Proposing a better built environment for the middle class

 Suburban Nation, a top planning book of the new millennium, is 10 years old and just as relevant as ever.

Editor’s note: A new 10th Anniversary Edition has just been published for Suburban Nation: The Rise of Sprawl and the Decline of the American Dream, with new prefaces by authors Andres Duany, Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk, and Jeff Speck. The following essay by Duany, titled “Avoiding Obsolescence” in the book, explains that Suburban Nation steered away from ideology and theory in favor of proposing a better habitat for the American middle class.

When Suburban Nation was being written a dozen years ago, each of the authors fell into a role. Jeff was the purveyor of the light touch. His easygoing tone has contributed as much as anything to the book's appeal. It is probably responsible for the number of people who have told me that, to their own surprise, they read it to the end. Lizz, for her part, was the guardian of clarity. She has no patience for obscurantism in language or message. Suburban Nation's simple and straightforward writing is an extension of the educational philosophy she promotes at the University of Miami, where students learn “plain old good architecture.” Her success is evidenced by the book's unexpected popularity as required reading — even in high schools.

My own contribution to the editing process was a result of simple time management. With new towns to design that could outlast centuries, why spend an inordinate number of hours on a text that might have a shelf life of only a few years? I was aware of the tension between a book focused on a present problem and one of lasting relevance, and I argued strongly that our book should be the latter. In this regard, Jane Jacobs's half-century-old T h e Death and Life of Great American Cities was my model — a difficult one to live up to, granted, but the pursuit of unattainable ideals is stimulating. And so I undertook the editing with an eye to issues that were of the more transcendental sort. To this end, the grand subject of urbanism certainly provided a good foundation. The fashionable was eradicated under my pen — and so I bear any blame for the book's being not nearly as hip as the younger Jeff would have had it.

Then, shortly after it was published, I realized that while I had checked the book for technical obsolescence, I had not done so for political survivability. More out of curiosity than anything else, I asked for assessments from two friends, one attuned to right-wing and the other to left-wing bias. Both marked-up copies were returned with a similar number of disputed statements, and I remember being surprised at how unnecessary these passages were. Although we could have smoothed the feathers for this second edition, the original text remains intact, as it has done no great harm. It seems that, for different reasons, Suburban Nation is read by radical protectors of the environment no less than by conservatives concerned with the restoration of the traditional human community. Perhaps this is because it avoids ideology altogether and puts theory Last — simply proposing an alternative habitat for the American middle class, which deserves much better than it is getting. Most Americans are self-interested and pragmatic enough to realize that New Urbanist communities make more sense than the sprawl model, and that they suffer very few downsides. Only extreme libertarians, who so relentlessly espouse choice, fail to understand that such communities are not allowed under the current planning regime, and that the book is actually proposing that they should be included among the available options.

But politics delivers only temporary buffetings, while obsolescence is terminal. There are important questions that should be asked now about the book, such as “What has proven to be wrong?” and “What was left out?” Although I am fairly certain that I will not be able to repeat this claim in a twentieth-anniversary edition, so far nothing much has been contradicted or become irrelevant. In fact, the book seems less urgent today only because its message has permeated public discourse. It has been absorbed in initiatives of the Environmental Protection Agency, the Institute of Transportation Engineers, the U.S. Green Building Council, and others, as Lizz relates. In fact, many of the book's prescriptions have by now been institutionalized as regulations. I confess that for me this is not always gratifying, as I find revolution more interesting than administration.

Regarding what was left out of the book ten years ago, several issues that were then on the sidelines have grown dramatically in importance. Chief among them is local food production, now evolving into Agricultural Urbanism (“Ag is the new golf!”). Then there are the awful health implications of the suburban lifestyle, which would warrant an entire chapter now that the research is available. And insufficient emphasis was placed on the problem of water quality, although dedicating too many pages to any challenge not experienced universally would not have been in the spirit of the book.

Perhaps what most dates Suburban Nation is its discussion of the problem we marginally addressed as “air pollution,” now recognized as the catastrophe of climate change. A better understanding of this issue would have imparted a greater urgency to our call for the reform of suburban sprawl, and positioned the book closer to the center of the current debate. We can now state in no uncertain terms that blame for the planet's environmental problems lies with the lifestyle of the American middle class: the way we live large and occupy too much land; the way we must drive to accomplish so many perfectly ordinary tasks; the way we grow our food; and the way our dependence on cars leads us to compensate for social isolation with an astonishing level of unnecessary consumption. In other words, the root cause of the fearsome crises we are facing is this pleasant suburban life of ours, and we have to do something about it right now.

And today, as clueless design consultants foist sprawl on Europe, the Middle East, Latin America, and Asia, this book becomes even more essential. There is apparently a Chinese edition of Suburban Nation. We wish it many printings.

Excerpted from Suburban Nation: The Rise of Sprawl and the Decline of the American Dream by Andres Duany, Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk, and Jeff Speck. Published in September 2010 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, LLC. Copyright © 2010 by Andres Duany, Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk, and Jeff Speck. All rights reserved.