Suburban Nation - Excerpts From the Book

Chapter One: What Is Sprawl?

Elizabeth Platzer-Zyberk and Andres Duany in 1999
Elizabeth Platzer-Zyberk and Andres Duany in 1999. Photo by Robert Nickelsberg/Liaison/Hulton Archive Collection/Getty Images (cropped)

New Urbanist pioneers Andres Duany, Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk and Jeff Speck discuss problems of sprawl in their groundbreaking book, Suburban Nation. Read Chapter One now:

  • Two Ways to Grow
  • The Five Components of Sprawl
  • A Brief History of Sprawl
  • Why Virginia Beach is not Alexandria
  • Neighborhood Plans versus Sprawl Plans

The cities will be part of the country; I shall live 30 miles from my office in one direction, under a pine tree; my secretary will live 30 miles away from it too, in the other direction, under another pine tree. We shall both have our own car. We shall use up tires, wear out road surfaces and gears, consume oil and gasoline. All of which will necessitate a great deal of work ... enough for all.


-- Le Corbusier, The Radiant City (1967)

Two Ways To Grow

This book is a study of two different models of urban growth: the traditional neighborhood and suburban sprawl. They are polar opposites in appearance, function, and character: they look different, they act differently, and they affect us in different ways.

The traditional neighborhood was the fundamental form of European settlement on this continent through the Second World War, from St. Augustine to Seattle. It continues to be the dominant pattern of habitation outside the United States, as it has been throughout recorded history. The traditional neighborhood -represented by mixed-use, pedestrian-friendly communities of varied population, either standing free as villages or grouped into towns and cities- has proved to be a sustainable form of growth. It allowed us to settle the continent without bankrupting the country or destroying the countryside in the process.

Suburban sprawl, now the standard North American pattern of growth, ignores historical precedent and human experience. It is an invention, conceived by architects, engineers, and planners, and promoted by developers in the great sweeping aside of the old that occurred after the Second World War. Unlike the traditional neighborhood model, which evolved organically as a response to human needs, suburban sprawl is an idealized artificial system.

It is not without a certain beauty: it is rational, consistent, and comprehensive. Its performance is largely predictable. It is an outgrowth of modern problem solving: a system for living. Unfortunately, this system is already showing itself to be unsustainable. Unlike the traditional neighborhood, sprawl is not healthy growth; it is essentially self-destructive. Even at relatively low population densities, sprawl tends not to pay for itself financially and consumes land at an alarming rate, while producing insurmountable traffic problems and exacerbating social inequity and isolation. These particular outcomes were not predicted. Neither was the toll that sprawl exacts from America's cities and towns, which continue to decant slowly into the countryside. As the ring of suburbia grows around most of our cities, so grows the void at the center. Even while the struggle to revitalize deteriorated downtown neighborhoods and business districts continues, the inner ring of suburbs is already at risk, losing residents and businesses to fresher locations on a new suburban edge.

If sprawl truly is destructive, why is it allowed to continue? The beginning of an answer lies in sprawl's seductive simplicity, the fact that it consists of very few homogeneous components - five in all - which can be arranged in almost any way.

It is appropriate to review these parts individually, since they always occur independently. While one component may be adjacent to another, the dominant characteristic of sprawl is that each component is strictly segregated from the others.

Housing subdivisions, also called clusters and pods. These places consist only of residences. They are sometimes called villages, towns, and neighborhoods by their developers, which is misleading, since those terms denote places which are not exclusively residential and which provide an experiential richness not available in a housing tract. Subdivisions can be identified as such by their contrived names, which tend toward the romantic -Pheasant Mill Crossing- and often pay tribute to the natural or historic resource they have displaced.

Shopping centers, also called strip centers, shopping malls, and big-box retail.

These are places exclusively for shopping. They come in every size, from the Quick Mart on the corner to the Mall of America, but they are all places to which one is unlikely to walk. The conventional shopping center can be easily distinguished from its traditional main-street counterpart by its lack of housing or offices, its single-story height, and its parking lot between the building and the roadway.

Office parks and business parks. These are places only for work. Derived from the modernist architectural vision of the building standing free in the park, the contemporary office park is usually made of boxes in parking lots. Still imagined as a pastoral workplace isolated in nature, it has kept its idealistic name and also its quality of isolation, but in practice it is more likely to be surrounded by highways than by countryside.

Civic institutions. The fourth component of suburbia is public buildings: the town halls, churches, schools, and other places where people gather for communication and culture. In traditional neighborhoods, these buildings often serve as neighborhood focal points, but in suburbia they take an altered form: large and infrequent, generally unadorned owing to limited funding, surrounded by parking, and located nowhere in particular. The school pictured here shows what a dramatic evolution this building type has undergone in the past thirty years. A comparison between the size of the parking lot and the size of the building is revealing: this is a school to which no child will ever walk. Because pedestrian access is usually nonexistent, and because the dispersion of surrounding homes often makes school buses impractical, schools in the new suburbs are designed based on the assumption of massive automotive transportation.

Roadways. The fifth component of sprawl consists of the miles of pavement that are necessary to connect the other four disassociated components. Since each piece of suburbia serves only one type of activity, and since daily life involves a wide variety of activities, the residents of suburbia spend an unprecedented amount of time and money moving from one place to the next.

Since most of this motion takes place in singly occupied automobiles, even a sparsely populated area can generate the traffic of a much larger traditional town.

The traffic load caused by the many disassociated pieces of suburbia is most clearly visible from above. As seen in this image of Palm Beach County, Florida, the amount of pavement (public infrastructure) per building (private structure) is extremely high, especially when compared to the efficiency of a section of an older city like Washington, D.C. The same economic relationship is at work underground, where low-density land-use patterns require greater lengths of pipe and conduit to distribute municipal services. This high ratio of public to private expenditure helps explain why suburban municipalities are finding that new growth fails to pay for itself at acceptable levels of taxation.

How did sprawl come about? Far from being an inevitable evolution or a historical accident, suburban sprawl is the direct result of a number of policies that conspired powerfully to encourage urban dispersal. The most significant of these were the Federal Housing Administration and Veterans Administration loan programs which, in the years following the Second World War, provided mortgages for over eleven million new homes. These mortgages, which typically cost less per month than paying rent, were directed at new single-family suburban construction. Intentionally or not, the FHA and VA programs discouraged the renovation of existing housing stock, while turning their back on the construction of row houses, mixed-use buildings, and other urban housing types. Simultaneously, a 41,000-mile interstate highway program, coupled with federal and local subsidies for road improvement and the neglect of mass transit, helped make automotive commuting affordable and convenient for the average citizen. Within the new economic framework, young families made the financially rational choice: Levittown. Housing gradually migrated from historic city neighborhoods to the periphery, landing increasingly farther away.

Copyright © 2000 Duany, Plater-Zyberk, Speck
Reprinted with permission

Suburban Nation: The Rise of Sprawl and the Decline of the American Dream by Andres Duany, Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk, and Jeff Speck
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Duany, SUBURBAN NATION by Andres, Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk and Jeff Speck. "Suburban Nation - Excerpts From the Book." ThoughtCo, Feb. 27, 2017, thoughtco.com/what-is-a-suburban-nation-177637. Duany, SUBURBAN NATION by Andres, Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk and Jeff Speck. (2017, February 27). Suburban Nation - Excerpts From the Book. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/what-is-a-suburban-nation-177637 Duany, SUBURBAN NATION by Andres, Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk and Jeff Speck. "Suburban Nation - Excerpts From the Book." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/what-is-a-suburban-nation-177637 (accessed October 20, 2017).