Kudzu Among the Ruins

In my post “Building a Better House”, I explored what I believe to be superior forms for housing, specifically the first floor being garage and the second floor being open like a loft apartment but with Japanese-style doors to partition rooms if desired: a maximum of utility and flexibility. This is not only a vision of the house of the future but also of an alternate past, as in these houses could have been the norm in some alternate suburban build-out, like my own sci-fi/space opera universe, which branches off from our timeline in the early 20th century.

So what would such a world look like? Well, I covered the basics in that post I made, but another aspect I’d like to explore here was hinted at thus:

As cars become faster, highways upgrade to match, and more people are relieved of the obligation to work jobs, lot sizes will expand as more land within easy driving distance to city centers becomes available. By the 1960s in the more-developed countries urbanization reverses and the population starts emptying out into the countryside again.

All of a sudden those 1/8 acre and 1/4 acre tracts just outside the city are going to become quite undesirable: why live there right next to neighbors when you could easily afford to build a much bigger house on a 10 acre lot in the actual countryside, with no worse commute time than people had in the suburbs?

In real life I believe it’s a sure bet that once people are no longer prisoners of easy commute times at 50 mph or so (not just to work, but to other amenities) the suburbs will empty; consider that rich people, who enjoy such freedom today, generally maintain estates in the country and pieds-à-terre in the city (or even rent downtown hotel suites long-term), eschewing the unholy hybrid of town and country that is the suburbs. Surveys of public opinion have consistently supported this notion. In my alternate timeline this development occurred in the past rather than in the future.

The houses might be demolished en masse as they no longer have any use, but a more interesting possibility would be miles worth of tract homes dating from the mid 20th century that are just abandoned and left to rot and decay. In the American South a quick and dirty method to build privacy hedges would be to make them out of kudzu, an invasive plant species which grows very fast in the region due to a lack of natural predators. In the absence of maintenance, and with kudzu being the only plant of consequence in the often-treeless fields that became subdivisions, I anticipate many of these neighborhoods will be overgrown with the stuff.

On the other hand, it’s possible the houses won’t decay and rot completely. True, they won’t be used for residences anymore, but since their interior layout is so open and flexible I could envision these structures being repurposed for a wide variety of endeavors. Low-value-added industry or commerce could thrive in these former houses, in a kind of reverse development from the trend today, where urban factories are repurposed into loft apartments.

I’m thinking in particular one common conversion might be to a self-storage unit; the basic design of the structures isn’t even too different from a storage pod, and they are strategically located next to major highways. Much of this might even be ad-hoc, with people personally owning these homes just to have a place to keep their stuff while they globe-trot for most of the year, an increasingly common lifestyle choice in my universe.

Another possibility would be repurposing them into workshops or even maker’s spaces oriented around teenagers or even children, people just starting out in life who want to get away from family’s or mainstream society’s prying eyes but who don’t want to be burdened by land or home ownership too much (let’s say they’re frugal kids…).

A low-intensity use of these abandoned neighborhoods as kudzu overgrows these decaying garages-cum-houses along wide streets, with everything built for the car and driver, might make good fodder for some Southern Gothic vibe.

Even more gothic vibes of decay and ruin might come as the freeway, railway, and subway tunnels, along with all those parking garages and train stations, built out over the 20th and 21st centuries become obsolete with the rise of personal aircraft to hegemony by the end of the 21st century, and urban areas all building hangars as part of skyscrapers’ upper floors instead of parking garages underneath the ground to accommodate vehicles. The tunnels were all dug out by nuclear subterrenes that melted the rock, so it’s not like the cost was ruinous to my timeline’s civilization or anything, but still, those are a lot of tunnels. Instead of being closed off or filled in it’s more likely they’ll just be abandoned to their fate, with all manner of urban spelunkers finding peril, delight, and adventure underneath the bustling cities of Earth.

That would all be cool. That’s about all I have to share on the topic right now; I just had to get it out there, because it would make such a vibe and mood for artwork or stories.

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