Suburban Nation: The Rise of Sprawl and the Decline of the American Dream
By Andres Duany, Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk, and Jeff Speck
North Point Press, New York, 2000. Hardcover, 290 pp., $30.00.
There can be little doubt as to whom Duany, Plater-Zyberk, and Speck want to reach with Suburban Nation. Their introduction is addressed directly to the suburban citizens who have grown weary of traffic jams, charmless subdivision streets, and endless rows of strip malls. “You are against growth, because you believe that it will make your life worse,” the authors write, acknowledging that such a belief is warranted, given the aesthetically impoverished and lifeless landscape the last 50 years of suburban growth patterns have left us with. The book is an argument to change the minds of these potential NIMBYs, to make the case for “good growth” based on neighborhoods, pedestrian orientation, and a mix of uses. It also aims to give these citizens plenty of ammunition to begin the fight for an alternative way to grow.
Suburban Nation’s direct and unadorned prose makes it a pleasure to read. This trio of Miami architects and town planners know how to communicate effectively (and with a sense of humor), having honed their message in countless public presentations. This is particularly evident in the book’s early chapters, in which the authors clearly and concisely expose the various components of sprawl. The accompanying photographs, though very small, strongly reinforce the text and are sure to provoke recognition and greater awareness on the part of most readers. One strength of the book is that it makes the reader see everyday suburban landscapes in a new light, not as random occurrences, but as the result of conscious policies on the part of municipalities and developers.
In the section on safe streets, for example, the authors explain the extraordinary influence fire department access requirements have on determining the width of residential streets. Duany, Plater-Zyberk, and Speck do not stop there, but make the connection to the larger issue of “life safety.” They convincingly demonstrate that wider residential streets are more dangerous because they result in more serious car accidents, which kill far more people than fires. Perhaps better than any other book, Suburban Nation provides ammunition for citizens and professionals to fight for narrower, safer neighborhood streets.
Information for the professional
Suburban Nation may be written for a wide audience, but it also is a must read for specialists. Duany, Plater-Zyberk, and Speck speak with the authority of 20 years of experience in designing new urbanist places. The authors delve into concepts which are technical but vital to quality of life — such as terminating vistas, curb return radii, and center line radii — explaining where suburbia goes wrong and precisely how it can be fixed. Broader issues discussed such as income segregation, federal automobile subsidies, to the plight of children and the elderly in suburbia, will also be of interest to professional planners.
The last half of the book delves into the details of developing and permitting traditional neighborhoods. The lay reader may find these sections a little harder going, but they contain a wealth of provocative material for the professional. The authors’ suggested eight steps of regional planning, for example, could be adopted by metropolitan governments as the basis for discussions on regional planning. With their call for countryside preserves, priority development sectors, a proactive permitting process that favors the neighborhood model, and the designation of corridors, these guidelines present a sensible alternative to the current Urban Growth Boundary model.
Equally valuable is the appended traditional neighborhood development checklist — a document that can be used by developers and planning officials. One might wish that marketers, too, would check this list before they promote developments as New Urbanism. Readers with interest in main street retail and new urbanist town centers will want to consider the author’s argument for managed retail. “Variety is a achieved not through natural selection but through careful programming,” they maintain. Therefore, main street retail should adopt some of the management tools mall retailers have used for years.
The New Urbanism is often criticized for relying too heavily on greenfield development, and Duany, Plater-Zyberk, and Speck acknowledge that new towns are not always the answer to suburban ills. “It must be clearly stated that many social and environmental ills would be solved, at least temporarily, by a moratorium on greenfield development,” they write. But that’s not in the cards, so the real choice is between allowing sprawl to continue and reshaping growth. “A growing number of designers feel compelled to choose the ambiguous risk of engagement over the easy moral purity of inaction,” they say.
In the place of easy moral purity, the authors give us their unwavering belief that the physical shape of our environment plays a key role in our well-being as individuals and as a community. They convey this message with careful reasoning fueled by an unmistakable passion. If this passion resonates with current and future citizen activists, then Suburban Nation has the potential to enlist many more people in the struggle for cities and towns with real neighborhoods.