Trying to raise my kids the best I can

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Suburban Sprawl

I've read a lot of books on sprawl in America, because I think the subject is an important one; but this one by Andres Duany, Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk and Jeff Speck was by far the best: Suburban Nation: The Rise of Sprawl and the Decline of the American Dream. It shows the stunning contrast between sprawl and "mixed neighborhoods". Basically, the difference between cities designed a hundred years ago and most cities and suburbs designed today. I would like to summarize all of the titillating stuff I found in the book.

  • In sprawl entities are adjacent but not accessible. Case in point: the Walmart in the suburb near my house. My kids and I have ridden our bikes there because we love exercise, but the last 1/8 of a mile before the Walmart there is no sidewalk!!! (Unless we want to cross six lanes of traffic). We have to literally risk our lives to get there.
  • "Quick Mart" equals "an aluminum and glass flat topped building bathed in fluorescent light surrounded by asphalt and topped by a glowing plastic sign. The "corner store" (which the book advocates) is designed to blend in to the neighborhood. (And here where I live, often it is a former part of someone's house).
  • It quotes the Book "Death of Common Sense" which says this about the designers of sprawl: "They have no clear picture of what they want their communities to be... rather all the seem to imagine with is what they don't want: no mixed uses, no slow moving cars, no parking shortages, no overcrowding. Such prohibitions do not a city make."
  • Curved streets used to be determined by "undulating patterns of topography" because they limit connectivity and make smaller lots awkward to build on. But they are commonplace now, perhaps because they are more private, and harder for criminals to just "drive by" and target. The book concludes, "these lolipop shaped dead end streets make about as much sense as driving off road vehicles around the city".
  • "Our history is fraught with many different types of segregation- by race, by class, by how recently you immigrated- but for the first time we are now experiencing ruthless segregation by minute graduation of income. There have always been better or worse neighborhoods and the rich have always taken refuge from the poor but never with such precision. " Then, in the book, there is a picture of housing pods consisting entirely of $350,000+ houses next to a pod of 200,000 houses next to a pod of apartments for less than $100,000. The advantage of mixed neighborhoods is that there is more interaction between classes- more understanding of each other. Also more convenience- you live next to your doctor, babysitter etc. Elderly relatives next to grandchildren. Mansions down the street from apartments. You might think this would devalue the mansions but in "Kentlands" in Gaithersburg Maryland this design was tried and contrary to experts predictions, housing values soared.
  • Sadly you cannot build another Boston today because it is illegal! Zoning prohibits mixed buildings, right up against the sidewalk, etc. (Note: I live in a mixed building. An apartment above a bakery and salon and I love it and it's cheap)
  • I thought this line was funny "Subdivisions [in suburban sprawl] can be identified by their contrived names, which tend toward the romantic- Pheasant Mill Crossing and often pay tribute to the natural or historic resource they have displaced". Ha ha. I used to live at an apartment complex called "The Meadows"
  • "Residents of Suburbia spend an unprecedented amount of time and money moving from one place to the next". This reminds me of the Bible verse: "But you, Daniel, keep this prophecy a secret; seal up the book until the time of the end, when many will rush here and there, and knowledge will increase." Daniel 12:4
  • Narrow streets encourage safer slower driving. There are many studies to back this up. Similarly, more lanes leads to more traffic.
  • FYI for any urban planners reading this, the best planning manual is "Town Planning in Practice"
  • The advocates for 1:10 ratio of low income housing in neighborhoods. This seems right on to me. I've noticed that there seems to be a "tipping point" in which low income housing turns a neighborhood bad.
  • In urban sprawl moving up = moving out of your community. And in the case of the elderly downsizing also = leaving your community. This, does not a healthy society make.
  • "Cookie cutter" is a four letter word in the vocabulary of developers. They fight this with "superficial variety...different shapes, window types, different styles of tack on ornaments... but the best way to create real variety is to vary not the architectural style but the building type".
I've compiled a list of "smart growth" cities and "sprawl cities" that I gleaned from the book. I know I would only be happy in a mixed neighborhood city, so this list may someday be useful to me if I ever move.

Smart Growth Cities
Alexandria VA (interesting note: George Washington helped design this when he was 17)
Coral Gables of Charlston SC
Boston MA
Carmel (Indiana, I think)
Mashpee Commons, MA
Santa Barbara
"Mizner Park" in Boca Raton, FL
Palmer Square in Princeton, NJ
San Francisco, CA
Savannah, GA
Georgeton in Washington DC
Kentlands in Gaithersburg, MD
Nantucket, MA
Charles Town, West Virginia
Sante Fe, New Mexico
Baltimore's Roland Park
(parts of) Chicago
Sea Side, FL
Winter Park, FL
Lowell, MA
Wyndercrest, MD
King District and Cabbagetown, Atlanta, GA

Sprawl Cities
Virginia Beach, VA
Hilton Head Island
Miami Dade County FL
San Bernadino
Syracuse, NY (though in Syracuse's defense, I used to live there and I walked to the city pool, the unviersity, the park, babysitting jobs, school, and friend's house. So maybe they're talking about another part of the city? :shrug
And speaking from experience: Chelmsford, MA

Here is a lovely video about the sort of thing I'm advocating.

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  • At 8:59 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    Fascinating. Thanks for sharing.



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