Saturday, June 2, 2012

Suburban Nation

Suburban Nation: The Rise of Sprawl and the Decline of the American Dream
© 2000, 2010 Andres Duany, Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk, and Jeff Speck
294 pages



Compare a modern American city to its European counterparts, or even an older American city, and the contrast is striking: American cities seem to have fallen apart, spewing their innards cross the landscape. Indeed, America has taken a radically abnormal approach to urbanism in the last fifty years, building out instead of up. Even while the city centers have been left to fall apart, ‘greater metropolitan areas’ – the mats of low-density sprawl surrounding those decaying centers – have grown. Why have Americans chosen to live this way, and what are the consequences? Suburban Nation is a citizen’s guide to understanding the new American landscape, a guide to what makes communities function, and a primer for setting our urban areas to rights again.

Duany and Zyberk, a team of urban planners, begin by breaking sprawl down into its five constituent parts. While traditional cities freely mix various kinds of buildings together – shops on a ground floor, apartments or offices above –  the suburban model separates  uses into separate pods. Anyone who lives in the United States can identify them; housing developments, commercial strips, office parks, and industrial parks.  These pods have no  direct connections to one another: navigating from one to the other necessitates traveling on a   ‘collector’ road, which is almost always congested because it is the sole carrier of traffic the pods are too widely spaced apart to make walking feasible or train transit efficient. Municipal buildings are the final element of sprawl, and like the rest are strictly separated and isolated except by cars.

Suburban Nation includes large, wide margins to the side of the text, making the book squarish instead of  rectangular. The authors use those margins for photographs, specifically sets of paragraphs, comparing traditional urban approaches to the new methods favored by modern planners. The contrast is potent, illustrating how wasteful and ugly suburban sprawl can be. But why has it become so popular?  The answer draws on numerous elements of American culture and history: the fact that most American cities came into being during the industrial age, and so Americans tend to associate them with the abuses of that period;  the coming of the automobile just as people were wanting to move away from the cities, the availability of wide open land for people to expand into, and government policies which saw in outward growth a foundation for the American economy – as in the Great Depression, when highway construction was used to put people to work. These elements each influence the other: people’s aversion to living near factories was the genesis of zoning codes, which segregated residential and industrial areas; the availability of automobiles allowed those zones to be far apart; and the generous government subsidies supporting the expansion of roads made such networks feasible. After World War 2, the FHA’s policies encouraged growth outside the cities, offering loans to families who wanted to buy new single-family homes but refusing any to people who wanted to move inside the cities. Banks followed suit.

            We left the cities in pursuit of a dream – a home of our own, far from the noise and pollution of the city. But if there’s a constant in history, it’s that no action is without unintended consequences. Not only did Americans manage to destroy their cities in a manner of decades (with the same money that Europeans were using to rebuild theirs), but suburbia has proven a fiscal nightmare. Its low densities don’t provide the tax base needed to maintain its infrastructure, and the widespread sprawl mires people in traffic, not only forcing everyone to drive everywhere but do so at a snail’s pace, wasting both time and gasoline. In addition, suburban sprawl fails to produce that vital element of human society, a community. There is no coherence in these suburban wastes, no 'place' for a community to coalesce around. Instead, people live apart from one another, and when they venture into society they only do so as part of a mass of strangers, either on the collector roads or in the big box stores.

            Since the mid-1990s, criticism of suburbia has been building steadily. As municipalies and states face budget crises and the threat of insolvency, more people are realizing the pattern of development we’ve been pursuing is no longer a viable option. Duany and Plater-Zyberk also offer steps we may take in getting a handle on these problems. There are ways we can redevelop some existing suburbs and make them livable, for instance, but the 60s-era zoning laws that make proper cities illegal need to be scrapped, as with subsidies which encouraged all that sprawl. Although restoring America's urban fabric seems a vast undertaking, it is doable, and necessary.

Suburban Nation  is the comprehensive book on America's landscape, and consequently a fundamental book for understanding many of our problems -- civic, economic, and social. Its ideal audience is the average American citizen; though Duany and Plater-Zyberk are urban planners by profession, the third author Jeff Speck served to introduce planning concepts in layman's terms -- and even if the text didn't make a particular idea clear, the illustrations do that amply.  This is in short a most excellent book. I doubt it will be rivaled by any others, but  there are more works in this genre (like Kenneth Jackson's Crabgrass Frontier) which I intend to read in the future.

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