Brown Out: Why Are So Many Suburbs Bland?

Who keeps painting America’s suburbs brown?

In a piece today from Better! Cities and Towns, Petra Spiess diagnoses the chromatic monotony that characterizes so many suburbs:

People are afraid of color. Since Americans on average move every 5 years, people often buy homes with an eye towards resale, and as such tend to choose an exterior color that will offend the least number of people—which judging by its overwhelming presence—appears to be beige. Houses are also most people’s largest investment which makes them understandably conservative when it comes to exterior color, and the housing bust only amplifies this anxiety since it can be hard to sell a house as it is. Builders also promote beige exteriors […].

Spiess also points out some of the problems this situation creates:

While the motivations for the sea of beige undulating across America’s suburbs are understandable, they have an undeniable effect on the streetscape in aggregate—streets and streets of houses nearly the same color are crushingly boring and smother any sense of place a neighborhood might have.

Among other things, Spiess goes on to point out that once a house is painted the trend is for it to remain the same color, and that it’s best to remedy this problem from the beginning.

These homes are in an east Provo subdivision where everything is painted a variation of white or brown. Just changing that would immensely improve the area.

Spiess uses as her example her own community of Bradburn Village in Colorado and notes — much to my surprise — that the home owners’ association forced a developer to repaint homes in a variety of new colors. The point here is that getting developers to stop painting everything brown should happen from the get go.

But more generally, Spiess’ article is useful for pointing out that sometimes place-related problems are only as deep as a coat of paint. It’s the same idea at work in downtown Provo, which I recently wrote is widely beloved by the community: variety, uniqueness and visual diversity create a successful place that draws people in. After all, even with all of it’s flaws downtown Provo is a lot more lively than the typical brown-coated subdivision.

In the end, though this blog often focuses on big (and difficult to implement) issues — increasing density, changing street widths, etc. — many places would be dramatically better with just a few more colors added to the mix.


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