Despite its title, Suburban Nation: The Rise of Sprawl and the Decline of the American Dream, this book is only partially about suburbia; it also serves as a programmatic statement and justification for New Urbanist development. Andres Duany, Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk and Jeff Speck are architectural and city planners who designed the planned community of Seaside, Florida, and throughout Suburban Nation they argue that suburban sprawl is not bad because it is ugly. Rather, the authors (and their urban and suburban informants) argue that because there is a “causal relationship between the character of the physical environment and the social health of families and the community at large, suburbia is bad because it doesn’t function to foster community and democracy. By contrast, communities modeled after “traditional American neighborhoods” can be aesthetically pleasing, make more efficient use of space, and cater to the needs of both individuals and the community.
Many of the authors’ recommendations are familiar, partly because their planning principles have long since been incorporated into creative-class urban revitalization projects: mixed-use development, walkable streets, functional public transit, short blocks, narrow streets with buildings arranged by size, corner stores, and so on. And some of their recommendations reveal that New Urbanism is actually quite specific: neighborhoods should have corner stores, not Quik Marts; a neighborhood should be only a 10-minute walk across, with pocket parks in each of its corners and several elementary schools so that children can walk to school; the neighborhood center should focus on common activities; buildings should be low and close to the streets, with “semi-private attachments” that foster sociability;” bus stops should be dignified, so that public transit does not suffer from a “self-perpetuating underclass ridership;” parking should be hidden.
While some of these recommendations seem as though they are designed to foster community by keeping people in, many of them also seem designed to keep people out – particularly people who might go to a Quick Mart or ride the bus because they have to instead of because they want to, or even people who don’t live close enough to the center of the neighborhood to be in the in-club of walkers. Further, the authors’ emphasis on “traditional,” combined with their acceptance that greenfield development can’t be stopped, makes this book seem more like a way to market manufactured authenticity to city planners than a way to create truly inclusive, functional, democratic communities. This book is a clear statement of both the problem of sprawl and the solution of New Urbanism; I just don’t think New Urbanism is the only or even the best solution.