Sprawl Talk

In his review of several books on suburbia ("Room to Grow," February), Sam Staley contends that sprawl-and-mall suburbs are simply what people want and implies that any alternative is bound to be something bossy and over-planned like Celebration, Florida. This claim strikes me as simplistic and ahistorical.

Forty years ago, in The Death and Life of the Great American Cities, the great Jane Jacobs laid waste to the idea that a town or city can be built like a machine. She showed that the "ethnic" urban neighborhoods that the planners wanted to tear down were models of community in action, not deplorable "slums." She also showed that the planners were stuck in a Newtonian "two-variable" view of the world and had not entered the era when science attempts to deal with "organized complexity" (ecology, information theory). There is the same debate today in forestry, where the environmental community sees a forest as an interwoven set of biological systems of awe-inspiring complexity, while the timber industry sees a forest as a "tree farm."

It is somewhat fashionable to defend contemporary sprawling suburbs as somehow the spontaneous result of people doing their thing. Those who believe otherwise are accused of advocating the sort of planning Ms. Jacobs deplored. This theory ignores the extent to which sprawl development is the result of deliberate government policy, both federal and local. Tax law, lending regulations, and numerous perversities in planning, zoning, and tax codes, all contribute to some of the worst features of sprawl development: its waste of land, its artificial separation of functions (you can't walk down to the store or to a movie) and its transportation nightmares (work is further and further away -- there are people in California who commute for four hours a day).

There are restrictions and there are restrictions. Without urban growth boundaries such as those Portland has so wisely adopted, much of the open space and natural beauty that most Americans treasure will be lost. (I note that it is voters who are putting in UGBs by referendum -- politicians and bureaucrats tend to resist them.) So planning is needed, but not the totalitarian kind of either the Disney traditionalists or the New Deal modernists. We need planning that makes more room, not less, for people to do their thing in their many and varied ways. Planning that is based on the way people are in the real world, not on what officials and bureaucrats think they should be like.

None of this implies that suburbs are a bad thing, or that everybody has to live in a big city. It is simply a matter of acknowledging that what worked well in 1957 doesn't necessarily work well in 2001, and that we need to look at new ways of getting what we want while avoiding some of the unintended consequences of past ways of doing things.

Mr. Staley writes, "It's residents who create communities, not architects or planners. Urban design can certainly facilitate community building, but it can't dictate it." I couldn't agree more. Planners, politicians, developers, and just plain folks all need to keep that philosophy in mind.

Joe Willingham
Berkeley, CA

Thank you for Sam Staley's very interesting article on suburbs past and present. Yet I think that he has missed the appeal of New Urbanism to those of us who are neither Marxist nor especially interested in community life.

What withers in suburbia is quality of life. The maddening inconvenience of having to drive everywhere (and sit in the parking lots we call "commercial streets" and "freeways"); the total dependence it forces on our children, who require full-time chauffer services for any activity outside home; the alienating quality of living in a landscape you don't (and by design can't) walk through -- this is the core of suburban misery, from which most of my friends have tried to escape by moving to a relatively urban center.

Yes, the ugliness of suburban sprawl is depressing, but let's admit that most American cities are no great beauties either. It's just that living in a city or town of walkers and public transportees is so much less labor-intensive and more stim-ulating than the coma of the Sherwoode Forestes and Foxcrofte Pointes.

Sonya Nikolsky
Durham, NC

"Room to Grow" was excellent. I was especially glad to see the review of the Levittown material. Have you ever seen the Zippy comic series? It dealt with the evolved landscape of Levittown. The cartoonist (Bill Griffith) apparently lived there as a child, and notes how those cookie-cutter homes, together with the landscape of which they are a part, have evolved in a most diverse and complex manner over the past 50 years.

Michael Martin
Assistant Professor
Iowa State University
Ames, IA

Sam Staley replies: I concur with Sonya Nikolsky's point that New Urbanist design appeals to many preferring a denser, more urban living environment. The New Urbanist vision provides an alternative, and public policy should be directed toward maximizing the amount of choice available to households and families. Unfortunately, Suburban Nation is promoting New Urbanism as a general urban-design principle that doesn't value diversity of housing and neighborhoods.

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