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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Places Discussed

Posted 2005-04-20

People PlacesBook Notes by John December

This book explores how neighborhoods are the foundation of urban life. It discusses the vitality of living spaces as improved by connections, mixed uses, human-scale and transit-friendly spaces. The authors beg developers to look at practices that actually work to improve the quality of daily life rather than rely on theory, guesses, habit, or incorrect assumptions. As an example, adding freeway lanes to highways does not reduce commuting time, but merely invites more traffic. Development patterns that allow for mixed use and make possible other routes and modes of transit can ease automobile congestion.

This is an excellent book for decision makers or the general public to read. It is clearly written in simple language using a logical outline. It should help people who plan cities, develop living spaces, or live in cities to grasp the fundamentals of how to work for better, urban forms.

This book makes important points about affordable housing: allow small apartments and above-the-garage sorts of living spaces to be built.

This book also shows how politics can undermine efforts for a better urban form. For example, taxicab companies influenced a transit system: the Miami elevated Metro-Rail system that does not serve Miami International Airport nor Miami Beach (p. 141). I would also add an example that I have experienced: The Capital District (New York) Transportation Authority has very few buses that stop at Albany International Airport. This kind of influence reflects a great deal about the priorities of a region where political corruption takes precedence over making a place livable.

I find it astonishing to contemplate the points of this book along with The Geography of Nowhere and Asphalt Nation. What were the developers of the twentieth century thinking? Separting functions of a city--housing, retail, offices--looks good on paper and it is easy for planners and decision makers to understand, promote, fund, and manage, but it can make a difficult environment in which to live. Traffic engineers want to provide wide roads where traffic flows at high rates of speed to maximize traffic volume--but what does this mean for human beings who want to walk? The automobile is the dominant mode of transit, but building cities to require a car for almost every function in life is a terrible way to live.

This book makes an important point about open space (p. 31). Much of suburban open space is incredibly ugly and useless: drainage areas, fences, setbacks, yards, buffers between parking lots and access roads. This same kind of fixation on open space similarly irks Kunstler in The City in Mind. The point is that open space is not an end in itself, and in fact, useless open space is about the worst kind of space that you could have in an urban area where you want to create vibrancy through mixed use and density.

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