Suburban Nation (2000) starstarstarstar
by Andres Duany, Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk, and Jeff Speck.
Reviewed 2001-08-02: The books I read don't always teach me something new, or, if they do, they do so in the process of articulating something I have long thought but never so well expressed. Andres Duany, Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk, and Jeff Speck Second Look Revieware not your ordinary architects/planners, but they have done just that. They have an unusual perspective on how to create a "built environment." In criticizing suburban sprawl as wasteful and unnecessary, though often unavoidable in even the most visionary of planners (why this is so anon), they hint at a reason for the decline in community and public participation: you can't have a sense of community when you've spread the residents all over the countryside, in isolated, plantation-like detached homes with no geographic focus.

So we know what the authors are against; what are they for? The authors' thesis is that suburban sprawl is cheap only because it is massively subsidized -- often, and ironically, by the very people who are forced by economics to remain behind in the cities (they can't afford cars). Further, that the way out of urban-suburban traffic jams is TND, or traditional neighborhood development. The authors point out pithily that you just can't build enough roads to handle all of the demand for travel. Indeed, that building more roads, and widening existing roads, causes even more congestion, rather than relieving it. This is something the planners in my old hometown of suburban DC are still debating in the case the much-delayed and ill-conceived Inter-County Connecter. Not only that, you can't tax the property you've paved, so the tax base is reduced. And wider, straighter roads encourage speeding and speed-related traffic injury and death, while making pedestrian traffic an unattractive, if not a dangerous occupation.

The suburbs, it seems, are built for cars, not for people. How else do you explain the little-used sidewalks, when there are any, going nowhere anyone wants to walk? How else do you explain the developments built right next to enormous shopping malls -- yet built without any footpath from one to the other. How else do you explain the huge feeder roads funneling traffic into limited lanes that, when they get jammed by accident or traffic, stop all movement? How else do you explain the limited or non-existent public transportation (bus, train, shuttle) in the suburbs? It's as if the price of admission to the suburbs is a car!

Far from ending with a laundry list of problems, the authors have some tested solutions. Their solutions, explained and illustrated in the book (favorably mentioning some of my favorite places, such as Georgetown and Old Town Alexandria -- designs that would be illegal these days), include, in no particular order...

grid layout for neighborhood streets to lessen dependence on overused feeder roads (and autos, generally)
mixed-income residential development to create a diverse community (horrors!)
balanced mix of residences, businesses, shopping, recreation, and public buildings so everything is within walking distance (and so older people and children are not stranded, as they are in the suburbs, since they don't drive)
narrow two-way streets, with parallel parking, to calm traffic and make sidewalks attractive to pedestrians
avoidance of cul de sacs and winding streets, avoidance of wide street turning radiuses (which encourage speeding and endanger pedestrians)
higher density development to maximize the usefulness of public transit and minimize dependence on autos (and dry, dignified places to wait for transit)
accommodation of site topography and encouragement of unconventional intersections (which calm traffic)
civic squares, plazas, a general store (subsidized, if necessary), a school or schools, a post office
residences facing the street, with short, inviting setbacks and parking accessed by alleys in the rear (no garages facing the street)
a diversity of housing types in close proximity; apartments above commercial space; subsidized housing stylistically similar to the rest
businesses fronting directly on the street with only street parking in front (parallel parking on the street)
all buildings with flat fronts and simple roofs, and (except for tiny homes) at least two stories tall
most parking lots to the rear of buildings, with pedestrian-friendly parking-to-shopping passages (e.g., lined by shop windows)
multi-point street connection with neighboring developments to lessen dependence on feeder roads
I've lived in both city and suburb, some of either better than most, some worse. I used to live in Atlanta, where these ideas could go a long way to alleviate the chronic congestion there. And I was thrilled to read all of these ideas. I kept saying, "Yes! Yes! Yes!" like Meg Ryan in "When Harry Met Sally..." Well, maybe not that enthusiastically, but the authors had put in writing what I had long been thinking. The only problems with wholesale adoption of these ideas, which the authors also point out, are (a) some of these ideas, which worked in communities 50 years old and older, are illegal today, under current sprawl-induced planning and zoning ordinances, and (b) there is considerable resistance to the regional planning authority necessary to encourage these standards.

So maybe it's just a dream. Maybe we'll never have a return to the days when we knew our neighbors; when the very young and the very old could get around on their own; when there was a mix of social classes and lifestyles in the same community; when there really was such a thing as a community, rather than isolated cells on landscaped cul de sacs. Some detractors of Suburban Nation charge that it's elitist claptrap, that many Americans simply prefer the clean, low-crime suburbs over cramped, dirty, crime-ridden cities. I wonder if the following points ever dawn on them: (a) it is people who make a city: if the people live cramped, dirty, criminal lives, their environment will reflect it; (b) if suburbanites paid the full freight for their lifestyle -- that is, the true cost of water, sewer, fire, police, sanitation, and especially roads -- there would be far fewer living there; indeed, most suburbanites conveniently forget how massively subsidized their lifestyles are when they vote against urban issues; (c) that, indeed, it is those who get these "free goods" in the suburbs who are the elitists, driving to the mall in their SUVs.

Of course, poor planning is not the cause of all social ills, as the authors seem to say, but it causes some of them. What may rankle readers is the necessity for government direction, and intergovernmental co-operation, necessary to build the sensible communities that the authors suggest -- which to my mind is the American Dream. Like many, I don't want bigger government, but I wouldn't mind more effective government. I am fortunate to live in a city (Chicago) with a well-run public transportation system. I can afford a car, but I enjoy taking the train to work, and having almost everything I need close enough to walk to. Yes, I pay more to live in the city, but I have friends here and the convenience is worth the price.
Suburban Nation: The Rise of Sprawl & the Decline of the American Dream by Andres Duany, Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk, and Jeff Speck. New York: North Point Press. 2000. ISBN: 0865476063.

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Ronald Bruce Meyer is a freelance reviewer.