cutter houses. Aside from being a reflexive and unthinking dismissal of the places where half of all Americans choose to live, the "cookie-cutter" argument doesn't really make any sense.

All residential developments constructed around the same time in the same location will tend to look the same, because they will tend to use the materials and methods of construction most economical and most popular at the time. That's just a fact of basic economics. No reasonable person would look at the Anasazi cliff dwellings and argue that they should have been constructed out of timber, or ask why the sodbuster houses weren't made of brick. People construct their homes from the materials that are available and economical at the time.

This alone should be enough to dismiss the "cookie-cutter" myth -- or, at least, to show that sameness is hardly unique to the suburbs. But let's take the discussion a step farther:

The point to this is that uniformity itself is no real shortcoming; it's basically inevitable. The difference happens to be that people are quicker to recognize and complain about uniformity when it's new, rather than when it's old (thus Beaverdale's uniformity gives the neighborhood "character", while West Des Moines developments are criticized as "cookie-cutter"). The people who complain about suburban "uniformity" are really only repeating and reinforcing their own prejudicial dislike of suburbs (or perhaps of suburban dwellers). They're welcome to retain those prejudices, but nobody should mistake that prejudice for fact.

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