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Thoughts about the relationships between transport and the urban area it serves


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I am going to break a convention that I have adopted on this blog, which is to not pay too much attention to the (increasing) volume of puff pieces I get from PR companies. In this case I think it is justified based on what the man himself has to say. Ten years ago he, together withLizz Plater-Zyberk and Jeff Speck published a book called “Suburban Nation: The Rise of Sprawl and the Decline of the American Dream”. Today a tenth anniversary edition appears – and below I am reproducing in full Duany’s preface to the new edition.

I am currently greatly concerned about the way this region is going. Well, I have been concerned about that for at least the last 15 years, but for much of that time I thought that direction might change. But now that the freeway construction is well under way, and the real estate market seems to be shaking off the impact of events in 2008, I have the strong feeling it is getting to be too late. Yes people produce reports – and tv shows – that suggest rail for the valley might be a solution to some of our problems. But that would be too little, too late even if it was done, which seems improbable. Because we are still stuck with the suburban mind set. Its not just the transport infrastructure – its the way we think. And it is not just this region that is doomed – it is the entire planet: or rather, our continued occupation of the same. And it is this quote which convinced me that I should allow Duany some space here.

We can now state in no uncertain terms that blame for the planet’s environmental problems lies with the lifestyle of the American middle class: the way we live large and occupy land, the way we must drive to accomplish so many perfectly ordinary tasks, the way we grow our food, and the way a car-dependent social isolation leads us to compensate with an astonishing level of unnecessary consumption. In other words, the root cause of the fearsome crisis is this amiable suburban life of ours, and we have to do something about it RIGHT NOW.

The widening of the freeway, the building of the SFPR and a new Port Mann bridge – and the lack of commitment to do anything significant to make other ways of getting around the region possible – are all part of the plan to continue with “business as usual”. It does not matter what anyone says – including whatever text is finally produced for the new regional strategy. We are not going to be sustainable, because that would mean we would have to change our ways. And, on the whole, we do not want to.

It is not enough to argue about what kind of transit might be nice, or how encourage more people to ride bikes. If the way we occupy and use land does not change, none of that matters. Getting from 11% transit mode share to 17% was hard enough – and we have hardly started on that. But that was because we never really dealt with any of the issues effectively, and we kept being rolled over by spin doctors and communications experts hired by the corporations to convince us that we needed to allow them to pursue their own profitability regardless of what that was doing to ourselves and the place where we live. If there is no clean air, clean water or nutritious food (odd that I have to use that construction – but much of what is sold as food is in fact very bad for us) then we have no life. The economy is a subsidiary enterprise to the environment – not the other way round. Economic growth cannot continue indefinitely on a finite planet and we already grossly exceed its carrying capacity. We must change – and we must change now, and dramatically. And that has to start with each one of us, and with the place where we live. What we can do is limited – but could be much more, once the need for change is accepted. And part of that has to be retrofitting the suburbs to make car dependancy a thing of the past. Yes, there may still be some cars – and many might be electric, or run on compressed air. That is unimportant. What is important is to change the way the rules are written to allow for more choices – and better choices than we have now.


By Andres Duany

When Suburban Nation was being written a dozen years ago, each of the authors fell into a role. Jeff was the purveyor of the light touch. His easygoing tone has contributed as much as anything to the book’s appeal. It is probably responsible for the number of people who have told me that, to their own surprise, they read it to the end. Lizz, for her part, was the guardian of clarity. She has no patience for obscurantism in language or message. The simple and straightforward writing is an extension of her educational philosophy at the University of Miami, where what should be taught is “plain old good architecture.” Her success is evidenced by the book’s unexpected assignment as student reading—even in high school.

My own contribution to the editing process was a result of simple time management. With new towns to design that could outlast the centuries, why spend an inordinate number of hours on a text that might have a shelf life of only a few years? I was aware of the tension between a book focused on a present problem and one of lasting relevance, and I pressed strongly for the latter. In this regard, Jane Jacobs’ forty-year-old Death and Life of Great American Cities was my model. A difficult one to live up to, granted, but the pursuit of unattainable ideals is stimulating. And so I undertook the editing with an eye to issues that were of the more transcendental sort. In this, the magisterial subject of urbanism certainly provided a good start. The fashionable was eradicated under my pen—and so I bear any blame that the book is not nearly as hip as the younger Jeff would have had it.

Then, shortly after it was published, I realized that, while I had checked the book for technical obsolescence, I had not done so for political survivability. More out of curiosity than anything, I asked for assessments from two friends attuned to right-wing and left-wing bias. Both marked-up copies returned with a similar number of disputed passages, and I remember being surprised at how avoidable they were. Although we could have smoothed the feathers for this second edition, the original text remains intact, as it has done no great harm. It seems that, for different reasons, Suburban Nation is read by radical protectors of the environment no less than by conservatives concerned with the restoration of the human community. Perhaps this is because it avoids ideology altogether and puts theory last—simply proposing an alternative habitat for the American middle class, which deserves much better than it is getting. Most Americans are self-interested and pragmatic enough to realize that New Urbanist communities make more sense than the sprawl model, and that they suffer very few downsides. Only extreme libertarians, who so relentlessly espouse choice, fail to understand that such communities are not allowed under the current planning regime, and that the book is actually proposing that they should be included among the available options.

But politics deliver only temporary buffetings, while obsolescence is terminal. There are important questions that should be asked now about the book, such as what has proven to be wrong, and what was left out? Although I am fairly certain that I will not be able to repeat this claim in a 20th anniversary edition, so far nothing much has been contradicted or become irrelevant. In fact, the book seems today less urgent only because its message has permeated the public discourse. It has been absorbed in initiatives of the Environmental Protection Agency, the Institute of Transportation Engineers, the U.S. Green Building Council, and others, as Lizz relates. In fact, many of the book’s prescriptions have by now been institutionalized as regulations. I confess that for me this is not always gratifying, as I find revolution more interesting than administration.

Regarding what was left out of the book ten years ago: several issues that were then on the sidelines have grown in importance to become protagonists today. Chief among them is local food production, now evolving into Agricultural Urbanism (“Ag is the new golf!”). Then there is the awful health performance of the suburban lifestyle, which would warrant an entire chapter now that the research is available. And there was insufficient emphasis on the problems of water quality, although dedicating too many pages to any issue that is not experienced universally would not have been in the spirit of the book.

Perhaps what most dates Suburban Nation regards the problem we marginally addressed as atmospheric pollution, now understood to be the catastrophe of Climate Change. A better understanding of this issue would have warranted a greater urgency to our call for the reform of suburban sprawl, and positioned the book closer to the center of the current debate. We can now state in no uncertain terms that blame for the planet’s environmental problems lies with the lifestyle of the American middle class: the way we live large and occupy land, the way we must drive to accomplish so many perfectly ordinary tasks, the way we grow our food, and the way a car-dependent social isolation leads us to compensate with an astonishing level of unnecessary consumption. In other words, the root cause of the fearsome crisis is this amiable suburban life of ours, and we have to do something about it RIGHT NOW.
And today, as clueless design consultants foist sprawl on Europe, Arabia, Latin America and Asia, this book becomes even more essential. There is apparently a Chinese edition of Suburban Nation. We should wish it many printings.

Miami, Florida

Written by Stephen Rees

September 22, 2010 at 12:55 pm

Posted in Transportation

2 Responses

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  1. Though Duany et al are to be commended for changing the attitude of the planning community about the suburban model, Duany often fails to emphasize the increasingly primacy of public transit in urban design.

    Many of the New Urbanist communities built so far, perhaps the majority (including Patrick Condon’s Clayton as the local example) are as car-dependent as the suburbs they seek to replace. You need a lot more than gravel road shoulders, storm water sloughs, tack-on front porches, contrived 19th Century facadism, and a dressed up strip mall at the centre to create a complete community. You instead need larger, denser towns with more deeply rooted economies to attain enough self-sufficiency to provide jobs closer to home and reduce the need to commute beyond your neighbourhood. Efficient transit links from New Urbanist developments to the nearest big city will prove essential in future.

    And where is the industrial land base of New Urbanist developments?

    This issue is partly addressed in ‘Resilient Cities, Responding to Peak Oil and Climate Change’ (Newman, Beatley & Boyer, 2009) and will rise to the forefront as fossil fuel prices start to rise again with deep impacts on the world economy.

    This is not to say that Duany doesn’t address some of the more recent issues like urban food production, only that the sites chosen for the application of New Urbanist formulae are often too isolated to provide adequate alternatives to the private car and dependence on fossil fuels.


    September 22, 2010 at 3:07 pm

  2. The worse part is that it is not just the Europeans.
    Both in Europe and Japan newest suburbs are single family hones only. Not too many services or mixed use buildings either.
    At least in Japan, due to the geography of the whole country (long and narrow, with mountains along the central spine) new developments are a 10-15 minutes bike ride from a train station on long established train lines. But on weekends the new suburbanites use their cars.

    Red frog

    September 24, 2010 at 12:10 pm

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