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I'm an engineer, so for a lot of my life I've been somewhat dismissive -- not intentionally but by default -- of many things aesthetic. My first year at the University of Minnesota, I roomed with an architecture major. While I did calculus and physics, he did art history and drawing. It simply confirmed to me that I was in the right academic tract becuase I could not draw and I grew up in a neighborhood where Dogs Playing Pool was considered quality art. I was not cut out to be an architect.

My professional path has been unorthodox, to say the least, and has forced me across some mental barriers that few travel. To spare you the details, I now really enjoy art, will ocassionally express my thoughts by drawing or even painting and appreciate some of the details of architecture that were lost on me in earlier year.

My purpose for this setup is simple: What I'm going to show you is horrific, but I want you to know that I don't share it or comment on it from the standpoint of an urban architecture snob. I'm not an expert on architecture or home design, but as you'll see, you don't have to be an expert to figure out what is going on here.

A couple of weeks ago in Laramie, Wyoming, we were checking out the community and came across a new subdivision behind the new Walmart (the old Walmart was in sight of the new, incidentally). Here's what the scene looked like with the Walmart on the left and the new subdivision on the right. 

Click the picture for the high resolution image.The entire scene was surreal, with cul-de-sacs ending in back yards (why live in a suburb if you are not even going to have a back yard), walls of apartment housing with tiny penitentary windows, half million dollar homes with utility boxes littering their front yard and there enormously wide streets everywhere. Amid this bizarre landscape, one home stood out. This little house:

Click for a high resolution image.We just sat and stared at it for about five minutes. The first thing you'll notice is that somebody cares. There is the white picket fence, the nicely maintained sod, the landscaping flower bed and the decorative rock trim. Someone has obviously tried to elevate the quality fo the space. It would have been much cheaper to just leave that stuff out and just have a box. There is obviously some sense here that these features add value.

The more you look, though, the more bizarre it all becomes. That front yard -- and yes, this is the front yard -- is full of utility boxes. They spent money to landscape and fence a front yard that is completely unusable because it is full of utility boxes.

Then you have the rock trim. I couldn't figure out what that was trying to add. A rustic cabin kind of feel? Is this the western ranch style of design? All I could think of, especially with the top left window, was the Batman character two face.

Okay, how about those windows? Forget the notion that the house should have some symmetry, that it would look better from the street if it formed some coherent and balanced facade....are they expecting vampires to live in this house? Is the idea that natural light permeate a building something buildings in Wyoming just don't grasp? I feel sorry for the family that will actually inhabit this house (which, by the way, is listed for sale at over $200k).

Here's how it looks from the side.

Click for higher resolution image.It is not clear to me whether all four stalls belong to this home -- I suspect they don't -- but even two... The garage actually has more style than the home.

Now I don't say all this to simply bash a ridiculous development. There's a couple of important takeaways here. The first is this: we've lost the craft of building value within our neighborhoods. Even the most uneducated and simple of carpenters from 100 years ago would know and understand how to build a facade that has some balance, addresses the street in a friendly way and thus creates a modicum of value for the owner, the neighborhood and (in turn) the developer. That knowledge is totally absent in so many places today.

That brings us to the second observation: these terrible outcomes are not from a lack of resources or even a lack of effort. The two-face rock on the corners, the picket fence, the sod....these things cost money. Those imensely wide streets cost a ton of money. If we deployed these resources differnely, we have everything we need to build places that would create a ton of value, not to mention places that treated their occupants with more respect and provided them a higher quality of life.

I'm not going to blame everything on the home builders either. Here's the scene from just up the street where you have a Planning Profession Fad Trifecta: decorative lighting, alternative energy and a complete street, all in the field beside Walmart.

Click for higher resolution image.Building a neighborhood that is more productive -- neighborhoods that create a strong town -- does not require more resources or greater levels of investment. It simply requires rediscovering the knowledge of building that our ancestors worldwide have understood for thousands of years. We need to stop obsessing about moving cars, stop obsessing with planning fads, and start obsessing about how we build places that create value that endures.

We saw a lot of great things in Wyoming, but this made me very sad.

 

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