Room to Grow

What's so bad about the suburbs?


Suburban Nation: The Rise of Sprawl and the Decline of the American Dream, by Andres Duany, Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk, and Jeff Speck, New York: North Point Press, 290 pages, $30

The Celebration Chronicles: Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Property Value in Disney's New Town, by Andrew Ross, New York: Ballantine Books, 340 pages, $25.95

Picture Windows: How the Suburbs Happened, by Rosalyn Baxandall and Elizabeth Ewen, New York: Basic Books, 298 pages, $27.50

Andres Duany and Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk are the husband-and-wife team that pioneered the most influential urban planning movement of the past 20 years, the so-called New Urbanism. From its start in the early 1980s in the Florida Panhandle resort town of Seaside, their design movement has blossomed into a self-styled revolution, one that has won the hearts and minds of thousands of planners, developers, and elected officials. During the Clinton years, both the Environmental Protection Agency and the Department of Housing and Urban Development embraced New Urbanist principles; so have regional planning agencies from Portland to Fort Worth.

In an era when development has become a bad word, the New Urbanism is about more than neighborhood design, as Suburban Nation-the new book by Duany, Plater-Zyberk, and planner Jeff Speck-makes clear. "Americans have been building a national landscape that is largely devoid of places worth caring about," it proclaims. "You are against growth, because you believe that it will make your life worse. And you are correct in that belief."

But the authors aren't really against growth per se. They're just against growth that they didn't design, or that isn't rooted in their principles. At first their rhetoric seems liberating, as they chastise the officials who have prescribed low-density, single-use development through restrictive zoning codes. ("The problem," they write, "is that one cannot easily build Charleston [South Carolina] anymore, because it is against the law.") But the reader quickly learns that for Duany, Plater-Zyberk, and Speck, choice is only good when people choose New Urbanist ideas about growth and planning.

For the authors, the problem with American cities and suburbs is what we might call privatism. Subdivisions lack the public civic centers that were central to traditional neighborhoods, while large, private spaces proliferate. The trio's solution is detailed public regulation, an approach that leaves little room for spontaneity or evolution. "To truly improve quality of life," they write, "the planning codes must define open space with the same degree of precision and concern that they now apply to the design of parking lots." At a minimum, this means dictating the size of yards, the physical position of houses on lots, the type and variety of facades, and site-specific densities.

The result is a paradox: The authors want to take a problem they believe was fundamentally caused by politics, and solve it with…more politics. To them, the problem isn't the rule of experts-it's that the wrong experts have been in charge.

Suburban Nation makes its arguments within an exclusively political and architectural framework, virtually ignoring private real estate markets and the complex interactions between developers and planning boards. For these writers, housing and communities are developed first and foremost according to local codes. Politicians and regulators determine a community's physical design, not developers, builders, or consumers working through the property market.

This account leaves out a great deal. While zoning may prescribe specific densities, it also provides for some flexibility, as with planned unit developments. These are, in effect, negotiated agreements in which planning boards allow companies to develop housing that is largely independent of local codes. Developers often shy away from planned unit developments because of their tremendous up-front political and financial costs: The deliberations are often politically charged, and the projects are scrutinized intensely by both planners and citizens. Nonetheless, people will pay more for a house with features they want, which may include more public open space and less private yard. So if the local housing market is strong-if the potential revenues are higher than the potential political costs-planned unit developments and other alternatives to the standard code may flourish.

This isn't the only thing that Suburban Nation fails to consider. There have been many critiques of the New Urbanism, including dozens of peer-reviewed studies that call many of its basic premises into question. In 1997, for example, University of Southern California economists Peter Gordon and Harry Richardson questioned many of the basic principles underlying "neotraditional" planning in a wide-ranging and frequently cited survey published in the Journal of the American Planning Association, the planning profession's premier scholarly journal. In the same issue of the journal, planner Michael South-worth questioned the viability of neotraditional planning after analyzing two projects that were up and running.

Suburban Nation essentially ignores such critiques, leaving important issues unaddressed and significant questions unanswered. If market forces are important in driving planning and zoning decisions-a point convincingly demonstrated by the academic literature in real estate economics-a critical gap emerges between the "problems" the authors identify and the solutions they promote. Specifically, how does the New Urbanism accommodate market forces?

The short answer, of course, is that it doesn't: For New Urban theorists, city design should not be subject to the whims of the market. But what if regional and state governments don't always act in the best interests of their citizens? What if more comprehensive planning weakens governmental accountability, giving special interests even more power?

These issues aren't just theoretical. The authors are calling for a radical increase in government control over land development and, ultimately, over the physical dimensions of neighborhoods. Most of this power, they argue, would have to be exercised on the state level: The federal government is too distant, local governments are too myopic, and regional governments simply do not exist in a meaningful sense. Thus, "Whether it is purchasing land for conservation, mandating urban boundaries, or restricting low-density development, state leadership is needed to foster awareness and to sponsor smart growth." Not that the authors shy from demanding more from Washington as well: They want a larger federal initiative to fund public transit, using funding requirements to "regulate urban design within a half-mile radius of all new stations." If the public interest model of government doesn't hold up, such prescriptions are simplistic and naive.

The problems ignored by the authors of Suburban Nation are compounded in the real world, a fact that becomes painfully obvious in Andrew Ross' Celebration Chronicles-a book that tells what happens when New Urbanist principles are applied to real people, real families, real developers, and a real community. Ross relates the birthing pains of Celebration, another New Urbanist town in Florida-one not mandated by regulations but built privately, from the ground up, by The Celebration Company, a subsidiary of the entertainment giant Disney. Ross, director of the American Studies Program at New York University and a self-proclaimed radical academic, considers himself a New Urban fellow traveler. He lived in Celebration from September 1997 to August 1998 and revisited the town in early 1999, before his book went to press. He interviewed dozens of residents and participated in community forums, living in an apartment in Celebration's downtown.

So what did he find? A mess. Interestingly, the mess was not a product of poor design: Few communities have been designed with as much care and attention to detail as Celebration. The mess was a natural outgrowth of the problems any new community faces. Disney bid out construction of the new homes to just two companies, and despite the vast resources the winning bidders mustered, they had little experience building in communities like Celebration-or, for that matter, in Florida. Many houses were not completed on time, and some moving vans arrived without a house to move into. Much of the community infrastructure, including the school, was also behind schedule.

Many residents were attracted to Celebration because of the Disney connection, expecting the town to be as customer-friendly and efficient as Walt Disney World. Instead, the town acted like a town, not a corporation, with all the petty conflicts, dashed expectations, naive hopes, colorful characters, and local politics that entails. From the beginning, persistent rumors questioned Disney's commitment to the project. If Disney pulled out, many feared, the town and its experimental design would collapse.

In Celebration, as in most cities, officials tried to gloss over politically difficult problems: "Hefty doses of boosterism were administered through [the town manager's] monthly newsletters and those sent out by…[the] director of the nonprofit Celebration Foundation," writes Ross. Town meetings were held for "keeping up morale and stoking the flames of volunteerism." After a few months, these had become what most community meetings are: small gatherings of a few key city officials and active residents-hardly the broad-based participatory democracy envisioned by the city's designers.

Nowhere were the conflicts over the community's identity and direction more evident than in the very public, very divisive debate over the community school. Many families were thrown for a loop when they found that The Celebration Company had envisioned a "progressive" school and curriculum.

The school is organized for "multi-age instruction," with grades combined into levels. (Upper 3, for example, includes grades 8 and 9.) The classrooms are called "nurturing neighborhoods," and teachers are "learning leaders." The classrooms are 6,000-square-foot spaces, and all the furniture is movable. "A central 'hearth area,' evocative of the family living room and large enough to congregate all 100-plus students, is furnished with couches, often facing each other like a hotel lobby." Textbooks are rarely used, computer terminals are everywhere, and team teaching is emphasized. Grades are discouraged, along with desks, period bells, daily schedules, report cards, and other "ritual features of traditional education."

The teachers, unsurprisingly, tended to be liberal, if not hard left. One provocative social studies instructor delighted in shaking up her complacent high school-age students by teaching '60s-style social activism, at one point declaring that "of all the rights, the most important is 'the right of the governed to start a revolution.' " The students were then assigned four weeks to develop their own "quiet revolution" as part of a "service-learning project."

The school, Ross observes almost matter-of-factly, was the center of conflict in the budding new town. Surprise! Here, Ross' politics get the better of him: Committed to what he considers progressive education, he has little sympathy for those parents who feel otherwise. "From what I could see," he observes critically, "Celebration was a public school besieged by parents' consumer-driven demands for a private school education." The upshot of Ross' analysis is that parents should leave schools to the "professionals"-the teachers and administrators who (he presumes) know what they're doing. As it happens, many of Celebration's parents did approach the school this way-until they found their kids weren't getting the kind or quality of education they wanted.

Ross' ideological perspective drives him to see power relationships as the almost exclusive source of the new town's conflicts. The relationship with Disney does make the Celebration story more interesting, and it certainly provides fodder for Ross' quasi-Marxist interpretations. But this view is incomplete. True, the Disney connection gave the town a few quirks other developments lack-marketing chutzpah, a consumer-friendly reputation, and proximity to one of the nation's premier entertainment complexes. The short time frame for building and the support of a large, well-financed corporation distinguishes it from most modern subdivisions, but not from such contemporary new towns as Sommerlin in Las Vegas, or even such predecessors as Reston, Virginia, and Columbia, Maryland. Step back a little, and it becomes obvious that Celebration is going through the growing pains almost any new community experiences.

For proof, read Picture Windows, Rosalyn Baxandall and Elizabeth Ewen's study of how the modern suburb emerged as a response to the affordable housing needs of working-class families after World War II. Baxandall and Ewen teach at the State University of New York at Westbury (on Long Island, although they live in Manhattan); like Ross, they lean leftward in their politics, though their analysis is not nearly as Marxist in orientation and tone.

While Ross' project was born out of an almost pure intellectual curiosity, Baxandall and Ewen were inspired by a more mundane concern. The students they taught were not the vacuous, soulless, mindless suburbanites pilloried in Suburban Nation and such predecessor tracts as James Howard Kunstler's The Geography of Nowhere and Richard Moe's Changing Places. Instead, they "led lives as intricate as any urban dweller." So what kind of environment did they come from?

This inquiry resulted in an unusually dynamic and perceptive history of urban policy through the lens of the first suburban pioneers. Baxandall and Ewen note that contrary to the New Urbanists and many other anti-suburban writers, most urban reform and planning agendas in the early and mid-20th century called for low-density, semi-rural lifestyles. "The idea of suburbia," they write, "was central to visionaries, planners, and socially conscious architects who began to imagine a new America." The goal was to enhance the working class' quality of life.

When postwar suburbia arrived, this goal was joined to another: profit. William Levitt bought 3,500 acres on Long Island and launched a revolution in housing. With help from the Federal Housing Administration and the "largest line of credit ever offered to a privately owned corporation by the Bank of Manhattan," Levitt did what no one thought possible: mass-produce affordable housing. Initially, his homes sold for $7,500 each. In subsequent years, as he tinkered with the design and added amenities, prices climbed to almost $8,000, still an extraordinarily low price at the time.

The biggest obstacles Levitt faced were the local building codes, especially many Long Island communities' requirement that all new housing include basements-a rule that alone would have raised the cost of a new home by more than 10 percent. This law was a holdover from earlier construction designs that required basements for boilers and furnaces; the need could be eliminated through radiant heating on concrete slabs. Levitt lobbied hard, and ultimately successfully, against the mandate. He also turned homebuilding into an assembly line process, thus reducing the amount of skilled labor he had to pay for and avoiding cumbersome apprenticeship requirements. (Although Levitt didn't hire as much skilled labor, he paid his employees well, kept them working steadily, and even offered retirement benefits. In the end, many workers took home more than they would have working at union scale.)

Levitt worked through an extensive network of subcontractors, ushering in another revolution. He had 26 different operations and 60 superintendents who supervised subcontractors; the subcontractors were independent enterprises, usually former employees or foremen at job sites. As a result, Levitt's company didn't have to assume the overhead of supervising labor at the work site. Subcontractors, many of whom were on the site already and had strong incentives to produce quality products quickly and efficiently, had this responsibility.

"We are not builders," Levitt once said. "We are manufacturers. The only difference between Levitt and Sons and General Motors is that we channel labor and materials to a stationary outdoor assembly line instead of bringing them together inside a factory on a mobile line. Just like a factory, we turn out a new house every twenty-four minutes at peak production."

In the process, Levitt and other industrial-style housing builders, such as Fritz Burns in California and Andrew Higgs in New Orleans, transformed housing in America. What was once a custom market dominated by craft methods evolved into a large-scale industrial production process. America's working class benefited as a result.

Perhaps more important, Levitt gleefully sacrificed aesthetics for functionality and lower cost. The original Levitt house was a four-and-a-half-room Cape Cod. Rather than put money into architectural finesse, the Levitt house bent toward the practical, putting money into up-to-date stoves and refrigerators, a washing machine, venetian blinds, and an unfinished attic for future expansion. The 1950 model, for a bit more money, added choices of facade, a built-in television, and a carport. Levittown was a New Urbanist nightmare come true.

Design wasn't completely ignored. The Levittown ranch house, for instance, was partly based on Frank Lloyd Wright's design concepts: adopting an open interior, opening the front door into the kitchen, placing the fireplace in the center of the home, and putting the living room in the back of the house, with a picture window looking into the backyard. Such features were strong attractions for city dwellers more accustomed to apartments and dense urban settings. In 1950, 1.25 million houses were built in the United States, and almost all of them were ranches.

Baxandall and Ewen are quick to note that Levitt lacked the mentality of the reformers who preceded him. He was an accidental revolutionary. Earlier experiments by "socially conscious" developers and planners had included community centers, libraries, meeting rooms, and movie theaters. Levittown had nine public swimming pools, seven commercial centers or "village greens," and several baseball fields. These were added not because Levitt was committed to civic culture, but because they were necessary to appeal to potential blue-collar customers, many of whom had never owned a house before. "Access to a swimming pool or a baseball diamond is as important a part of what a purchaser buys as solid walls or a strong roof," Levitt said, "because he's not just buying a house, he's buying a way of life." Public meeting places could-and did-come later.

The authors also criticize Levitt for not acknowledging certain forerunners-the pioneering experiments by nonprofit housing cooperatives, such as Sunnyside Gardens in Queens, completed in 1928; or such government-sponsored projects as Greenbelt, a planned town in Maryland. "Levitt's industrial methods," they lament, "elaborated the techniques pioneered in the 1930s although he never acknowledged his debt to public housing innovators."

Of course, the mere fact that these other experiments existed doesn't mean that Levitt was familiar with them or that he thought their designs were helpful. Many of the predecessor communities' features-interconnected pedestrian walkways, community centers, libraries, commercial buildings-may have tipped the scales against affordability and should properly be left to later periods as the community grows and evolves. (Regional recreational activities emerged in Levittown with the development of Roosevelt Field in 1956. It housed the first large-scale shopping mall, including a Macy's department store, an ice skating rink, and parking for 17,000 cars.)

Baxandall and Ewen's most intriguing contribution lies in their treatment of community. New suburbs like Levittown were "institutionless," they write, lacking churches, Lions Clubs, Rotary Clubs, chambers of commerce, local governments, and even parent-teacher associations. Within three years, Levittown's school "system went from a three-room schoolhouse to 14 schools with 12,000 students." Community-building was up to the residents, not to builders, architects, or urban designers.

Not surprisingly, when Levittown's civic institutions emerged, they were built primarily by women. The suburb's typical family included a stay-at-home mom and a husband who commuted to a job in the city. Levittown women were "home- and child-centered," but not passive. Most of their activity, in fact, was focused outside the home, organizing and arranging community life. "Most sociological and feminist literature portrays suburban women in coffee klatches gabbing about trivia," Baxandall and Ewen write, "but these women built a world for themselves, their children, and their community."

A lot of this community building started out small: informal baby-sitting arrangements, larger baby-sitting co-ops, Tupperware parties. It then evolved into more organized action, through political activity and the PTA. As in any town populated by real people, tensions and conflicts emerged. In contrast to the methodical, bottom-line approach of William Levitt and Sons, "Levittowners had strong and sometimes clashing ideas about what sort of place they wanted to live in, and they set about trying to make Levittown that place. What Levitt left unbuilt, people partially made up for by forging new bonds among themselves. The legacy of community building was carried on by women who were at first lost in this strong work, but who then remade it."

This account is a strong challenge to the views that now permeate American housing policy. Levittown is everything the New Urbanists despise: automobile-oriented, filled with cookie-cutter houses, devoid of large public edifices. Yet it survived, and it grew stronger over the decades. It came into being without institutions, but institutions soon emerged and grew, evolving as people moved in and made unique marks on the community. Some Levittowners waxed nostalgically about their old urban neighborhoods, but they didn't move back. For many, even Levittown's modestly priced housing meant a financial struggle, but they stayed, often for decades. The long commute was worth it for workers who wanted the flexibility and freedom of the automobile and a modest yard for their children to play in. The relative isolation of the suburban tract home was worth it for the mother who disliked the dense apartment living of the big city. Happy migrants built solid communities.

And it's residents who create communities, not architects or planners. Urban design can certainly facilitate community building, but it can't dictate it. By the time most citizens of Celebration move in-it is expected to fill up over the next decade-virtually all the original designers and administrators will be long gone, taking their copies of Suburban Nation and other New Urbanist texts with them. The physical infrastructure will be in place, but the real building will still lie ahead, as residents forge a civic culture from their intimate understanding of what still needs to be built. Levittown didn't start out as a "place worth caring about." It evolved into one.

Sam Staley (sstaley@reason.org) is director of the Urban Futures Program at the Reason Public Policy Institute.