City Lit: Heavy Suburban

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Heralded by breathless apostles as an antidote to sprawl, New Urbanism is a burgeoning movement already reshaping American suburbs. It’s also gaining currency as a blueprint for urban revitalization. Blending traditional town and city design, New Urbanism promotes the creation of dense, walkable, mixed-use neighborhoods supported by mass transit. In How Cities Work: Suburbs, Sprawl, and the Roads Not Taken, Alex Marshall delivers a series of essays that ultimately call it a sham, a type of faux urbanism “so far more of an illness than a cure.”

If you want to score points against New Urbanism, there is no fatter target than Celebration, the movement’s flagship “neo-traditionalist” town just outside Orlando, Florida. Built in the mid 1990s, the 5,000-acre bedroom community is a pretty and very charming reproduction of a 19th century village, right down to the front porches, picket fences, and town square. Its compact layout, which favors the pedestrian over the car, artfully weaves an urban fabric within a design aesthetic that produces something like a modern-day Our Town.

Marshall, a freelance journalist based in New York City, uses Celebration–already the topic of two book-length critiques–as a blistering deconstruction of New Urbanism and its failures. Peeling back the retro veneer, he uncovers “a conventional suburban subdivision pretending to be a small town.” Most residents don’t actually work in Celebration; they get in their cars (hidden in garages behind the houses), hop on the freeway a few minutes away, and drive to their jobs in Orlando. After poking around the so-called downtown, Marshall also learns that Main Street is made up of fancy boutiques and pricey cafes catering mostly to Disney World tourists and curiosity-seekers, without whom the stores could not survive.

This masquerade would be harmless if Celebration weren’t being emulated in hundreds of similar projects currently underway around the country. The formula is a fraud, says Marshall, because 1) nearly all the New Urbanist housing developments are built in the outer suburban rings of a city, not within its core; 2) despite clustered housing, the density is still not high enough to provide the foot traffic necessary to sustain small stores in a retail district; and 3) though the neighborhoods are pedestrian-friendly, cars remain the dominant mode of transportation for work and shopping.

To Marshall, this last point is the key failing of New Urbanism, because the places we live are ultimately shaped by the transportation systems that serve our daily needs. “How we get around determines how we live,” he asserts: Subways lend themselves to dense neighborhoods and friendly walks to the corner store; highways translate into impersonal trips to Wal-Mart. Most New Urbanist towns, including Celebration, don’t rely on any form of mass transit. “What Celebration is trying to do,” writes Marshall, “is re-create an urban neighborhood without creating the transportation network that spawned such neighborhoods. Which is not possible. So what you get is a peculiar thing, an automobile-oriented subdivision dressed up to look like a small pre-car-centered town.”

Looking to contrast a real urban neighborhood against the counterfeit Celebration town, Marshall turns to another much-dissected urban site: Jackson Heights. Unfortunately, it’s one of the book’s weakest sections, little more than a potpourri of observations on the history and changing demographics of a neighborhood. Marshall paints Jackson Heights as a gleaming bastion of urban life for middle-class strivers, thanks to its high density, bustling street life and all the subway lines connecting it to Manhattan. Never mind that most of the residents of this ever-changing immigrant neighborhood will likely move to the suburbs the first chance they get, a reality he disingenuously ignores.

Curiously, Marshall betrays a saccharine nostalgia for the same kind of small-town “traditional” values he accuses New Urbanists of packaging. He mourns “the death of place” and blames “our consumer culture” for “the highest crime rates, the highest levels of fractured families and endemic loneliness.” I don’t know what bothers me more: the bad social science, or his pangs for a mythical idyll of yesteryear.

When he’s not blasting New Urbanism, Marshall expounds on “place” and how three other cities either retain or bastardize what he considers its essential ingredient–a sense of “community.” Portland, Oregon, for its willingness to tear down existing freeways, expand mass transit, preserve greenbelts, and implement strict growth boundaries has, unsurprisingly, earned his urban seal of approval. Silicon Valley, in California, on the other hand, deserves a failing grade for allowing itself to sprawl in blob-like fashion, effectively killing any sense of meaningful connection to the landscape for its inhabitants.

The crucial difference between the two cities, says Marshall, is the way each governs itself. Portland is a model for smart growth because one guiding hand carries out its land-use and transportation policies; Silicon Valley, by contrast, balkanizes decision-making under different arms of the government, resulting in no coherent land-use strategy. Marshall juxtaposes the two cities to highlight the need for regional planning–increasingly important as urban areas continue to expand. But unlike The Regional City, an excellent book by Peter Calthorpe and William Fulton, How Cities Work glosses over the inherent problems of power-sharing and offers no how-to advice for achieving real regional authority without class and race warfare. There is, for instance, only a fleeting mention of urban infill and no discussion of the federal tax policies that favor suburbs over cities, and how they can be reformed.

In all fairness, Marshall didn’t set out to write a comprehensive overview of urban policy issues; the book is a compendium of previously published journalistic essays. But on balance, readers may prefer less handwringing over “the powerful isolation of American life” and more attention to the “difficult policy questions that reviving actual urbanism entails,” a complaint that Marshall himself levels at New Urbanists.

All told, however, Marshall does succeed in splashing some much-needed cold water on the feverish spell New Urbanism seems to have cast over many planners, architects, politicians, and even developers. New Urbanists, it seems, may be coming soon to a town near you, but they’re sure not coming to your city.

Keith Kloor is a senior editor at Audobon.

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