Sprawl and the American Dream: Reviews of Suburban Nation, How Cities Work, and Picture Windows (2002)

(More recycled material, to make amends for lack of recent new blog content — although I do aspire to, at some point, Beckett-like celebrity for a sparse, austere approach to content. These reviews were originally published in JAPA, 2002. Though uncredited due to that journal’s policy, my pal Lisa Schweitzer coauthored the first draft. P.S. Note that a second edition of Crabgrass Frontier is due out in 1 year.)

Suburban Nation: The Rise of Sprawl and the Decline of the American Dream
Andres Duany, Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk and Jeff Speck. North Point Press, New York, 2000.
290 pp. $30, $18 (pb).

How Cities Work: Suburbs, Sprawl, and The Roads Not Taken
Alex Marshall. University of Texas Press, Austin, Texas, 2000.
243 pp. $24.95 (pb).

Picture Windows: How the Suburbs Happened
Rosalyn Baxandal and Elizabeth Ewen. Basic Books, New York, 2000.
298 pp. $27.50

What is the role of planners in the American dream, and are they the good guys or the bad?

The stylishly written and illustrated Suburban Nation addresses this question in spades. The authors include the extraordinarily influential design team of Duany and Plater-Zyberk, cofounders of the “New Urbanism” and perhaps best known as the designers of Seaside, Florida, the real life town portraying the fake “perfect town” of Seahaven Island in the 1998 film The Truman Show.

The book summarizes their take on what is wrong with suburbia and what to do about it. They begin by describing two sets of problems: (1) The ways in which the suburbs are bad, and (2) the ways in which the suburbs are badly designed. The point is to emphasize the connection between the two and the direct implication that a good many of America’s problems are best addressed by proper urban design.

What problems? As described by Suburban Nation, the suburbs are not merely the familiar banal clichés of fiction and journalism; they also morph residents into tragic, unhealthy, and dangerous castaways. Suburbs fundamentally corrupt the American dream by isolating, segregating, wasting resources, and assaulting our esthetic–chiefly, according to this book, by separating land uses and indulging the car.

And who did this? Planners, mainly. Overly bureaucratic planners and engineers allowed zoning and roadway standardization to dictate urban form rather than the other way around, misguided federal policies subsidized land and auto consumption, and the space-devouring automobile was unfairly favored over other travel modes. (The transit example is the film, Who Framed Roger Rabbit?) For Duany, Plater-Zyberk, and Speck, the nonsensical, inhumane disaster they characterize as American suburbia didn’t just happen. Planners made it happen.

Their core solutions are neighborhood design strategies. As an overlay to the merits of mixed land uses, walking, and transit, their proposals favor residential areas with the fit and finish of small New England or southern towns, including commercial areas within walking distance that look more like main street than office parks or strip development. The key is to emulate the “traditional, organic” form of prezoning America. Their evidence this will work? For every generic flaw of the modern suburb, the authors point to a specific built feature of Alexandria, VA, Charleston, NC, or one of their own projects which in this or that respect looks and feels better.

Their preferred implementation scheme is the wholesale rejection of traditional zoning codes, ideally to be replaced (or offered as an alternative if politics preclude dropping zoning altogether) by a design master plan, including architectural restrictions, that specifies the physical “vision” of the city.

The good: The authors make several sound points about the mindlessness of certain engineering standards, the often thoughtless application of zoning, and the visual coldness of unimaginative, homogeneous subdivisions. The discussion of infill issues is especially thoughtful, including the compelling argument that downtown commercial areas should be managed more like malls.

The bad: Like most works of pure advocacy, this is an easy book to take issue with. On the one hand, its dual claims that suburbs are hell and that a physical master plan–supervised by enlightened architects–is key to delivering the American Dream are arrogant, alarmist, and doctrinal. On the other, it inflates positive and negative conclusions alike, largely without documentation. Errors of omission and commission abound. (The discussion of transportation problems and remedies is as righteously naïve as any we’ve seen.) There is nothing balanced or moderate here, and little that is new.

But balance does not seem to be the purpose of Suburban Nation and one could make the case that such criticism is misplaced. This is neither an academic study nor a “best practices” reference. Rather, it is an opinion essay and marketing strategy aimed at pitching the single-minded idea that urban design matters and that “traditional” design works best. That mission is best suited to a simplistic, polemical branding effort.

Even on those terms, however, it is unclear how well the book succeeds. An effective marketing campaign must speak to whether the product will deliver on its promises. There is no doubt that the authors design pleasant, attractive neighborhoods that many–if they could afford it–prefer to their own. Whether these projects represent a new planning paradigm, reduce sprawl, and salvage the American dream is something else again.

In How Cities Work, Alex Marshall argues that the main deficiency of the New Urbanism is its superficial understanding of what makes cities, and their communities, really work. It is more than design; it is politics, economics, and transportation.

New Urbanism is typically American because it suggests no limits. Under its rubric, Americans are told they can eat their cake and have it, too. They can both continue outward development, and have all the joys of urbanism. It can be compared to a fad diet in its proposition that we can build our way out of the excesses of sprawl.… But the only way to build a more coherent environment and metropolitan area is to do the urban equivalent of exercising more and eating less… (p. 37)


Using examples from many cities, Marshall pulls together an intricate, thoughtful description of the political economy surrounding sprawl, the suburbs, and debates about both. For example, the Disney Company enclave of Celebration, Florida, is explicitly based on places like the neighboring town of Kissimmee. However, not only is the traditional Kissimmee main street in decline, but its similarly styled, authentic, and larger homes are selling at a fraction of those in Celebration. Marshall concludes:

Real-estate values are a reality check. The lesson they teach us is that people don’t want to live in a real Florida small town! They want to live a fake small town where they can pretend to live in a real one. There are too many intrusions of reality into Kissimmee…. No, better to buy a home in Celebration at five times the price, and lament how small-town values have faded in the United States. {emphasis in original} (p. 26).


Marshall sensibly argues that, lacking the financial clout and tourist appeal of a Disney project, real small towns ultimately depend on more critical economic factors, such as the transportation network and the market area requirements of local commerce.

For all his protests to the contrary, however, his prescription ends up looking like it was lifted from Suburban Nation. But for Marshall, transportation infrastructure–not zoning and not design–provides the mechanism for building better places.

Build subways and people will live in dense neighborhoods and walk to corner stores; build broad suburban boulevards and they will live in subdivisions and drive to WalMart (p. xiv)


With this contention, Marshall makes the same mistake for which he criticizes the New Urbanists; he indulges in the assumption that we can build our way out of sprawl. Only for Marshall, we build our way out with transportation investments.

How Cities Work asserts a straightforward, deterministic relationship among transportation investment policy, mode choice, and development patterns. That streetcars, suburbs, ferries, and horse carts had already dispersed urban activities–albeit to a more limited degree–long before the highway arrived goes unacknowledged in his otherwise sensible treatment of suburbia.

Surprisingly, the most insightful of these books is the least provocative. Picture Windows offers an elegantly crafted history of suburban Long Island, particularly Levittown and other south beach cities. They emphasize two elements largely ignored elsewhere: First, the suburbs, despite their culture of conformity and other drawbacks, represented the fullest realization of the American Dream for working class families and many others in the post-war period. Mass production techniques, and the architectural uniformity this required, made homeownership available to former tenement dwellers astonished at their good fortune.

Second, the suburbs are a moving target that continue to evolve with the changing identities, tastes, and fortunes of their residents. The authors resist cliché to describe suburbia as more than a haven for vacuous newlyweds or a prison for harried housewives chained to their minivans. It is a canvas on which larger social and economic forces play out, few of which concern the precise form of the built environment.

Even so, the authors do not romanticize. Their archival evidence and extensive interviews reveal that the Long Island suburbs throughout the 20th century were far from homogenized, tranquil spaces. From its inception suburbia has been a contested and evolving landscape where (1) proponents of public housing lost out to private developers, (2) Blacks, new immigrants, and less affluent residents, all with their own American dreams, struggled for the good life within and throughout a deeply prejudicial suburban space, and (3) women banded together to forge emancipatory and empowering social networks.

Kenneth Jackson’s more ambitious Crabgrass Frontier of 15 years ago painted the causes, stages, and consequences of suburbanization in broad sweeps. Picture Windows offers the insights of a narrower inspection of one region and its oral history. In very different style but in the tradition of D.J. Waldie’s Holy Land (a stark and bittersweet memoir of the similarly disparaged mass produced suburb of Lakewood, California), we find there are many stories, often wonderful, often terrifying, in the suburbs. Do municipal planners know this? Assuredly so, but that understanding is often neglected in the larger polemical debates over the role of planning in American life.

Is suburban life, like the American Dream, problematic? Perhaps. The response of Suburban Nation is simple: Planning “rationalism” has failed and it is time for architects to retreat to what worked before. “Trained to be among the most wide-ranging problem-solvers in the world, architects need to rededicate themselves to their communities, whether those communities seem to want them or not.” (p. 214) This argument fails on several levels, which isn’t to say the authors are wrong on every count. They aren’t. The inference that planners who do not swallow the New Urbanism whole are planners behaving badly, however, overreaches.

How Cities Work concludes that the New Urbanism is cosmetic. In reality, Marshall says, the dynamic of cities and neighborhoods is complex, reflecting deep political and economic forces largely beyond local control. Yet even as he admits this may not fit all tastes and is largely speculative, he claims that a New Urbanist approach to transportation will fundamentally improve travel behavior and land markets.

In a world where nothing is constant but change, Picture Windows refreshingly offers no grand strategy for how to plan best across all circumstances. The American Dream is a mixed bag because life (and suburbia) is a complex series of tradeoffs, disappointments, and triumphs. Picture Windows implicitly challenges planners to be good in at least this much: Respect your residents, their varied stories, and their evolving dreams. And don’t promise the moon.

Jackson, Kenneth. 1986. Crabgrass Frontier. Oxford.
Waldie, D.J. 1996. Holy Land: A Suburban Memoir. Norton.

Thursday, April 27th, 2006
randall Crane
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