The suburbs are still misunderstood

Published September 1, 2000

Andres Duany, Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk, and Jeff Speck, Suburban Nation: The Rise of Sprawl and the Decline of the American Dream (New York, NY: North Point Press, 2000), 290 pp., $30.

Rosalyn Baxandall and Elizabeth Ewen, Picture Windows: How the Suburbs Happened (New York, NY: Basic Books, 2000), 298 pp., $27.50.

Architect Andres Duany is one of the leading gurus of smart growth, the movement seeking to replace low-density suburbs with high-density “traditional” neighborhoods that promote walking and transit riding instead of driving cars. Like many gurus, Duany spouts soothing platitudes like a suburban garden sprouts daffodils. But Duany’s analysis is usually wrong, and even when right he fails to get the real point.

Duany explains sprawl as “an invention, conceived by architects, engineers, and planners, and promoted by developers . . . after the Second World War.” What Duany calls “sprawl”consists of housing, shopping, and work that are “strictly segregated” from one another, thus forcing people to drive between them. He blames this segregation on urban planners who saw the benefits of segregating nineteenth-century factories from housing and went overboard “by separating everything from everything else.”

To the extent Duany’s history is correct, the lesson should be not to give architects and planners too much power over your city. So what is Duany’s solution? He wants to give planners more power than ever, and not just over cities and towns but over entire regions. Their plans should be so prescriptive “that only the architectural detail is left to future designers.” Planners should decide exactly how every acre and every lot should be used, including the width of every street and the orientation of the gables on every building.

Of course, such plans must strictly follow the prescriptions laid out by Duany and his architectural partners in Suburban Nation. These specify that all urban areas should be surrounded by a greenbelt, within which (and, presumably, beyond which) development may not take place. In the urban area, developers should be given “incentives” to make it profitable for them to build high-density, mixed-use infill developments rather than low-density suburbs. Dedicating areas solely to single-family housing is “unjustified” and “should ideally be prohibited.” Regional planners should prohibit shopping malls as well as Wal-Marts and other big box stores. Instead, all stores should be on “main streets” located within a five-minute walk (or downstairs from) most residents. That these stores will be smaller, more expensive, and have less selection than Wal-Marts is unimportant; what is important is that they are traditional.

What annoys Duany most about the suburbs is that people spend much of their time in private backyards instead of public parks, private living rooms instead of community centers, and private autos instead of transit vehicles. While others dislike the auto because it pollutes, Duany dislikes it because it is a “private space as well as a potentially sociopathic device.” Since “we shape our cities and then our cities shape us,” Duany prescribes neighborhoods with more “communal space” to “nurture sociability” rather than “debase the human spirit.”

To support his prescriptions, Duany repeats numerous factoids that are popularly believed but largely untrue:

  • People drive significantly less in traditional neighborhoods than in suburbs. In fact, differences in driving habits are due more to family size and incomes than to location.
  • The share of land area that is paved is greater in low-density suburbs than in traditional neighborhoods. In fact, the reverse is true because city blocks are smaller in Duany’s traditional neighborhoods.
  • Congestion is worse in low-density suburbs than in urban centers—which is rarely, if ever, true.
  • The taxes in low-density suburbs can’t pay for the needed infrastructure. In fact, per-capita municipal infrastructure costs are higher in high-density areas.
  • Building more roads leads only to more congestion—which suggests Duany has never driven through South Dakota on I-90.

Duany sometimes support these claims by citing other authorities, for the most part relying on smart-growth advocates such as the Surface Transportation Policy Project or articles in such newspapers as USA Today. There is no indication he has ever looked at Census Bureau data (which reveal similar driving habits among people in various densities), transit agency data (which reveal hardly anyone uses transit anywhere outside of New York City), highway statistics (which reveal people drive as much in many high-density urban areas as in low-density ones), or other raw data.

Despite this, Duany is comfortable asserting that rebuilding our cities and suburbs to look like ones built before the automobile—that is, with minimum provision for cars—will lead people to suddenly stop driving and start walking. But if those high-density, mixed-use, pre-auto cities were so wonderful, why did most Americans abandon them for the low-density, segregated suburbs we see today?

Oh, I forgot: We didn’t abandon them, we were forced out by bad architects and planners—which is why, according to Duany, we need to give good architects and planners far more power over our lives today than the bad ones ever had. And apparently we can tell the good architects and planners because they are the ones who rely on platitudes and factoids rather than looking at real data.

The many problems with Suburban Nation will no doubt be overlooked by Duany’s target audience: the NIMBYs and no-growthers who sometimes try to block Duany’s projects. His goal is to convince them that his growth is “good growth.” Duany doesn’t need to document his factoids because the NIMBYs already believe them. And since they also believe in planning, they will miss the ultimate contradiction: the faith that giving planners greater power won’t create even more problems like those Duany himself believes were caused by past planners.

I had hoped Picture Windows would be an antidote to Suburban Nation. Baxandall and Ewen, American Studies professors at the State University of New York, confess they initially imagined the suburbs “as an anesthetized state of mind, a no place dominated by a culture of conformity and consumption.” But interviewing 230 long-time residents of Long Island suburbs led them “to question our own antisuburban snobbery” and brought them to the realization that suburbanites “led lives as intricate as any urban dweller.”

Perhaps because they limited themselves to Long Island, however, they never really lost their antisuburban snobbery. In fact, they never really grasped the essence of the suburbs, best captured by Frank Lloyd Wright, whose Broadacre City predicted post-war suburbs as early as the 1920s. “Wright’s architectural plans were based on a reformulation of the Jeffersonian philosophy that land ownership was the basis of democracy,” they write. “In an industrial society, Wright believed, home ownership was the foundation of freedom.” Yet they never truly comprehend what that means.

The first half of Picture Windows purports to be a history of the suburbs. In fact, most of it is devoted to a history of the Depression-era and post-war debate over public vs. private housing. The authors spend most of a chapter gushing over Greenbelt, Maryland, a “new town” built by the New Deal’s Resettlement Administration, while they completely overlook Greenbelt’s significant faults.

Building New Communities, Diane Ghirardo’s 1989 book about new towns in New Deal America and Fascist Italy, showed the American government was particularly intrusive into the lives of residents of its housing projects. After German and Italian Fascists built new towns, they let the residents run them. American new towns were firmly under the thumb of government planners, who refused to let residents build additions to or modify their homes or yards. Wives in Greenbelt were not allowed to work outside the home. Anyone who protested could be evicted as a trouble-maker even though they were supposedly buying their homes. To ensure its lasting authority, the government sold homes through 40-year mortgages and refused to let people pay off these mortgages in advance.

Picture Windows mentions more than once that Levittown builder William Levitt required people to mow their lawns, which seems a comparatively minor intrusion. The authors go on to accuse Levitt of racism because he would not sell to blacks, without mentioning that the Federal Housing Administration, whose loans allowed the construction of Levittown, New York, forbade builders from integrating neighborhoods. While glossing over the fact that Greenbelt was a 100 percent white community, they fail to note Levitt successfully integrated Levittown, New Jersey, with a sensitivity many federal judges could have used when they were trying to integrate urban schools. (This remarkable story is told by Herbert Gans in The Levittowners.)

The second half of the book lets “suburbia speak.” Two short chapters dispose of the stereotype that the suburbs are culturally sterile and conformist, while the remainder address such issues as racial integration, women’s liberation, and the recent influx of immigrants. A brief discussion of Andres Duany’s ideas suggests smart-growth supporters “overemphasize the role architecture plays in creating community.” “Why,” they ask, “do architects and residents flee to the past to avoid the challenge of the new?”

Yet Picture Windows‘ authors repeatedly express fears that the suburbs are too static to handle new challenges. While saying the suburbs are far from a “changeless never-never land,” they add:

  • “New family patterns” resulting from women working “collide with the limitations of the suburbs.”
  • People commuting to suburban jobs show that suburbs “were never intended to function as cities.”
  • The increase of minorities and immigrants in the suburbs somehow means “today’s suburbs are in danger of becoming a vast sprawl of exclusion.”

This is supposedly due to our “market-driven society,” presumably meaning they can be solved only by public housing or other government programs. The fact that two out of three American households today own their own homes—more than any other nation or time in history—is credited not to entrepreneurs such as Levitt but to the idea of “decent housing as a right for all.”

Baxandall and Ewen lament that public housing has been replaced by “market ideology” and that “the belief that long-standing social problems are not solved by government intervention is with us again.”

As an antidote to both Suburban Nation and Picture Windows, I strongly recommend Joel Garreau’s book, Edge City. After nearly a decade it remains the best analysis of what is going on in our cities and suburbs today. Garreau is no free-market ideologue, which only strengthens his conclusion that the chaos of market-driven suburban development is superior to the stagnation of government urban planning.

Randal O’Toole ([email protected]) is senior economist with the Thoreau Institute ( and author of The Vanishing Automobile and Other Urban Myths.