A recent post over at TNAC's blog, The Street, suggests that it may be time to change the American Dream. But what is the American Dream, exactly? It's a well-worn turn of phrase (were it a turn in the road, the guardrail might be out from being hit so many times), and while people usually use "American Dream" as slang for "house in 'burbs, lawn, two cars, spouse, 2.5 kids, dog," I would argue very strongly against this interpretation. The American Dream is not about houses or property or ownership -- heck, it's not even about money; it's about "new hopes, new dreams, and a better way of life for the future."
That quote was taken from an animated short produced by the Walt Disney Company in the 1950s. The subject was, surprise surprise, the future of superhighways. The Disney folks imagined a tomorrowland where automobiles provided the ultimate in high-tech freedom and mobility, populations were dispersed over "vast metropolitan regions" and the family unit was supported and enhanced by the great amounts of leisure time left over from avoiding the hassles of urban existence. On top of that, a global system of superhighways was to connect all nations and peoples and increase cross-cultural communication and collaboration. Oh, how glorious it looks on that little YouTube screen.
The present, as we are well aware, looks slightly different. Private vehicles do provide freedom and mobility, in a way...even if much of that free time is spent in the car, staring at a bumper. As a result, we've given up on that whole "extra time with the family" thing; in fact, divorce rates have soared as our population has spread out, stretching marital relationships to their breaking points by removing the basic social frameworks that might allow spouses to have some much-needed time apart outside of the workday (since both work full-time to pay for the oversized McMansion and the two SUVs).
Then again, that scenario is as well-worn as the term "American Dream." Still, the Dream itself is in no need of an overhaul. We would do well, perhaps, to wrestle it out of the arms of marketing-types still using it to pitch the 1-Acre Lots For All, Ford Chevy Ram MegaCharger bullshit. But the American Dream is as honest and straightforward and bright today as it ever was. You can see it in the modern sustainability movement in the same way that you can see it in Disney's adorably retro vision of the superhighways of tomorrow: the American Dream is about change. More specifically, it's about things changing for the better, and about people having the freedom to enjoy and participate in the process of change. Society and culture are driven -- and have always been driven -- by the masses. The dream of a brighter future took the "American" moniker from the fact that the United States was the first modern nation to do away with the European monarchal system. Change will always happen since the people will demand it; the US was one of the earliest countries to make that its raison d'etre.
In the eternal quest for the elusive "brighter tomorrow," we will continue to make mistakes. We will have disasters and wars, and terrible things will happen. People will die, dictators will rise and fall, and the oceans might rise up to claim some of our cities. But we will continue to evolve with the world around us. So the American Dream is in no need of modification. It is always a good idea to stop along the path and shake off some cobwebs, but hope for something better is the essence of what makes us congregate, collaborate, and create.
Cities are based on this principle; at their core, they rely on change. Cities lose buildings and parks and whole districts; much like any living organism, old cells must be shed to make way for the new. While it is sometimes painful, change will always happen, and as the largest, most interactive manifestations of mankind's ambition, cities will have to change for the good and the bad, just like we do. In short, you can't curse the suburbs; you'll just run out of breath. Instead, try to imagine what the next batch could look like. Try to imagine a brighter tomorrow while accepting that the suburbs will be a part of it.
More on this soon, as a review of Paul Lukez's Suburban Transformations is forthcoming.
(Photo from Flickr user brassplayer. The original full-color version can be viewed by clicking the photo.)
Changing the American Dream (The Streets)
Magic Highway USA (Part IV)
Magic Highway USA Publicity Stills (Paleo-Future)