Sunday, February 15, 2009

The Land of No Outdoors

Kathryn and I went to Sugarland today, to a little Indian restaurant we know and love from the time it used to be in Clear Lake. Not that I go to Sugarland often, but every time I do go, it strikes me as an extremely odd place -- perhaps the strangest place I have ever visited. Everything is new there. The strip malls with their vast array of chain stores and the odd mom-and-pop are pristine and immaculately coutured, every brick and line of tinted mortar redolent of the same grand architectural theme. So, too, with the subdivisions, whose houses rise effortlessly from just the right amount of weedless green grass fronted by perfect prisms of yaupon holly or indian hawthorn. So far, so good. But the odd thing is that of all the times I have been in Sugarland, I have never one actually seen a person outdoors, except for the short journey from house to car, or car to store. No one stands and chats by the conveniently-placed trees, or the charming English-style wrought iron lampposts. No children play on the wide sidewalks, or ride bikes up and down the quiet side streets. There are no benches outside the stores in the strip malls, and no one, apparently, misses them. From all appearances, Sugarland is a place with no outdoors, or rather a place where the outdoors is simpy a landscape to be looked at from inside, or a road on the way to a destination.

Imagine, just as a thought experiment, a town -- let us call it Superland -- some time in the future. Thanks to a Star Trek-like teleportation system, there's now no need to drive to stores in the strip-malls. Being up-to-date epitomes of contemporary design, the strip malls were built with teleportation in mind, while recognizing that customers still want some touches that harken back to the old way of doing things. So there is still a parking lot outside, and every so often automated cars drive up to the storefronts, simulating the experience of a bustling shopping envionment. The automated cars serve a secondary function of cleaning the lot as they drive, though happily only the results of the cleaning and not the mechanism is obvious to customers. Consumers love the convenience of zipping from one store to another, then instantly back home without the hassle of having to drive. Teenagers can now meet at the mall without driving up their parents' insurance rates. Workers can take an instant trip down to their local branch of This Planet's Most Overpriced Coffee between meetings without being late. Automotive manufacturers are, of course, highly unhappy, but after they squandered billions in taypayer funds in the great depression of 2010, no one much listens to them any more. Desparate to find new uses for their product, the big oil companies have found a huge emerging market in simulated outdoor experiences. Why, they asked, go outdoors with all that heat, rain and ice, and all those nasty bugs when instead you could have grass that never needs mowing, filtered sunshine with no UV rays, water features and whatever else you desire in the climate-controlled comfort of your own Total Immersion Simulated Backyard (TISB)? And the best part is, you never have to worry about some eyesore that your neighbor has erected again, because your TISB is programmable so that your neighbor backyard appears the way you want it to. In fact, you never need to see your neighbors again. True, energy bills have increased by several hundred dollars a month, but now that they no longer have car payments, gas costs and auto insurance to deal with, most middle-class households can afford it.

When TISB was first introduced, investors were worried that consumers might not accept it as a replacement for the neighborhoods they lived in. But with internet education firmly entrenched, it soon became clear that consumers only cared about the appearance of the neighborhoods they lived in, and crime rates, and otherwise couldn't care less. With teleportation and TISB in place, no one went outdoors any more, and violent crime rates dropped precipitously in the newer neighborhoods that supported both. And for those interested in additional security, TISB provided a "neighborhood view" module, removing the need for windows, so houses could be made far more secure.

So, is this a dream or a nightmare?


  1. I think that 288 and 518 has to be the ultimate.

    On Thursday, Kim and I had our Valentine's date. Went to 6th ward. We talked about hodge-podge architecture, high ceilings, mix, old-new, color...

    Maybe Spoonbill can start hosting music in Countryside South park.

  2. I'll grant you that Silverlake is an exquisite example of the urban landscaper's art, but for me Sugarland is at least three times Silverlake. 288@518 is all around one big extended intersection, but head on up Hwy 6, and Sugarland is like that literally for miles, spidering out from the enormous First Colony mall at the center. It's pretty much impossible to find any given store along Hwy 6 because all the strip malls look the same. You keep thinking "Aha! I recognize this!" and you're right, but since there are no landmarks, everything is recognizable, and recognition becomes useless. Fortunately, I had Google maps on my phone :)