Suburbia Project

Two Futures: The Suburban Home

Sprawl living stretches out like a life sentence in isolation.

By Ryan McGreal
Published November 10, 2005

You approach your suburban house after a long day - by car, obviously - and pause to look at it more closely. The house is set far back behind an expanse of manicured grass, punctuated with decorative plants. You notice the jutting two-car garage, its most prominent feature.

Looking carefully, you also notice the "front" door, hidden in a concrete alcove to one side of the garage, and you notice the bay window on the front door's other side. It's dark outside, and you also see the telltale flickering light of a television through the window.

You press a small button on the flip-down visor, and the garage door opens as you pull into the driveway.

The garage is spacious and utilitarian. The walls are framed but not drywalled, with tools sitting on shelves and hanging from nails. A snow blower sits in one corner next to a couple of shovels; a lawn mower sits in the other corner next to a rake.

You park, get out of the car and walk up three wooden steps to a doorway that leads to the inside hall, pausing to press a button, mounted beside the light switch, that closes the garage door.

Inside, the structure of the house simultaneously encourages contact and isolation. This house has an open concept, with kitchen, dining room, living room, and stairs opening to a central chamber. At the same time, everyone has his or her own room. Telephones and televisions are ubiquitous, encroaching on kitchens and dining rooms, bedrooms and basement dens.

A "home theatre" dominates the living room. It includes a large screen television, satellite receiver and personal video recorder, digital stereo with surround sound and wireless speakers placed strategically around the room, DVD player, VCR, two video game consoles, and several remote control devices.

Across from the home theatre are a large sofa and a reclining chair, both overstuffed, with a glass-top coffee table in front. The coffee table features a few consumer magazines and a colourful book that was designed not to be read but to be displayed on coffee tables.

Most of these items were purchased on credit, either through charge cards or deferred payment schemes offered by retail outlets. Together, they represent a significant share of your total household debt, costing as much in monthly payments as one of your leased cars.

At least one television is always on, whether anyone is watching it or not.

Moving on to the kitchen, you find enough marble counter space to run a restaurant. Cupboards and drawers (including an upgrade "candy drawer") wrap around the walls, breaking at the sliding glass doors that lead to the backyard deck. There is an island in the centre, with more drawer space and two adjacent stools.

The kitchen features all large, stainless steel appliances: a refrigerator that produces cold water and crushed ice, a dishwasher, and an oven with a convection setting and six stovetop burners (no more than three burners are ever in use at a time). A microwave with a digital clock hangs under one of the cupboards.

Like the home theatre system, the kitchen appliances were also bought on credit.

It's late and you're exhausted, so instead of cooking, you throw a frozen lasagna into the microwave and recline on the couch, watching a program about celebrities and munching on a licorice stick from the candy drawer. A commercial advertises a new brand of teeth whitener, and you unconsciously run your tongue across your own teeth, wondering if you need such a product.

Presently, the microwave beeps loudly and you return to the kitchen to take it out, careful not to burn your hands on the steam that emerges as you tear back the cellophane wrapping.

After dinner, you throw your plate and cutlery into the dishwasher, throw the lasagna tray into the garbage, and return to the couch with a drink in hand, barely paying attention to the television and feeling vaguely guilty about not spending time with the other people in the house.

You sit for several hours before stumbling up to bed as the Late Late show finishes, wondering why you stayed up for such an unfulfilling string of programs.

The bedroom is surprisingly large, with a king-size bed at one end and a loveseat at the other. You walk past the loveseat, absently musing that no one has ever sat on it - let alone made love - and go into the ensuite to wash up.

You return to the bedroom, stripping off your clothes and falling into bed. You sleep poorly despite the orthopedic mattress, and awaken tired and irritable. You're running late, so you skip breakfast and decide to grab a coffee and a bagel on the way.

When you leave the house, you retrace the steps you took to enter it, passing through the hallway door, down the wooden steps, and back into the garage. You climb back into the car and press the button to open the garage door. Then you reverse out of the garage and down the driveway onto the street.

You see one neighbour through two windshields: yours and hers. You wave, but you don't talk and you certainly don't come into close proximity.

After that civil encounter, you commence regarding all other vehicles on the road as competitors, obstacles crowding your progress and blocking your path. After a long commute on congested roads, you arrive at your destination stressed out and anxious.

You're starting to wonder if it's all worth it.

Ryan McGreal, the editor of Raise the Hammer, lives in Hamilton with his family and works as a programmer, writer and consultant. Ryan volunteers with Hamilton Light Rail, a citizen group dedicated to bringing light rail transit to Hamilton. Ryan writes a city affairs column in Hamilton Magazine, and several of his articles have been published in the Hamilton Spectator. He also maintains a personal website and has been known to post passing thoughts on Twitter @RyanMcGreal. Recently, he took the plunge and finally joined Facebook.

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By Rusty (registered) - website | Posted None at

Hey Ryan! Have you been following me...? You got everything right - except the wireless speakers (I'm getting them for Christmas ;) ) BB

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By adrian (registered) | Posted None at

Ha ha ha ha...this article made my night. The funniest thing about this is I was recently in a house that you have described so accurately it's eerie. The only thing you got wrong was the colour of the fridge and the lawn. Their fridge is black and they don't really have a lawn - they have strips of sod that cling precariously on two feet of mud, scored by bulldozer tracks. I just never stopped to wonder how the owners afforded it. I'd also like to point out that I woke up today tired and irritable but I live in the city.

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By David (anonymous) | Posted None at

That sure sounds like the old definition of insanity - doing the same thing over and over expecting different results. But good news - if we wait long enough, life may end up like Rod Taylor found in the original Time Machine movie... without the eloy, of course.

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