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Duany, Andres, Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk and Jeff Speck. Suburban Nation: The Rise of Sprawl and the Decline of the American Dream. New York: North Point Press, 2000 (294 pp.). Duany and his wife Plater-Zybeck have become the Pied Pipers of New Urbanism, or Neotraditionalism, as it is also called. Seaside, their early planned community in Florida, was one of the first full-scale villages to incorporate the principles of traditional urbanism, which essentially is everything suburban sprawl is not: dense housing patterns, small streets, mixed-use zoning, hidden garages, traditional as opposed to modernist designs, and walkable neighborhoods – that is, the kind of place many Americans lived in before WWII. After that, of course, government programs (VA loans and massive federal highway projects), combined with the ascendancy of the automobile to push many Americans (mostly white) out of traditional neighborhoods into the new suburbs. It’s not necessary here to fully document that history; most people know it and we’ve seen the results: the placeless clusters called subdivisions bereft of anything that’s close to what one might call community. The authors recount much of the history, so the reader understands how America got into this mess, but the real joy of this book is its exposure of the suburban myths – that they’re safer, people are nicer, property values appreciate more, schools are superior. After all, that’s why many people escaped to the suburbs, to enjoy a "better" life; but, it turns out, the ’burbs are sub-par in many ways, not the least of which is that most lack a sense of place – a community people genuinely care about. In addition to exploding these suburban myths with facts (crime in suburbia vs. the city, for example), the writers spend a considerable amount of time illustrating why sprawl is so deadening – providing a glimpse into the psychological problems this creates, such as higher rates of teenage suicide. Much of sprawl’s distinctive look has to do with transportation, of course; wide streets are built to accommodate the cars that everyone in suburbia must have, and most homes are designed foremost as receptacles for cars – the ubiquitous double- or triple-wide garage door in the front. Because car culture dominates, parking is a huge issue, and Suburban Nation includes a great deal of information about how America’s fascination with cars and free parking has warped our notion of what a town should be. In particular, anything having to do with the automobile is subsidized at a tremendous level and mass transit gets short shrift, policies Duany argues should change. Another complicit party in this story is single-use zoning, which isolates families from work, shopping, even the simplest task, forcing everyone to climb in the car just to buy a loaf of bread or visit the park. In sum, whatever we used to call community – people interacting with people – has been erased from the typical subdivision. The writers illustrate this not only with text, but with numerous photographs that compare the livability factor in traditional towns with subdivisions. Although the book is filled with technical zoning, planning, and design discussions, it’s extremely accessible – written for the generalist, not the city zoning expert. The reason for including these sections is to show how the accumulation of local- and state-mandated restrictions – many of them begun with good intentions – has conspired to create communities where numbers and statistics are more important than good design, and where the key concern is how to move cars through quickly. The authors demonstrate how many of these rules backfire (such as codes that mandate wide streets for fire trucks, supposedly for safety, but the wider streets cause speeding and, thus, more accidents). A benefit of the book is that it is both prescriptive on many levels (building, street, city, region, state, federal), and it includes a great deal of historical and philosophical discussion about place and community. The two, the tangible recommendations for designing a pedestrian-friendly street, for example, and the overarching social and philosophical concerns, are linked nicely. Numerous maps and diagrams illustrate the authors’ designs for workable neighborhoods, and the accompanying text explains how and why they function better than the typical subdivision plot, filled with cul-de-sacs and winding streets. A primary thesis in the book is that regional planning must take precedence, that neighborhoods and even cities cannot design viable communities solo, since so many of the issues (pollution, transportation, water) are not restrained by municipal boundaries. Suburban Nation is not without its drawbacks; the most obvious is that the authors are so entrenched in the correctness of their positions that they don’t seem capable of entertaining alternative points of view. In particular, their dismissive view of growth boundaries or the no-growth movement in general (after all, they are architects), is apparent. The book ends with specific recommendations for municipalities at all levels, including an extensive checklist for activists, planners, developers, policymakers, and anyone responsible for the look of communities. The downside of this is that critics who do not understand the full scope of New Urbanism use these checklists to argue that Duany and others are simply recommending more do-dads (or window dressing) to combat large social problems. Their final plea is that citizens must get involved in the building of "place" in America; otherwise, the skids are greased for cities, developers, the automobile lobby, transportation departments, and others who know how to play the game to continue doing what they’ve done for fifty years – spiraling farther and farther out, and in so doing, decimating cities. The writers acknowledge that many new and renovated towns have adopted the New Urbanist model, but those projects are infinitesimal compared to the number of malls, office parks, and subdivisions that break ground everyday. Those interest in joining the traditionalists’ crusade would do well to begin with this book; it’s one of the clearest explanations of and arguments for New Urbanism.


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