Could any benighted patch of America be in more dire need of smart design than the suburban commercial strip? Creeping along Route 110, which bisects Long Island from Huntington to Amityville, leaves plenty of time to contemplate the varieties of suburban blight. Two-storied office buildings hunker behind belts of goose-poop-speckled lawn and blue-glass façades that are as reflective as a highway patrolman’s shades. A gated, gabled senior living center and a complex of rental apartments provide some acreage in which to stroll, but no sane pedestrian would wander off the premises. The shingled farmhouse where Walt Whitman was born sits stranded, across multiple lanes of roadway and a wasteland of mostly vacant parking from the ridiculously named Walt Whitman Shops. (No, he does not.)
Why do we build these asphalt steppes, then keep making them grimmer still? And how can we make them not just tolerable but civilized? These lamentations have become more urgent as oil and water grow more scarce, and it’s past time for the most inventive planners and designers to venture beyond city limits and figure out how to preserve the best of the suburbs and clean up the mess of the rest. Tools do exist. Route 110, which connects two old-timey towns on the North and South Shores, is dense and varied enough to support more urbanity: express bus lanes with sheltered stops or light rail connecting train stations, protected bike paths, sidewalks, bigger apartment buildings, commercial buildings pushed up to the roadside, with parking out back instead of in front, the spaces between chains and office fortresses filled in with smaller businesses. But ask most brand-name architecture firms about this kind of project and you get a smirk, a shrug, or a puzzled stare.
A literature of festive gloom has sprung up around the suburbs. In The End of the Suburbs: Where the American Dream Is Moving, Leigh Gallagher, an assistant managing editor at Fortune, paints an especially grim picture. The receding recession has left deposits of rusting FOR SALE signs, weedy driveways, and half-finished subdivisions all over the country. Traffic on exurban highways has gotten so bad that nobody wants to live out in the boonies anymore—which isn’t, however, easing the traffic. Those who cling to their quarter-acre lots must endure commutes longer than workdays, hock the grandchildren for a tank of gas, and arm themselves against surging crime. American cities, eager to perfect their pristine sheen, have been exporting to the suburbs their tired, their poor, their violent gangs, their immigrants huddled ten to a room.
Gallagher claims only to be telling it like it is. “This book isn’t about why the suburbs ought to end,” she writes. “Rather, it’s about how the suburbs—at least as we know them—are ending.” By the time you finish her book, you’ll find yourself speeding through America’s zombie settlements and breathing a sigh of relief when you cross into a bona fide urban area.
There you will arrive in the happy land described in another new primer, Vishaan Chakrabarti’s A Country of Cities: A Manifesto for an Urban America. It’s an enchanted forest of 80-story buildings, linked by sidewalks and subways instead of on-ramps and feeder roads. Chakrabarti is an apostle of hyperdensity, where dwellings are concentrated tightly enough to support mass transit—at least 30 to an acre. In other words, he fervently wishes everyone would live somewhere like, say … New York. He preaches a creed you might call densitism, which holds that packing people closer together is the answer to a whole battery of questions, starting with “How can we save the world from extinction?” and ending with “Where is the best place to experience joy in my daily life?”
What’s striking about both books is the inquisitorial fever that shudders through them. Buying a house in the suburbs has become like chain-smoking, snarfing down Whoppers, or driving an extra-large SUV—a world-destroying act of staggering selfishness. There’s a horrifying thrill to an aerial shot of cul-de-sacs spreading hungrily across the land like mold on bread. In that context, the metastasizing of ills once considered purely urban looks like quasi-biblical justice. America hasn’t just paved Paradise and put up a parking lot; it’s built a New Paradise, with a lot of parking, then watched it degenerate into a leafy Gomorrah.
The most powerful force in rethinking this complex ecosystem is the New Urbanism movement, which focuses on overhauling rules and details that make suburbs look so, well, suburban: cul-de-sacs ample enough to accommodate the largest fire trucks, minimum lot sizes, and so on. So far, though, the movement’s most successful innovation is a niche product, the all-in-one enclave, compact enough that you can amble from home to school to store but often so isolated that the only way to get there is by car. It’s a tiny raft of walkability in an ocean of foaming sprawl.
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.
The End of the Suburbs: Where the American Dream Is Moving
By Leigh Gallagher.
A Country of Cities: A Manifesto for an Urban America
By Vishaan Chakrabarti.