How the Suburbs Can Be Fixed. Really.

This isn’t the answer. (Levittown, in the 1950s.) Photo: Hulton Archive/Getty Images

I’m standing in front of a restaurant in the San Fernando Valley — or, to be precise, I’m standing in the parking lot in front of the restaurant — trying to figure out how to get to the drugstore I can see across the street. Running across the eight lanes of traffic looks suicidal. Clearly, I’m supposed to get back in my car, make a right out of the lot, sidle into the left-turn lane, and pull into the drugstore lot, a journey of less than a tenth of a mile in a two-ton steel chariot. Instead, I do the sprint, buy my bottle of aspirin, and race back toward dinner, while onrushing drivers honk and curse me out.

If there’s one thing that enrages me most about America’s suburban landscape, it’s a network of roads so thoroughly devoted to private cars that even going 100 yards safely frequently requires wheels. Even not crossing the street can be dangerous. If I had finished my workday at the office tower next door to the restaurant and chosen to walk to dinner along the sidewalk-less artery, I would have faced almost the same hazards. How did we get to this?

I kept thinking about that question as I read Amanda Kolson Hurley’s new book, Radical Suburbs, a hopeful chronicle of experiments that mostly went awry. Hurley, a child of suburban Maryland and an astute writer on urbanism at CityLab, reminds us that the ill-defined realm between downtown and countryside has long attracted idealists, do-gooders, preachers, and cranks. There was the cohort of celibate Germans in the 19th century who practiced co-housing in a Pennsylvania commune outside of Pittsburgh. There was the colony of Piscataway, New Jersey, anarchists who took the 5:45 into Manhattan every morning while their children made up their own educations or skipped school altogether. There were the modernist architects at Harvard and MIT who founded a community of homeowners based on a fondness for up-to-date design. These enclaves have long since been absorbed by voracious sprawl, their purpose obscured, the accomplishments undone. Hurley tracks down a few residents who remember, or who grew up in those settlements’ utopian glow, but her interests go well beyond the antiquarian. Her book is actually an urbanist’s homily: Architects and social engineers once saw the suburbs as a laboratory of the imagination, and just because mundane reality intruded is no reason to give up. If a swath of America once harbored fantastic dreams, maybe it can again.

As she and many other writers have pointed out, America’s suburbs are not now and have never really been the undifferentiated blandscape that urbanites dismiss. Today, they are where new immigrants settle, where diversity flourishes and poverty puts down roots, where the computer age grew up. They have their own museums and concert halls, rebels, bookstores, apartment buildings, and street art. Suburbia is also a political frontier, a mutable, pixelated zone between deep-blue urban dots and swaths of rural red. None of this is news, but Hurley’s real target is a knot of urbanists, planners, and designers who don’t think very much of that vast middle ground, or the half of all Americans who live there.

To urbanists, suburbia is self-evidently evil: Sprawl is an environmental disaster, subsidized by lavish post–World War II road-building programs and the mortgage-interest deduction (which promotes home ownership) and turbocharged by low interest rates. Why would any sophisticated architectural thinker want to get involved with such iniquity? In 2012, the Museum of Modern Art tried to rouse a group of high-caliber architects to stage a suburban intervention in the wake of the 2008 recession and the foreclosure crisis that followed. The show, “Foreclosed: Rehousing the American Dream,” was well-meaning and inventive but it left no trace in the real world, and the designers who were recruited to rethink towns and subdivisions didn’t return to the topic. The trouble with throwing up your hands at suburbia’s obstacles and contradictions is that it means giving up on most of the country.

Getting ignored by snobs is just fine with millions of Americans, whose only complaint about their centerless towns is when they become too much like cities: clogged, expensive, and big. When change approaches, suburbanites have the determination — and, usually, the power — to resist it. In 2003, I wrote in Newsday about the developer Jerry Wolkoff’s plan to turn 452 abandoned acres of central Long Island, once the Pilgrim State Psychiatric Center, into Heartland Town Center, a pedestrian-friendly micro-city, with offices, apartments, shops, a hotel, and even an aquarium. After countless battles with various local boards, the site remains as desolate and promising as it was 16 years ago. Building is easy compared to the long periods of not building that come first.

Hurley doesn’t dwell much on the present. She doesn’t linger on the economic interconnections between cities and suburbs, or the reasons for the cultural schism. But there are glimmerings of historically grounded advice. In an earlier essay on the Green New Deal, Hurley pointed out that the original New Deal established a few walkable suburban towns like Greenbelt, Maryland, with small houses and low rents, that provide a useful model. (And a highly imperfect one: Greenbelt was for whites only. She skips Roosevelt, New Jersey, a co-op founded by Jewish garment workers from Manhattan who set up their own — doomed — factory amid the fields.) The implication for the present is that government could help reform the monster it helped create. In some places, it’s trying. Minneapolis recently eliminated single-family-house zoning, and California is considering the same — which would mean that if you wanted to retreat into one corner of your home and chop up the remainder into three rentable apartments, your neighbors couldn’t object.

Still, a better suburb won’t spring from some faction of urban refugees searching for a place to act out their particular form of oddness. It’s too late to build the world from scratch, or stake out Paradise in a cornfield. Change can only come from the suburbs themselves, and only if they recognize that, like cities everywhere, they are flawed creations. One radical step would be for towns to hold competitions, inviting the world’s designers to make adjustments to their layouts — not to plow them under or replace them with faux-urban centers, but to find new ways to tweak roads, shorten commutes, and encourage people to live in closer quarters — all while satisfying the desires of privacy, peace, and contact with nature that lured people out of the city in the first place.

Tying far-flung suburbs together with public transit is expensive, complex, and controversial, but modest modifications aren’t. It’s not insurmountable to recycle dead malls into community centers, art spaces, and indoor plazas; to lay down footpaths that steer clear of cars and converge on a park or a playground; to legalize back alleys and rentable granny flats — standard items in the New Urbanist toolkit.

All of this is precisely as possible as residents want it to be. And yet even a terrible status quo has plenty of fierce defenders. Who could want a place — any place — to be like this? I wondered as I braved a flash flood of traffic crossing that street in Southern California, risking my life for a couple of aspirin. The answer is: lots of people. The city of Phoenix, much of which is indistinguishable from its suburbs, just blocked a measure to make its streets safer to walk on. Complacency is tougher than concrete.

Hurley concludes with a resonant photo from the 1960s, made in Reston, Virginia. Bob Simon, the developer, stands with the nation’s first black Cabinet member, Housing Secretary Robert Weaver, and the urbanist Jane Jacobs, as they watch an avant-garde architectural experiment take place in a town that was conceived to fight segregation. The moment’s optimism is so palpable, it’s almost painful now. “We can’t let that sense of possibility slip away,” Hurley writes. “Suburbia is what we make it.”

The Suburbs Can Be Fixed. No, Really.