Suburban Nation

I enjoy being able read books that were recommended when I was in school, but I was so bogged down with required readings and projects that I never had the time to read them. Suburban Nation by Andres Duany, Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk, and Jeff Speck is one of those books. I was reminded of it after reading Walkable City by Jeff Speck and have had it on my reading list for awhile. I kept thinking I knew all the principles they were stating and it seemed like obvious observations, but then I realized it was because of the teachings they published almost two decades ago that I knew all these concepts. Theses ideas now pervade the planning profession and school curriculum. So reading Suburban Nation was akin to going back to the basics and understanding the reasoning behind why we do what we do as planners.

The book starts out with the two main arguments to development—we either have bad growth or no growth at all. It sometimes still seems that this is the stalemate argument we are stuck with. But the authors argue there is a third option—good growth that is uninhibited by zoning codes. There is evidence of this in many towns. Lifeless suburbs are being redesigned to become town centers. Papillion, a town just outside where I live, is recreating their young suburban environment to be more urban and cohesive instead of just sprawling subdivisions.

The book dives into growth further by identifying two types—traditional neighborhood or suburban sprawl. The original growth trend which is visible in any city established prior to 1940 is traditional neighborhood where organic growth was allowed to respond to human needs. Basic needs were within a short walk, with a short trolley ride available to job centers or more regional businesses. After World War II and the rise of the automobile, people forgot about organic growth and manufactured their own to be rational, predicable, and engineered. It sounds great until you realize that the suburban sprawl method was actual destructive, unhealthy, and unsustainable.

Low density sprawl costs more for cities to maintain as they add more roads, pipes, and other infrastructure which means they ask for more federal money to help with schools, housing, parks and other programs. With this logic, we could lower the national deficit by pushing smart urban design as the standard.

Town planning, until 1930 considered a humanistic discipline based upon history, aesthetics, and culture, became a technical profession based upon numbers

The original concept for sprawl, separating incompatible uses like houses from toxic factories, was taken to the next level. Suddenly the cars that everyone wanted to fulfill their suburban lifestyle became a reason not to mix certain types of homes. A single family dwelling could not to sit next to an apartment because there would be too much traffic and congestion on their nice residential street. But the use itself is the exact same. It still is just a place for people to sleep, eat, and live. The argument the authors make is that it shouldn’t matter if the apartment next to the single family dwelling is designed properly. Compatibility would be tied to building types, not to the use type. If the scales match and building does not look out of place, they should be considered compatible uses.

If that apartment next to the dwelling were in a traditional neighborhood the traffic concern ideally should disappear. There would be less traffic than if the same two buildings were in suburban sprawl because in a traditional neighborhood more trips can be made on foot, lowering the traffic. It would also be better served by transit. That would be unheard of in the sprawling city.

The book can be summed up by one passage in particular. We should be thinking about “what pattern of development is the most environmentally sensitive, socially responsible, and economically sustainable.” It underscores the principles of neotraditionalism or new urbanism, but more importantly, the principles that planners adhere to every day.