Customer Reviews: Suburban Nation: The Rise of Sprawl and the Decline of the American Dream
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on March 30, 2004
I found this book intriguing, because the authors understand why I like my neighborhood. Even better, they understand why I hate so many new housing projects. This is an important book, as vital as Jane Jacobs' work, and it has some uncomfortable truths to share. The US has become a Suburban Nation; a nation of badly-designed suburbs. The newest, more expensive ones are some of the worst.
My neighborhood has houses that are smallish, but sidewalks are everywhere. There are stores within reasonable walking distance, and not too many cul-de-sacs. Three parks are less than a mile away. That means I can walk more than one route to get places. More importantly, others walk the neighborhood too, so I actually meet my neighbors. A neighborhood built almost 50 years ago, the trees are mature (a rarity in Silicon Valley burbs) and provide shade, coolness, and beauty. 8000 square foot lots are neither so small that the houses are crushed together nor so large that walking seems to get you nowhere because it takes too long to pass each property.
Contrast this with the new developments going in: miniscule yards (and therefore little greenery), matchstick trees that don't receive any sun, overly wide arterials that offer only one way into or out of the development. Walls around the complex not only keep outsiders out, they prevent insiders from going out, too, unless they get in the car and crowd onto the only access road. Once in one's car, there is no opportunity to talk with neighbors on the inside, either.
Before reading Suburban Nation, I still had the same sense of what made a neighborhood compelling and we bought our home accordingly, preferring the old small house over the big new ones despite my need for closet space. Authors Duany, Plater-Zybeck, and Speck articulate these principals clearly and enjoyably. With many photographs illustrating both good and bad examples of city planning, Suburban Nation shows the consequences of bad assumptions as well as bad results. The authors like Winter Park, FL, because its downtown is walkable and residents, most of them retired and many who have given up driving, can easily participate in community life. They hate most of the new burbs being built because there is no there there, there's just a road from here to somewhere else with no central gathering point.
Most of the failure of the modern suburb is due to the automobile. Wider roads make a community less cohesive, because a wide road encourages speeding, while a narrow one encourages drivers to slow down, regardless of the posted speed limit. New communities have ridiculously wide roads, which not only lead to unsafe traffic but also discourages pedestrians. Cul-de-sacs, corners, and curves are overly wide as well, to accomodate uneeded 40 foot fire trucks; completely unneeded in a suburb where no building is over two stories but purchased by town councils wanting their fire chiefs to be happy. The net result is a 120 foot walk to cross a street instead of 40 feet because the corners are shaved to allow the stupid fire truck access, the fire truck the suburb DOES NOT NEED because a smaller truck would do just as good a job.
People claim to want to live in the suburbs for a smaller community, but the way they are built frustrates any chance of finding it. Planners consider schools to be traffic nuisances and build them away from central locations, yet larger schools are what leads to disconnection. Putting them on the boundaries instead of the center of town destroys a chance of meeting other children from the neighborhood, and further increases car usage. The authors ask why a school is considered a traffic nuisance rather than making them smaller to be community assets?
Duany and Plater-Zybeck have designed some marvelous new communities, and hope this well-written and ground-breaking book will publicize why they succeed. The first step is repealing the planning rules that prevent all these elements of vital community. Read Suburban Nation and find out how community building begins with good design.
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on March 25, 2004
I am not an architect or city planner, but I believe this book would be an interesting and informative read for anyone. It provides a lot of information and references for a professional and it is a great starting point for an amateur or concerned and active citizen. Additionally (and very difficult to accomplish all three), it is a very pleasant read for anyone else who wants to learn more about designing a neighborhood, how cities form, how to combat environmental destruction or simply why they do or don't enjoy a specific neighborhood.
Part of the success of this book for me was the format. There are small pages with wide margins. The margins allow for small black & white pictures directly next to the text they illustrate. The pictures by themselves are not very good, but they illustrate the text very well. Additionally, the authors used two systems of footnotes/endnotes (a system that I have not seen before) that expand and clarify the story very well, without bogging it down. For asides or amplifications, they have footnotes that you can quickly read, after you have finished your current line of thought. These sources are not always completely referenced, sometimes the authors only reference a series, article, or individual book; but if you are interested the source along with some additional thoughts from the authors are available. For the sources they are citing, the authors use a typical endnote system.
This book is a call to action. The authors try to explain the current problems with our cities (and consequently our lives) and some of their solutions. They do a very good job explaining their views, and I believe present a very convincing argument that these problems do not have one source or solution. The authors present problems with our cities today as problems that cut across all economic, social, environmental, occupational & cultural boundaries; and that only traditional neighborhoods cut across all these boundaries to solve these problems. The authors do NOT say that only architects or city planners can solve the major problems facing society today. Quite the opposite; they say that only an educated citizenry can solve these problems if they act truly collectively, and the only mechanism that they have seen that brings people together (across the above-mentioned boundaries) is a "traditional neighborhood".
I don't believe the authors are Ludites or are in any way opposed to modern technology or science; however, their basic position is that we need to re-read the texts from 100 years ago and stop using the latest gee-whiz-bang theory to design our cities and guide our lives. If fact, they directly state that experimentation is good; but that we should experiment on the rich because if the latest theory is cracked, the rich can always afford to move! Unfortunately, the rich and powerful seem to know that not all of the latest theories come out perfect the first time, so modern society experiments on the poor, with the predictable results.
Everyone should read this book!
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on April 10, 2000
I must say right out front that I gave this book a product endorsement known as a dust-jacket blurb, because I believe it is a book of terrific importance and high seriousness for a culture that is in trouble and needs help. The trouble is the fiasco of suburbia, and the help is the tremendously valuable service that Andres Duany, Lizz Plater-Zyberk, and their project manager Jeff Speck have done in writing this indispensible book, because it not only describes the American predicament with lucidity and precision, but it prescribes a set of excellent remedies with equal verve and intelligence. The architectural firm of Duany & Plater-Zyberk (DPZ) has shown really remarkable generosity to their colleagues over the past decade, giving away their expertise -- and the fruits of their hard work -- to virtually anyone who asked for it. Practically everything I know about civic design either came directly from them, or from a source they directed me to. I imagine they would have printed and distributed "Suburban Nation" themselves -- if it weren't for the fact that people generally don't feel something is worthy unless there is a price tag on it. But the contents of this book are truly priceless, and I regard "Suburban Nation" as a gift from a heroic and generous firm to their own culture. Like all good ideas whose time has come, the New Urbanist movement, in which DPZ played a major founding role, has been greeted with raspberries and skepticism by the gate-keepers of a beleaguered status quo. Life is tragic, and there will not be a guaranteed happy ending to the mess we have made of our American townscapes and landscapes. It is going to take the moral will of a self-confident and purposeful people to restore the everyday world of our nation. This important book offers good will, encouragement, and tremendous practical knowledge. One sure measure of its success is the opposition it is stirring up from the more culturally psychotic corners of America.
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on July 31, 2001
I've just finished "Suburban Nation: The Rise of Sprawl & the Decline of the American Dream" by architects/planners Andres Duany, Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk, and Jeff Speck. It's not just about the spread of sprawl; it's also about the consequent decline in community and public participation, since you can't have a sense of community when you're spread all over the countryside and have no geographic focus. The authors' thesis is that suburban sprawl is cheap only because it is massively subsidized, often, and ironically, by the very people who are forced by economics to remain behind in the cities (they can't afford cars); that the way out of urban-suburban traffic jams it TND, or traditional neighborhood development. They say that you can't build enough roads to handle all of the demand -- indeed, that building more roads, and widening existing roads, causes MORE traffic. You can't tax the property you've paved. And, furthermore, that wider roads encourage speeding and speed-related traffic injury and death, while making pedestrianism unattractive, if not a dangerous occupation.
Their solutions, explained and illustrated in the book (favorably mentioning some of my favorite places, such as Georgetown and Old Town Alexandria -- designs that would be illegal these days), include, in no particular order...
<> grid layout for neighborhood streets to lessen dependence on overused feeder roads (and autos, generally) <> mixed-income residential development to create a diverse community (horrors!) <> balanced mix of residences, businesses, shopping, recreation, and public buildings so everything is within walking distance (and so older people and children are not stranded, as they are in the suburbs, since they don't drive) <> narrow two-way streets, with parallel parking, to calm traffic and make sidewalks attractive to pedestrians <> avoidance of cul de sacs and winding streets, avoidance of wide street turning radiuses (which encourage speeding and endanger pedestrians) <> higher density development to maximize the usefulness of public transit and minimize dependence on autos (and dry, dignified places to wait for transit) <> accommodation of site topography and encouragement of unconventional intersections (which calm traffic) <> civic squares, plazas, a general store (subsidized, if necessary), a school or schools, a post office <> residences facing the street, with short, inviting setbacks and parking accessed by alleys in the rear (no garages facing the street) <> a diversity of housing types in close proximity; apartments above commercial space; subsidized housing stylistically similar to the rest <> businesses fronting directly on the street with only street parking in front (parallel parking on the street) <> all buildings with flat fronts and simple roofs, and (except for tiny homes) at least two stories tall <> most parking lots to the rear of buildings, with pedestrian-friendly parking-to-shopping passages (e.g., lined by shop windows) <> multi-point street connection with neighboring developments to lessen dependence on feeder roads
I used to live in Atlanta, where these ideas could go a long way to alleviate the chronic congestion there. And I was thrilled to read all of these ideas. I kept saying, "Yes! Yes! Yes!" like Meg Ryan in "When Harry Met Sally..." Well, maybe not that enthusiastically, but the authors had put in writing what I had long been thinking. The only problems are (a) some of these excellent ideas, which worked in communities 50 years old and older, are illegal today, under current sprawl-induced planning and zoning ordinances, and (b) there is considerable resistance to the regional planning authority necessary to encourage these standards.
So maybe it's just a dream. I don't want bigger government, but I wouldn't mind more effective government. And I live in a city with a well-run public transportation system -- by choice. Yeah, I can afford a car. But I still hate driving.
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VINE VOICEon August 28, 2000
An excellent critique of what's wrong with our suburbs. Two qualities make this book especially valuable:
1) while some books commentators attack suburbs and do no more, Duany et. al. offer a middle ground between Manhattan and the status quo, asserting that we can have all the advantages of suburbia without being slave to our cars. (The person who wrote that they want us all to live in "cramped city neighborhoods" must have been reading a different book than I read).
2) the most common argument for the status quo is that it is "what people want" and "what the market wants." Duany et. al. show that the status quo is the result not of too little government, but of too much government (though some of their remedies are a tiny bit statist for my taste). Again and again, they point out that sprawl was created by Big Brother's zoning rules, by Big Brother's highway spending, and by Big Brother's wide streets and mandatory free parking.
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on December 10, 2000
For decades now, America has been engaged in mindless, self-destructive "sprawl," poor (or nonexistent) planning, and social engineering on a massive scale (largely begun in the Cold War, with the intent of fighting and winning a nuclear war, believe it or not!). In this wonderful, sensible, well-reasoned, non-dogmatic book, the authors dissect the mess that we have created and offer practical solutions to build healthy, beautiful, livable communities again. Personally, I would describe this book more as "pro-community" and "pro-neighborhood" than "anti" anything - sprawl, suburbia - although those are worth opposing for the many, many reasons which the authors lay out. I bet you didn't know, for instance, all the reasons why suburbia actually is NOT, as the cliché goes, a "great place to raise a family." For one thing, far more kids are killed and maimed each year in automobile accidents, which are largely a suburban phenomenon, and suicide (which is exacerbated by alienating, isolating, sterile, autonomy-robbing, soulless subdivisions) then by inner city crime. And I don't think it's exactly a coincidence that ALL the school shootings over the past couple of years have been carried out by typical, bored, suburban kids with way too much time on their hands. Hmmmmm..... Although the subject matter might not seem too exciting at first glance, this book is actually highly readable, fascinating, and a great introduction for the non-technical person as to how we got where we are today in the way we live - and how to improve it! Besides architecture, history, and sociology, the authors offer numerous real-world examples from their extensive experiences which makes things come to life in a vivid way.
Among other things, the authors describe how the automobile came to dominate to such a ridiculous, even comical (if it weren't so pathetic) degree in America, and how automobile travel is subsidized to such a huge extent that the true price of gasoline should probably be about $9 per gallon, if all the subsidies, pollution, medical treatment necessitated by car-related injuries, etc. were paid for at the pump. Instead, we pay the cheapest price for gasoline in the world, and - as a percent of income - nearly the lowest in our history. Unfortunately, even though these costs ARE paid by us all (one way or the other), pandering to car owners in suburbia continues to work politically. In my state of Virginia, for instance, the current governor came to power largely by promising "no car tax" - the exact opposite of what "Suburban Nation" recommends we should be doing if we want to have livable communities and a society that works for everyone.
Besides our bizarre love affair with the automobile, the authors of "Suburban Nation" contrast traditional neighborhoods--"mixed-used, pedestrian-friendly communities" --where people of diverse backgrounds and economic levels interact, work, eat, play, and deal with each other (what a concept!), with suburbia, where housing, work, shopping, and public facilities are segregated from one another, so people are forced to drive everywhere, and where you might never have to deal with anyone much different (racially, economically) than yourself. What's important to realize, and the authors of "Suburban Nation" lay this out powerfully, is, just because things have been like this for several decades, IT DOESN'T HAVE TO BE THIS WAY, and things can be so much better! The bottom line is, we MADE it this way through government policy, powerful special interests (the automobile industry, big oil, road builders), and even racism.
Who suffers from all this? All Americans, basically, although of course the poor, the elderly, and children (i.e., those who are the least able to fight back and least powerful) suffer the worst, as usual. Plus, of course, the cities suffer, as does the environment, and all of our quality of life.
Reading this book got me energized and even inspired. I always knew I didn't like suburbia, and I got out of it as quickly as I could, but after reading "Suburban Nation," I now can explain exactly what was bothering me! I recommend that everyone who cares about their community and their quality of life (which should be everyone, I would think!) - get this book and read it. I bet you'll look at your own neighborhood differently after you're done!!
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on November 2, 2000
There have been 2 books that I have read in the last year that I can say have changed my life, the first being "Frozen Republic" by Daniel Lazare and Suburban Nation that I just finished the other day. I have felt for a long time that something was radically wrong with the way America developed its "real estate" after World War II having listened to Pete Seeger sing about sprawl in his "Ticky Tacky" houses on the hill. It was a revelation when I read Specks, Plater-Zyberk... work and saw the incredible amount of research that went into the book. I firmly believe that the course of action we have embarked upon is unsustainable for the long term,I just hope the whole thing doesn't implode in the meantime. My next item of busines is to convince my CEO boss that he has to change his mind about mass transit and other development issues and come on board to help affect change across the board in the way we order our physical environment. I would recommend this book to anyone who is serious about becoming involved in citizen participation in the smart devolopment movement.
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on July 28, 2000
Would you like your children to walk to school? to the dentist? to the Boy Scouts at the Community Center? Would you like to walk to the library? to the movies? to the Post Office? Would you like to take a short and comfortable ride to work on public transportation?
Only a generation ago all of the above were common. Most people lived in mixed-use neighborhoods. But the suburban life-style that is so dependant upon and so influenced by the automobile has substituted wheels for legs. It has replaced farmlands and woodlands with building sprawl-separate housing developments; separate retail malls; and separate office complexes.
Suburban Nation argues for a return to the neighborhood. It describes: how the existing system developed; what factors were responsible; how inefficient it is; and how we can restore neighborhoods.
Government was a major impetus for suburbia with: VA and FHA mortgage guarantees; zoning regulations, subsidies and government funding. Encouraging these governmental programs were the auto industry, the oil industry, the road and home builders. What has the suburban life-style brought? Many auto trips each day-for all those things we could accomplish on foot. Car upkeep has reduced the amount we could spend on housing. Despite extensive road building over the years congestion is worse, trips are longer and road rage increases. Thinking has become distorted. Government funding refers to "Highway Investment" as opposed to "Transit Subsidy"; and pays a $300 billion subsidy for trucking while scrutinizing every dollar for transit-yet trucking uses 15 times the fuel for an equivalent job; and 15 lanes of highway move as many people as one lane of track. One-half of air pollution emissions come from motor vehicles. Living in the suburbs is not safer for children. Auto accidents are twenty times more likely than gang activity to result in death. Suicides of teenagers, 12% of youth mortality which sociologists attribute to "teen isolation and boredom", are higher in the suburbs.
Restoring the neighborhoods will require regional planning and major rethinking. Multiple use building--housing, stores, offices-will constitute the neighborhood and must be coordinated on a regional basis. Public transit to be successful requires a minimum of seven units per acre.
If you answered "Yes" to the questions in the first paragraph, you will find this book valuable; if you answered "No", don't waste your time.
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on April 14, 2000
The citizens of the Suburban Nation have been heard from. One of them, Jack Daly, presents his diatribe for our perusal. Note that less than a quarter of the people reading his review found it helpful. That seems about right. It corresponds to the situation in suburbia, where the most negative NIMBYs are controlling the scene, despite the fact that they are more and more in the minority every day.
Modern suburbia created NIMBYism, the phenomenon of not wanting your neighbor to build the same house as yours next door to you. Modern suburbia, i.e. sprawl, is where Spiro Agnew's real nattering nabobs of negativity live: they want to hole up in their cabins-in-the-woods or MacMansions, turn on their cable tvs, and have the rest of the world go away. (Daly will probably now organize a campaign to have people declare my review unhelpful.)
For many of us who choose to continue to live in suburbia, sprawl is ruining the places we love. But the solution is not to copy the NIMBYs, who want to stop all other development once they have their new ranchburger on their own gated cul-de-sac. Most of us love our single-family houses, our neighborhoods and our small towns, and the way to keep them worthy of our affection, is to reinforce what made them good. That means that we need more than JUST a good house, a car and a traffic-free road.
In the words of James Howard Kunstler, "We want places that are worth caring about, so that we will have a life worth caring about." We have many places like that, in cities, towns and suburbs. We have to learn from them, as well as from our mistakes.
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on October 6, 2000
I bought this book for information -- I never expected it to be thoroughly fascinating as well. I couldn't put the darn thing down.
I spent my childhood in suburbia but fled for the city as soon as I moved out on my own. "Why???" my parents asked in alarmed tones. I could never properly articulate it. Now I can just hand them a copy of "Suburban Nation." As the authors explain, I was looking for a community, not just a collection of houses on a cul-de-sac.
The authors do a fantastic job of explaining how everything we've done for the past 50 years (restrictive zoning, massive highways, poor planning) has worked against creating cohesive communities. They also lay out strategies for reclaiming our cities and making them livable once more.
You'll never look at another "master-planned" neighborhood the same way again.
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