One rare book that envisions turning the American landscape we’ve got into the one we want is Retrofitting Suburbia, by Ellen Dunham-Jones and June Williamson, a 2008 instruction manual for recycling old malls and filling in the dead zones. The authors tackled the problem with technocratic zeal, bringing hope through specificity and detail. Nothing is more generically American than the bleak normality of the places they observe, which means that lessons learned in one spot can be applied across the land.
Suburbia is not a place. It’s not even a specific genre of settlement. Rather, it’s a morally charged word that covers everything from densely packed single-family houses, interspersed with apartment buildings and shopping streets, to airy desert settlements, still with that new-turf smell. Like cities, suburbs include an immense range of pleasures and social ills. Unlike cities, they are chopped up into so many jurisdictions, micro-markets, and demographic eddies that one development can wither while the next one over crows. That creates an enduring problem: Who would pay to overhaul connector roads like Route 110? Fixing suburban dysfunction is nobody’s responsibility, so everyone just sits in traffic, certain that this is the way it has to be and that nothing will ever be done.
Running through the conversation is the assumption that urbs and suburbs are locked in a zero-sum game. A generation ago, white flight gutted downtowns; now the city is having its revenge. And yet suburbia is so immense, so culturally ingrained, geographically dominant, and politically significant, that it’s not about to shrivel. Nor should it. A healthy metropolis needs its greater metropolitan region. Around 20 million people live in the New York area, and not even Chakrabarti could wish that they would all converge on the five boroughs, letting Westchester and northern New Jersey revert to wilderness. Cities, despite their inherent appeal and resurgent power, are at least as vulnerable to social infection as their outlying areas, which is why every new drop in crime provokes a shiver of anxiety that the shiny times can’t last.
“The suburbs are largely a creation of ‘big government,’ ” Chakrabarti declares. Like many other writers, he points out that although suburban homeowners may pride themselves on their Jeffersonian independence, in fact they live a heavily subsidized existence. They drive on roads the government pays for, burning gas that the government keeps artificially cheap, to homes bought with mortgages that the government supports. He clamors for two policy changes from the urbanist’s perpetual wish list: Scrap the mortgage-interest deduction, which privileges homeowners over renters, and rebalance the federal transportation budget so that it pays for fewer roads and more rail. These two moves, he argues, would raise the cost of sprawl enough to nudge more Americans out of their ranch houses and into high rises. There they will enjoy strolling and jamming into subway cars at rush hour, the superiority of generous urban parks over scraps of private yard, the relief of lower energy bills, and the tranquillity of knowing that their teenagers can’t drive. Gallagher contends that’s happening anyway, even without a legislative prod. Oddly, though, neither Chakrabarti nor Gallagher devotes much space to schools, though they are surely the key factor in where families choose to live.
A Country of Cities is a persuasive, elegantly argued, and charmingly illustrated polemic, written with the sad knowledge that the country will probably not listen to Chakrabarti’s advice. Undaunted, he whips the lid off his vision with the flourish of a well-trained waiter. The ideal urban neighborhood is a place where some live, others work, and many do both, where commuters flow both in and out, where social classes mix in an atmosphere of well-designed pleasantness. That description dovetails nicely with the developments that his architecture firm, SHoP Architects, is designing on the Williamsburg waterfront or on the Lower East Side. But neither SHoP’s planners nor their high-end peers are taking their expertise, their passion, and their creativity to the parts of America that need it most.