All Commentary
Friday, June 1, 2001

Suburban Nation: The Rise of Sprawl and the Decline of the American Dream by Andres Duany, Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk, and Jeff Speck

An Arrogant First Step on a Journey Toward Tyranny

North Point Press (Farrar, Straus and Giroux) • 2000 • 290 pages • $30.00

The authors of Suburban Nation are luminaries in the movement called “the New Urbanism.” Their goal is to stop what they view as the misshapen sprawl around cities, which they consider alienating, destructive of community, and wasteful of land. Suburban Nation is, in their words, a “call to arms” to redesign American communities.

Andres Duany, Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk, and Jeff Speck are scathing in their denunciation of suburbia today. A typical suburb is a “city of garages” and “single-use pods.” The “stupefying monotony” is relieved only by gimmicks such as multiple gables and peaked roofs (a “house on steroids”), the “California jog” (a series of homes placed diagonally on a lot), and “dingbats” (apartment buildings built over their own parking lots). As for the cul-de-sacs and curving roads of suburbia, they are “utterly disorienting.”

These suburban pods are linked by highways to which commercial strips attach “like a parasite.” The distance between neighborhoods isolates people, and the separation of commercial and residential sectors blocks a sense of community. The authors contend that amenities like cathedral ceilings and luxurious bathroom spas exist primarily “to fill the spiritual void created by the absence of community.”

The automobile is the villain, a “potentially sociopathic device” that allows people to live in distant, scattered locations and still hold jobs. The authors want towns and cities to look the way they did in the first half of the twentieth century, before the automobile took over. Their plan is this: New neighborhoods must be designed with straight streets in a grid-like pattern, with alleys behind houses so that garages are hidden. Population density should be high, with single-family homes close to the street, townhouses abutting the street, and apartments above storefronts. Residents should live within walking distance of shopping and a public transit line. Commercial buildings should create “pedestrian-friendly” streetscapes with their storefronts, and their parking lots should be out of sight (getting pedestrians from one to the other, they admit, is “tricky”).

Major streets should be narrow and one-way streets avoided (because they encourage speeding). Residential streets should use “traffic calming” devices such as “speed bumps, rumble strips, hammerheads, flare-outs, doglegs, and other combinations of geometry, landscape, and street furniture.” In fact, the authors recommend 26-foot-wide two-way residential streets. Those streets are not wide enough for two cars to pass one another, so when cars meet, one of them must move into the parking lane (assuming that it is not in use) to let the other go by.

The authors know that achieving their goals beyond a few idiosyncratic neighborhoods will require governmental force, but they employ euphemisms, talking in terms of “incentives” and “federal funding criteria.” They recommend the formation of a “regional-scale agency” that can address problems through a “comprehensive Regional Plan.” They urge plans to be “drawn with such precision that only the architectural detail is left to future designers.”

Since regional agencies are few in number, they urge states to take an active role, withholding funds for towns that lack “smart growth” planning and overruling state transportation departments if necessary. (Transportation departments are part of the problem because they concentrate on moving automobiles quickly, rather than accommodating the cars to town or city destinations.)

The federal government, too, must get involved. Not only should more public transit be financed through gasoline taxes but the government should use its funding power to “regulate the urban design within a half-mile radius of all new stations.” There must be “federal incentives to convince developers to do business downtown” and a “federal initiative” that coordinates “affordable housing provision, business assistance, job creation, and social services.” With their plan in place, it seems that there would be little left for the market to address or private individuals to make decisions about.

Sprawling growth and especially suburban traffic upset many people, but the suburbs exist because millions of individuals have assessed their options and chosen to live there. Duany, Plater-Zyberk, and Speck want to overthrow those decisions and fit people into living patterns they think are better.

The book does offer some useful insights into neighborhood design and layout. It sheds light on the mistakes of architectural “modernists” who thought that their buildings could change human nature and recognizes that a lot of “cookie-cutter” housing stems from rigid zoning codes.

Unfortunately, the authors don’t want to free up zoning codes or let ideas compete in the marketplace. Convinced that they know what is best for Americans, they want the government to impose it. Such arrogance, as we know from history, is the first step on a journey to tyranny. It may well be that Suburban Nation is the road map.

Jane Shaw is a senior associate of PERC (the Political Economy Research Center) and co-editor with Ronald D. Utt of A Guide to Smart Growth: Shattering Myths and Providing Solutions (Heritage Foundation and PERC).

  • Jane Shaw is president of the Pope Center for Higher Education Policy.