Suburban Style Evolution

McDonald's, Wal-Mart, and tract homes are making many in suburbia very happy

Ease into the red Eames chair next to the fireplace, log onto a high-speed wireless connection and dine on your fruit and walnut salad. Where are you? You just might be at one of the new-look McDonald’s that the company recently unveiled in certain markets. The kind of evolution Mickey D’s has been going through has also reshaped many other suburban fixtures and the transformation may render many of the criticisms lobbed at suburbia outdated-that is, if they were ever accurate in the first place.

Morgan Spurlock’s 2004 documentary Super Size Me exacerbated our nation’s body image angst by exposing the obvious: eating nothing but high calorie foods and not exercising much makes you fat. McDonald’s was the perfect villain because, over the years, few sights have been a more ubiquitous feature of suburbia than the Golden Arches. And drive-throughs helped Americans maintain their infamously sedentary lifestyles by removing the need for customers to remove themselves from their cars. Public health activists revile McDonald’s for what it does to our insides and architects revile it for how it looks on the outside. To these critics McDonald’s is unhealthy, superficial, repetitious, and ugly-nearly everything they hate about suburbia wrapped up neatly in an American icon.

But now executives aim to deemphasize the familiar Golden Arches in favor of a sleeker, sexed up exterior. Once inside you can still grab on with both hands and shove a 560-calorie Big Mac down your throat, but today’s McDonald’s also offers plenty of heart-healthy salads and such. Diners may even squirt low-fat sesame ginger dressing from the head of the famously progressive Paul Newman. And yes, a growing number of restaurants are being equipped with loungy furniture and fireplaces, and roughly 7,000 already offer wi-fi access.

These days, many customers want more than cheap fast food; they also seek a pleasant aesthetic experience (a la Starbucks) and healthier fare (a la Subway). Indeed, when Spurlock’s “expose” hit theaters, Subway already had more American locations than McDonald’s. After some financial slipping during the early 2000s, McDonald’s regained its footing by borrowing some of the approaches that have made its upstart competitors so successful.

So McDonald’s recent image enhancements represent a continuation of change that was already underway when Spurlock puked up his Mickey D’s on the big screen. In fact, Spurlock could have slimmed down by eating nothing but items from McDonald’s veggie-heavy menu (or simply by exercising more, as middle-aged muscleman Chazz “Down Size Me” Weaverdid).

Usually the kind of change McDonald’s is going through isn’t spurred by some grandiose stunt; it emerges gradually as sellers react to buyers’ changing tastes. Similar examples abound. Hulking SUVs still roam the roads, but this year smaller, car-based “CUVs”s are on pace to outsell them. The “Beast from Bentonville” doesn’t just sell ammo and tube socks; today Wal-Mart also peddles pedicures, cashmere sweaters, organic foods, sushi, and (despite squawks from the American Family Association) Brokeback Mountain DVDs. Even newer suburban subdivisions are often less “cookie cutter” than their predecessors.

Take Highlands Ranch in suburban Denver. This year the nation’s largest master-planned community celebrates its 25th year and its rows of big boxy houses have provoked derision from the outset. Although she didn’t upchuck like Spurlock, one Denver councilwoman’s assessment of Highlands Ranch conveyed similar revulsion: “one big smush of beige puke.” As this LA Times articlenotes, its reputation as the epitome of sterile, superficial suburbia, “was cemented when National Geographic magazine ran a picture of Highlands Ranch in 1996. It showed a dizzying panorama of rooftops, one after another after another, so close they practically touched.”

Although the “dizzying panorama of rooftops” still remains the visual of choice for countless articles and books, suburbia is not the smear of homogeneity that such imagery implies. Compared to decades past, today’s suburbia is less “white bread” and more diverse in other ways. Subdivisions still reveal common characteristics, but a growing array of floor plans, exteriors, and landscape designs allows today’s suburbanites greater opportunity to escape from architectural tedium. In Highlands Ranch covenant controls still enforce a great deal of blandness, but single-family homes have been joined by new structures, including town homes and cafes.

The changes inside are even more pronounced, as America’s tract home dwellers adorn their personal spaces with crisp paint, funky furniture, and pieces of art that reflect their own style. Homeowners no longer need a giant pile of money to fulfill their aesthetic desires and popular TV shows like Design on a Dime reveal the degree to which style has been democratized. Still, the most substantive aspects of suburban life predate such outward changes.

Megan Chard has come to learn that the reasons why people live in suburbia are hardly superficial. The 35-year-old grew up among the tract homes and then promptly moved to the grittier environment of downtown Denver, vowing never to return to suburbia. Eventually, she and her husband had a child and their priorities changed. They wanted to live in a place with safer streets, affordable housing, and plenty of other kids. The family moved to Highlands Ranch, and completed the suburbia-to-suburbia roundtrip countless others have made.

But the distinction between city and suburbia is blurring, which means today’s neighborhood shoppers no longer face a stark all-or-nothing choice between excitement and family-friendliness. Many cities are much safer than they used to be, and many suburban neighborhoods are incorporating aspects of city life. At Highlands Ranch one can sip a latte at a coffee house, browse through an independent book store, stock up on hummus at Whole Foods-even enjoy an Asian salad sprinkled with edamame at McDonald’s.

As McDonald’s gets healthier and subdivision life gets hipper, will suburbia’s uppity detractors finally bite their tongues? Some already have, but many continue to blurt old criticisms at the new suburbia, showing that, even in the mist of so much evolution, some minds remain stubbornly resistant to change.

Ted Balaker is a policy analyst at Reason Foundation. He is co-author of the forthcoming book The Road More Traveled: Why the Congestion Crisis Matters More Than You Think, and What We Can Do About It (Rowman & Littlefield, Fall 2006), which includes an examination of the new suburbia. An archive of Balaker’s work is here and Reason’s urban growth research and commentary is here.