Tag Archives: Suburbs

TED Talks on Cities

I recently watched this talk on TED.com, one of my favorite websites, and really wanted to talk about it, but was busy with my big regions project, so I put it off and I’m finally getting around to it.  This talk comes from Ellen Dunham-Jones, one of the founding members of the Congress for the New Urbanism.  Her talk is fairly fast-paced and covers a lot, mostly focusing on the problems with the suburbs and how they can be addressed by urbanising the suburbs.  The information here is great.

This is one of two TED talks that is strictly focused on New Urbanism.  The other is much less academic and much more bombastic.  James Howard Kunstler explains why the suburbs are ugly, and why if we keep building them, we will have a country not worth defending.  Very funny and highly entertaining.  Although I will warn the Mormon folks, there is some harsh language.

There are many, many more talks on TED that relate to cities that aren’t strictly related to New Urbanism, but are still very much worth your time.  You can find all these other talks here.  I would highly recommend the talks by Majora Carter, Jaime Lerner and William McDonough, although they are all great.  I would also recommend watching whatever new talk is on TED every day regardless of topic, like I do.

The City in History

I recently finished reading Lewis Mumford‘s 600-page masterpiece, “The City in History.”  I think I folded more corners and underlined more paragraphs than I ever have before.  But to help myself understand the form of cities in the time periods described by Mumford, I drew them out.  I refrained from things like the neighborhood unit and the garden city, for which there are entire books, but drew the basic features of cities in different periods and places.  So, with no further ado, here is my illustrated guide to Mumford’s “The City in History.”

Mesopotamian City

Egyptian City

Greek City

Greek Colony

Roman City

Medieval City

Baroque City

Commercial City

Industrial City

Early Suburb


Dissent Magazine Essay

I recently submitted this essay to Dissent Magazine for a scholarship contest.  I have been accepted to the University of Maryland and the University of Pennsylvania, and if I want to pay for it, I need a lot of money.

The United States is facing a blizzard of societal problems at the moment.  Our central cities are falling apart, while suburbs eat what’s left of our productive farmland.  Neighbors never meet each other unless they’re angry.  Our economy is run on energy that comes from outside of our borders that could be cut off at any moment and, at any rate, is running out fast.  Americans are the fattest people on the planet, due mostly to a sedentary lifestyle.  Public transportation helps the most needy people in society, yet most of our funding is poured into highways for commuters.  To say that all of these problems could be solved by only one solution would be ludicrous, but they can all at least be addressed by one issue: better city planning.

Various movements, including New Urbanism, Smart Growth and Transit-Oriented Development, are trying to do that very thing.  All of these focus on greater residential densities, mixed land uses, and making sure that walking, biking, and public transit are at least as feasible as car travel, if not more so.

This addresses the before-mentioned issues in a number of ways.  The best place to start on all of this is where it is already somewhat existent: current cities and towns.  Although many of our major cities have been gutted of their mixed uses, transformed into oversized office parks, the basic framework is there to turn them into high-density, mixed-use centers, with people living, working, shopping and playing downtown, all within walking distance.  When peak oil hits, all the people that commute via car won’t be able to live in the suburbs and work in the cities, so they will either have to work closer to home or live closer to work.  When this happens, our metropolitan areas will contract in geographic scale, but they will densify around certain centers, most of them traditional cities and towns.

The separateness of the suburbs has led to a certain type of sociopathy.  People never get out of their cars and talk to their neighbors.  They get in their cars, pull out of the garage, drive to work, spend most of the day in a cubicle, drive home, pull into the garage and get out of their cars while barely so much as talking to another human being.  This is why people create rules in HOA’s to maintain civility, because no one has the gall to actually talk to their neighbors or worry about how their actions might affect others.  When your neighbors are closer to you, and when you all walk to get anywhere, you’re bound to run into each other and have a conversation.  Who knows, you may even become friends and start walking to the pub together.

When we start to run low on oil, it will bring a massive shock to our economy.  We will no longer be able to rely on international shipping and long-haul trucking to bring us goods from across the world.  We will have to live on a much more local scale.  We will need to grow our food within a closer proximity to markets, preferably within cities so that those living there can also benefit from the greenery and the cleaner air.  We will have to manufacture our products within our communities.  People with manual labor skills will become much more important in our society, since it will again become more reasonable to fix things that break than to buy a new one at Wal-mart.  We will become much more intimately aware of where all of our products come from and who they are made by.

It’s amazing how much money people spend on their cars, only to get fat from having no incidental exercise whatsoever, and then spend even more on gym memberships and fad diets trying to lose all the excess weight (although there are many in America who opt to just stay fat).  We’d all be a lot better off if we just lived a life that gave us exercise.  If it were safe, pleasant and timely to walk or cycle, America would be in much better shape.  Again, with peak oil, we may be forced into a world where this is the case, so we might as well be ready for it when it comes.

Some critics of New Urbanism and Smart Growth say that suburban sprawl is the byproduct of the free market and that it illustrates what people really want, but it wouldn’t be at all economically feasible if it weren’t for government intervention.  The suburbs were the weekend retreat of the elite until after World War II, when Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac were created to help returning veterans get affordable mortgages (these two may be dismantling themselves as we speak, so it may not be entirely necessary to intervene).  Sprawl is also a product of expansive highway building.  No one would live in the suburbs if they couldn’t get to them, and for every dollar states pay towards new highways, the federal government pays nine.  Public transit and rail have never gotten this kind of funding.  Unlike in Europe, where many freeways went around cities or turned into grade-level boulevards within them, American cities have been cut up by freeways, creating barriers to non-car movement and walling certain neighborhoods off from the rest of the community, as with Pittsburgh’s impoverished Hill District.  With peak oil fast approaching, we need to be ready to use what fossil fuels we have on the most efficient forms of transport.  Public transit can move more people, and in some cases do so faster, than single-occupant cars, and while using less fossil fuels.

The greatest changes to this system need to be made at the top.  Most city planners are familiar with New Urbanism and Smart Growth, but are unable to implement policies due to public inertia.  The federal government could help by dismantling programs that favor cheap mortgages in the suburbs over city development (if there’s anything left to dismantle in the coming years); fund public transit and rail projects at least at the same level, if not more, than highways; and discourage single-use zoning, the land use law in most American cities that doesn’t allow the mixed uses found in traditional cities.  If we do this, we can save our cities and our farms, make better neighbors, be prepared for peak oil, be healthier, and allow for those in need to have better access to transportation options.

What’s Next: The 1-5-10 Issue

Metropolis Magazine‘s January issue is called “What’s Next: The 1-5-10 Issue,” and in it they ask a number of experts in the building industry about what they expect to see in their field in one, five, and ten years.  Of particular interest are the Transportation and Urban Planning comments, from John Norquist and Ken Greenburg, respectively.  According to them, this is what we can expect in upcoming years:

  • One Year
    • Transportation: The short term outlook is bleak for transit.  Norquist points out that current policies focus on congestion reduction instead of value, which is wrong because the areas across the country that have the highest value are often the most congested.
    • Urban Planning: The beginning of fixing the suburbs.  In some areas, suburbs are already on the way out, and some suburban communities are rushing to fix their development patterns so that they can support transit and depend less on the car.
  • Five Years
    • Transportation: Norquist sees a shift in this time from massive projects to a focus on smaller projects.  He sees the appreciation over time of wetlands as an indicator of the future for small, dense street networks and projects.  Eventually transportation planners will reach an “Aha!” moment where they will realize that the small things they are destroying for their big projects are actually worth preserving, emulating and restoring.
    • Urban Planning: Cities will need to follow the example of areas at the forefront of technology and update their infrastructure accordingly.  Greenburg cites the Scandinavian Envac waste management systems as one example of new technologies that will be applied to the city, much to the benefit of its citizens.
  • Ten Years
    • Transportation: Transit will be seen as an upper/middle class amenity, rather than a lower class subsidy.  Changing demographics and settlement patterns will encourage a more dense, urban future.
    • Urban Planning: Around this time, the massive post-war projects in America will reach the end of their structural lifespan.  Highways will be replaced by transit.  Congestion pricing will become the norm.  Buildings will be built to return energy to the grid.  The only question is, will developing countries keep the pace and not make the mistakes that we made, or will they follow right in our footsteps and repeat them?

Homefront: Frank Lloyd Wright and his Suburban Dream

Kathryn Gates Moore brings us this story on Frank Lloyd Wright and his ideas about urbanism.  Wright is often criticized by planners for his Broadacre City design, a city based on low density and personal vehicles (although he was more focused on helicopters than cars).  But this story talks about some little-mentioned ideas on planning from America’s greatest architect.  His 1913 drawings for a “model suburb” outside of Chicago includes mixed uses and incomes, and a range of housing types from his well-recognized single-family homes to apartments within walking distance of train stops (an idea that is considered novel today is about 100 years old).  And as opposed to the modern practice of building the same or very similar houses in a subdivision, Wright advocated making each house distinct, based on an architect consulting with an owner like Wright did with all his houses.

Is your suburb the next slum?

Melinda Fulmer brings us this story on the downfall of the suburbs.  The recession, high gas prices and demographic shifts have all combined to bring down the value of fringe communities.  Arthur Neslon, whose stats have been featured in other articles of mine, is predicting that there will be a surplus of large suburban homes because of a lack of demand.  Some of those will sit vacant, some will become low-income housing, and some will be divided up into multifamily units.  Fulmer uses Elk Grove, CA, as an example of a city that is slumming.  Housing values have gone through the floor, the necessary infrastructure isn’t getting built, and crime rates have multiplied.  The price of suburbs, including commuting, might make them too expensive even for low-income housing.  People have been asking for walkable communities near transit and services for years, but developers have built homes on the fringe because land is cheaper and zoning laws less restrictive.  Baby boomers will be selling their now-childless homes so that they will have less to maintain and will move closer in.  The suburbs won’t be completely deserted, though.  People will still drive far for lower taxes, bigger houses, better schools and less crime, although there are reforms that are coming about in many cities to improve schools and school choice, and if Elk Grove is any example, crime may migrate.  The suburbs that will do the best are the ones that have the best amenities and at least some mixed uses – some version of New Urbanism.  The best thing that suburbs can do is turn their oversized big box stores and endless parking lots into walkable, mixed-use town centers.  They will need to improve transportation services both for shoppers and workers in their communities.

Could Recession Lead to Death of Sprawl?

Ted Smalley Bowen brings us this article on what may be the death of sprawl.  The numbers from Harvard’s Joint Center for Housing Studies show that cities have taken a hit, but it isn’t the knockout that suburbs and exurbs are experiencing.  Many outer areas have simply stopped growing, whereas cities are still growing slowly, in some cases faster than they have in recent years.  The economic crisis seems to have accelerated the trend away from suburbs and back to cities.  John Norquist, who arguably may be biased, says that this is a permanent change.  I would have to agree.  Although economics are forcing people to downsize in the short term, increasing gas prices and other elements that will only get worse in the future will keep them from going back in the future.  In addition to economic factors, demographics are also encouraging the move back to cities.  Baby boomers have become empty nesters, and they want smaller, more manageable nests, closer to everyday needs.  At the same time, Millenials that grew up in the suburbs but had all of their fun in cities (like me, my wife and my sister) have a desire to live a more vibrant life closer to the center.  Bowen cites changes in Phoenix, focusing on it’s new light rail line and connections to Tucson and Flagstaff, as a great example of this change.  Even in suburban western cities like Phoenix, the future for cities looks bright.

Who’s against the New Urbanism?

Mark Oppenheimer of the Huffington Post writes in this article about a quandry he’s facing.  He is considering writing a book about what makes some streets livable and others not.  From what he’s read, he comes to the conclusion, “don’t depend on cars. People are happier when they can walk to see neighbors, ride their bicycles, and live close enough to their neighbors that they know them.”  Having grown up in a small town, he admits his bias in that direction, but says that rural life has its pros as well.  He asks the question of suburbia, “Can one have a happy childhood where there are no sidewalks, where it’s too dangerous to ride a bicycle, where there are no secret passageways behind garages or corner stores at which to buy candy?”  I think most people are aware of the empirical evidence against suburbia: obesity, social challenges, car dependence, etc.  What is interesting to me is that he says he can’t find any books that support this lifestyle.  There are many books that support New Urbanism, but none that he could find against them.  I have only found a handful of articles, not entire books, and those are by nuts like the Cato Institute.  My opinion, of course, is that suburbia is an inferior product, but I’m sure there are those that would disagree with me.

Real estate bust turns South Dade suburbs into modern ghost towns

Matthew Haggman reports on the devastation facing the Miami suburbs.   Subdivisions are being abandoned half-finished, with weeds growing on the vacant lots and vagrants living in the unfinished homes.  Some homes have lost almost 80% of their value.  The city core, on the other hand, has lost about 30% (which could be expected in an area with a lot of tourists and snowbirds).  They quote noted New Urbanist Victor Dover, who says that the fallout is indicative of a change in values, where the baby boomers are wanting to downsize their living space and the millennials are wanting to be closer to the center of action at downtown.  James Howard Kunstler, in his book “The Long Emergency,” hypothesizes that many cities in the future will be surrounded by a ring of abandoned suburbs as the country is re-urbanized.  Local suburban developers see this as a hiccup, and think the system will return to what it was.  We shall see.