Tuesday, June 9, 2009




Suburban Nation: The Rise of Sprawl and the Decline of the American Dream by A. Duany, E. Plater-Zyberk, and J. Speck

Consider this – why do so many people (a disproportionately large number of suburbanites) go to Disney World?  Is it for the rides?  According to one Disney architect, the average visitor spends only 3 percent of his time on rides or at shows.  The remaining time is spent enjoying the precise commodity that people so sorely lack in their suburban hometowns: pleasant, pedestrian-friendly, public space and the sociability it engenders. (page 63)

This fascinating and hugely informative book explains the phenomenon of suburban sprawl and the consequences that arise from it.  For a subject that is generally perceived as dull and boring, the authors have presented a deeply engaging and a surprisingly easy read.  There are numerous photographs throughout the book that illustrate the different types of development.  In addition, the authors have scattered intriguing factoids throughout the book such as:

  • The average American household takes 13 car trips a day.
  • Traffic gets worse – not better – when roads are widened.
  • One purpose of parallel parked cars in cities is to create a protective barrier for pedestrians.
  • Inner city residents subsidize utility costs for suburban dwellers as they pay the same price for fewer pipelines.

Mainly, the book focuses on the two different types of urban growth: the traditional neighborhood and the suburban sprawl.  The traditional neighborhood is an organic development represented by radial pockets (neighborhoods) of mixed use, pedestrian friendly communities of diverse population. It would stand free as a village and then grouped into towns and cities.  It remains the most prevalent form of habitation outside of the US.  Suburban sprawl , which is now the standard North American pattern of growth, is an idealized artificial system that has isolated pods dedicated to single use such as office parks, shopping malls and residential clusters.  While it is an outgrowth of modern problem solving: a system for living, it is not sustainable and is not healthy growth. Even at relatively low population densities, sprawl tends not to pay for itself financially and consumes land at an alarming rate, while producing insurmountable traffic problems and exacerbating social inequity and isolation.

For me personally, the book has served as an articulation of my preference of city living over living in the suburbs.  I enjoy the little living space we have in center city Philadelphia with an almost non-existent yard.  My 18 month-old son plays with his friends in the playgrounds that are within a few minutes of us and I do not have the need for a lawn mower.  We avail of the multitude of restaurants around us and often walk back from the local market with groceries.  Now that I no longer work in the city, I use my car to commute to work (against traffic) while my better half has logged about 5k miles in the last 3 years.

There is an interesting observation in this book about alienation as a result of the new development model.  Take a look at the older schools, convenience stores or general stores and now compare them to their recent counterparts.  Most of the older structures were designed so that you could walk up to them and conduct your business.  Almost all the recent structures are islands insulated by parking areas that are twice the built-up area.  One HAS to drive up to these in order to conduct any business and a pedestrian would have to risk venturing through the maze of cars in order to access the business.  (I am a little biased here since the only accident in which I have been injured has been in a parking lot as I was walking to my car.)  It’s almost as if there is a deliberate attempt to cut off all spontaneous interaction and turn incidental shopping into a planned mission.

A few years ago, my job was transferred to Boca Raton, FL and I was asked to consider moving there.  I was provided with an apartment for a 6 month period in one of the developments there.  There was a strip mall with some coffee shops and other stores across the street on which the development was located.  We discovered that in order to cross the 6 lanes of traffic and get to the mall (which was about 150 yards or less away), we needed to get in the car and drive because there was no sidewalk and no crosswalk for pedestrian traffic!  Interestingly, even if you crossed the street to the mall, the distance to the closest store through the parking lot was another 100 yards or so.  Eventually, we didn’t move to FL and I sought another job.

The book expertly analyzes the cause for our current circumstance and offers solutions towards a sustainable authentic urban development which fosters a much-coveted sense of community that old towns offered.  While a portion of the solution lies with policy changes at the government level (e.g..  relaxing single use zoning so that you can have coffee shops and grocery stores among housing developments), there are changes recommended at the regional, local and individual level. 

The biggest contribution that you can make is to inform yourself about the concepts laid out in this book and perhaps, just perhaps, it will change your outlook.  That, in itself, is a wonderful beginning.

The cities will be part of the country; I shall live 30 miles from my office in one direction, under a pine tree; my secretary will live 30 miles away from it too, in the other direction, under another pine tree. We shall both have our own car.

We shall use up tires, wear out road surfaces and gears, consume oil and gasoline.  All of which will necessitate a great deal of work… enough for all.

  - Le Corbusier, The Radiant City (1967)

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