Spatial Envy: Our Unrelenting Desire to Separate

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The suburban sprawl of American life has been well documented over the last 50-60 years. The desire for people and families with means to move away from a common center in favor of space, homogeneous living and “personal safety” has become part of the typical human story… grow up, get married, have kids, move to the suburbs. It is the constant desire of our citizens to control the variables of life by eliminating any spontaneous and potentially unwelcomed contact with people, especially people that don’t “look like us.”

But this desire to move away from each other isn’t just playing out between homes, it also appears to be happening within them. A recent article by the Atlantic citing postgraduate work by Clément Bellet at INSEAD shows that the average new home has risen from 1,500 square feet in 1973 to 2,500 square feet in 2015. In contrast, the average family size has decreased in the same amount of time. The result is that there is nearly twice the square footage per person in today’s new household than there was 40 years ago.

Furthermore, the study goes on to show that people are generally happy with their home until larger homes are built around them. The data perfectly illustrates our desire to have the biggest and best home in the neighborhood… when we don’t, we simply aren’t as content.

I’m beginning to give this dynamic a specific name… “Spatial Envy.”

The narrative has been continuously evolving over more than a century and a half… the invention of the train meant we could travel long distances with little effort, as long as we had means. We could leave what we knew for opportunities that might enrich our lives, our minds, and our status.

The popularization of the automobile in the early-to-mid 20th century took the elements of transportation “freedom” that the train provided and made it a personal experience. But we wanted more… more roads, more bridges, more lanes. It was not enough to simply be able to move about the country effortlessly, we desired to maximize speed and minimize time spent. As a result, we built massive highways, destroyed neighborhoods, displaced thousands in our cities, all for the sake of a greater ability to leave them behind for the promise of more space and more “freedom.”

And with this continued sprawl, our home and property sizes increased dramatically. Indeed, it wasn’t enough to put space between us and cities, we had to maximize the space between us and our neighbors. We grew a ravenous desire for bigger homes, larger properties and generally exaggerated distances between others.

Even our cars have gotten bigger, despite the fact that engines and components have gotten smaller and more efficient. It seems that we even need space when we drive, since most of the time, we are simply driving ourselves.

Finally, all of this has significantly changed the dynamic of the American family. Travel soccer that is 30 minutes away doesn’t exist if we don’t have wide roads and huge SUVs. Both parents working long hours to afford the amount of “space” we own? Yes, that’s a big one too. And finally, now that homes are bigger and families are smaller, when we ARE home, we can more frequently retreat into our own part of the abode, placing even greater distance between us and the ones we love most. Unfinished basements are now lavish “man caves.” Homes have offices and media rooms that used to simply be alternative uses for the kitchen table and the living room. Every child has their own room… the bunk bed is a thing of the past.

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In many ways, we can see these spatial upgrades as progress. Often, more space makes our lives easier and more flexible. But I would counter that with added positives come overlooked drawbacks that we may never fully appreciate or attribute to our hunger for more space. The impact on our families, the more hours we have to work, the more time in the car and distance apart are all residual negatives of our desire for space. The destructive impact on our environment, and the overbuilding of infrastructure to knit it all together… All of this has a much greater, “big picture” narrative of disconnect, disillusionment and decline.

Spatial Envy is our desire to consume space like we consume food or water. It is our unrelenting desire to stick a flag in the ground, claim a space as our own, and work tirelessly to expand and preserve it to the virtual exclusion of all other priorities. It is the reason I talk so fervently about the importance of centralized living, and also the reason I have serious doubts that this will ever happen unless we are incentivized, or forced to do so by a world event. It seems to be rooted in our American narrative, the desire to move apart from one another, to claim space as our own, and to push that space outward from us as far as our resources will let us… and then some.

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