Sprawling From Sea to Shining Sea: The Need for a New Urbanism

July 19, 2010


by Drew Ward

Flourish magazine, Summer 2010

In my pocket I carry keys to my 2005 PT Cruiser and my Southern California suburban house, and I usually have little loose change, too. Ordinary stuff, really. Or is it? I got to thinking about the role my pocket actually plays. It turns out that my pocket carries, in its dark little pouch, the essentials of my everyday life. It carries my way to work, allowing me to earn a living. It carries my purchasing power, allowing me to feed and clothe and shelter myself, my family, and others. And it carries my way home, allowing me to find shelter and enter into a fellowship of people I love and who love me. To think that I keep, almost without thought, such important things in a little fold of cloth sewn at my hip is a bit shocking to me.

My buddies Chris Elisara, John Paget, and I are working on a film project called American Makeover. Our company, First+Main Media, is on a nationwide search for the antidote to suburban sprawl. We’ve seen and heard about some pretty wonderful places and some pretty heartbreaking ones. This gig is causing me to rethink so much of what I’d imagined the good life to be. And then it dawns on me: On some profound level, my pocket carries something even more transcendent than I’d thought. These jangling objects at my hip are my keys to the American Dream. But I’m realizing that this is a dream I’m dying to wake up from.

The start of sprawl
When our nation was still living under the spreading shadow of the mushroom clouds over Hiroshima and Nagasaki, an idea was detonated in the United States with fallout that has left no corner of the country untouched. The idea I’m referring to is the American suburb, and ground zero was a development of 2,000 mass-manufactured houses on Long Island called Levittown. Levittown is generally considered the very first mass-produced suburban neighborhood in human history. Bill Levitt, a returning G.I. responsible throughout the war for building military housing quickly and cost-efficiently with interchangeable parts, brought this industrial building practice stateside to his family’s building firm, Levitt & Sons.

After this first development of inexpensive, detached family rental units for returning G.I.s in 1947, the practice of mass-manufacturing houses was adopted, refined, and spread, virtually unchecked, as we say, “from sea to shining sea.” Urban centers, with their rising populations, rising crime, and rising rent, became less and less desirable places to live and were increasingly abandoned for a chance to live more affordably in clean, safe, spacious neighborhoods just outside the city, far from the smoking blight of industrial factories. These “bedroom communities” started cropping up in the undeveloped countryside and farmland that flanked the city, and they set into motion a pattern of living that perpetually moved people further and further out of the city center.

This movement outward is called “sprawl.” It continues to draw us because the further from an urban center you get, the less expensive the land. It’s what Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk, one of the authors of Suburban Nation: The Rise of Sprawl and the Decline of the American Dream, calls “drive till you qualify.” What happens eventually, as you can imagine, is that going into the city to attend to your daily needs becomes increasingly impractical because the city is so far away. So merchants and service providers naturally seize the opportunity to bring the things that people need out to where the people live, until, inevitably, the city centers die out. I’ve grown up and lived in what can be called the suburbs of Los Angeles all my life, and I’m here to tell you, downtown shuts down at sundown. You only have to put quarters in the meters until 5:00 p.m. because most things close around that time and parking becomes irrelevant.

Or take the population of the greater Buffalo area, for example. It has remained almost the same for the last 60 years—about 1.25 million from 1950 until today. The difference now is that the population is spread over three-and-a-half times the amount of land as it was then. In the 1940’s there were 40,000 people living in downtown Buffalo. Today that number is just 2,000.

Life flows outward to the ’burbs. In a dense, diverse city, one million people would be contained within 40 square miles. In the suburbs they cover 400 square miles. Now we follow our headlights home, away from the city, to where the lights of well-lit streets, parking lots, and living rooms ring a darkened downtown. We arrive home on quiet streets, pull our cars into our garages, walk into our nicely appointed kitchens, and look to see what we can heat up for dinner, or maybe grab the family and head out to a nearby mall or big box retail center. What’s left behind are destitute inner cities and desolate town centers where those who are forced to remain—the elderly, the immigrant, and the poor—suffer the oppressive cycles of poverty.  As they grow more and more distant in our rearview mirrors, they grow more and more invisible to us. That dark uninhabited island is inhabited, after all, with the ill-fated inmates of an urban Alcatraz.

Driving the American Dream
Winston Churchill once famously observed, “We shape our buildings, and, afterwards, our buildings shape us.”  Roughly 50 years into America’s unbridled spread of suburbia, and at the threshold of a growing awareness of suburbia’s role in our current social, economic and environmental crises, it’s time for America to take stock of the inconvenient realities of how the suburbs have shaped us.

No matter what Americans must have imagined before all of this, the American Dream quickly came to resemble, in the American collective imagination, something that looked a lot like Levittown. As my father successfully climbed the corporate ladder through the sixties and seventies, I grew up in a series of these neighborhoods throughout Orange County: first Huntington Beach, then Laguna Hills, Tustin, and Orange. And even though they were all different places, each one a little nicer than the last, they all felt familiar to me as a growing boy. They all had a recognizable look and a reassuring logic to them, places a friend calls “Anytown, U.S.A.”

Embedded in that highly structured, assembly line system with interchangeable parts is the organizing principle of division. Neighborhoods, in fact, are commonly referred to as subdivisions, and different areas of the larger community are zoned separately for single uses. Residential zoning gives way to commercial zones, which give way to municipal zones, which give way to schools, hospitals, industry, and so on. To pick up a carton of milk, I have to drive out of my neighborhood, past a park, and down a busy collector road to the grocery store located on the main drag zoned for commercial retail and restaurants. I’m lucky. It’s only a mile away, a three-minute car ride for me. But if I wanted to walk or ride my bike, an option not very practical for most folks in the community, I’d spend most of my time on wide, high-speed roads with posted speed limits of 45 and 50 mph.

But this organization makes sense. It keeps things where they belong, keeps things tidy. Isn’t this how things have always been, how they were meant to be? Truth is, a lifestyle like this can only be possible through a technology that makes it possible. Phoenix or Las Vegas, say, couldn’t possibly be the two fastest growing municipalities in the nation without the invention, of course, of central air conditioning. Likewise, suburbia is dependent on the invention of the assembly line system, as we’ve seen, but also on the invention of the car—the affordable family automobile. After all, it takes a car to move from zone to zone. A lot of us moved to the ’burbs for the promise of wide-open spaces—why live cramped in the city when you could move to the ’burbs and stretch out? The problem is that with everything so far apart, we became imprisoned in our cars. The average American now spends nearly three hours per day in a car, usually alone. Since World War II, many of us have required a car to conduct our daily lives. It has been the car, in the name of connecting us to each other more easily, that has served instead to isolate us more profoundly. Now we drive through the countryside at high speeds—oblivious to life outside the car—and through our neighborhoods separated from our neighbors by shatterproof glass and tempered steel, right into our houses.

Before World War II, on the other hand, Americans from Portland, Oregon to Portland, Maine, built and lived in what are being called traditional neighborhoods: Diverse people, living in close proximity, with houses, shops, and business offices all intermixed. A person’s whole world was commonly within walking distance. When we travel on foot, the natural world becomes more present and neighbors become personalities with histories and names. This continues to be the most common pattern of human habitat outside of the U.S. But here in America, suburban sprawl is devouring the landscape: housing subdivisions, shopping centers, office parks, civic institutions (like churches, city halls, and courts) operate out of warehouses and strip malls instead of special buildings that reflect their significance, and a massive system of roadways and parking lots is built to accommodate cars.

A beautiful change in the neighborhood
After many decades of suburban sprawl, Americans are beginning to realize its harmful, unintended consequences: oil-dependence; sedentary lifestyles; traffic jams; obesity; the destruction of farmland and wildlife habitat; and the splintering, atomization, and inequity of society that happens when we no longer have the communal space that fosters community. Andres Duany, one of today’s most prominent architects and urban planners, and another author of Suburban Nation, claims that “every problem we face today can be connected to the dysfunctional way we inhabit the land.”

A popular alternative to suburban sprawl is emerging, however.  Today, a new movement of architects, urban planners, and civic designers is building towns and neighborhoods that look nothing like suburbs. This movement is called New Urbanism. It endeavors to develop communities that are walkable, beautiful, and diverse, with mixed-use buildings where, among other innovations, residential apartments sit above street-level retail shops and services. It’s a beautiful antidote to sprawl. And as much as it’s about building new towns, it’s also about the restoration of the old places that America built before the onset of suburban sprawl. New Urbanist projects across America have succeeded in fostering community, increasing walkability, reducing energy use and carbon emissions, and improving the quality of life for residents. At the very heart of New Urbanism is an impulse toward restoration and reconciliation. Implicit within the mixed-use arrangement of its buildings is a notion of social, economic, and environmental diversity and health.

But the word ‘new’ is bit of a misnomer, because New Urbanism is not a new invention or technology; it’s really a return to the principles of old urbanism and traditional neighborhood design using contemporary materials and, often, green technology.

In some cases, New Urbanist neighborhoods are built from scratch. Seaside, Florida, for example, designed by Andres Duany in the mid-eighties, is the benchmark community that is generally regarded as the birthplace of this movement. Other New Urbanist architects are literally retrofitting suburbia—repurposing shopping centers gone bust and remaking streets from “nowhere” wastelands to walkable neighborhoods with distinct identities.

Take Buffalo, again, as an example. The principles of New Urbanism have guided the development of Buffalo’s comprehensive plan to restore and remake Buffalo, the “Queen City in the 21st Century.” The plan was recently awarded the top prize at the Congress for the New Urbanism’s 2009 Charter Awards.

According to the principles of New Urbanism, a city should have a clear center, focused on the common activities of commerce, culture, and governance. All great cities have been built around a central downtown. But, as with many American cities, Buffalo’s downtown was virtually abandoned for an ever-expanding periphery, an expansion in line with Henry Ford’s pronouncement that “We will solve the problem of the city by leaving the city.”  This expansion destroyed the social fabric of the city and consumed surrounding rural and agricultural areas. By reinvesting in a vital center, with infill development and smart growth, Buffalo’s center can be revitalized while the surrounding natural and agricultural surroundings that sustain it are preserved. As one New Urbanist put it, “Farmland and nature are as important to the metropolis as the garden is to the house.”

At the same time, historic neighborhoods throughout Buffalo survive as great examples of New Urbanism’s Five-Minute-Walk principle. On the Main Streets of many walkable neighborhoods, a person can go to church, eat Thai food for lunch, have coffee with a friend, stop in at the office, and pick up a gallon of milk on the way home—all on foot. In contrast, a single errand in the Buffalo suburbs might require 20 minutes in the car. There, where walking routes are scarce and traffic is choked on collector roads and highways, the transportation experience can be a nightmare. In the suburbs, only one thing happens on the street: driving – it is a hostile environment to anyone on foot. By contrast, the traditional street grid network of older neighborhoods provides pedestrians and drivers with lots of alternative routes. Because there are so many streets to accommodate traffic, each street can be small. Small streets slow down traffic, making it pleasant and safe to walk. Drivers can constantly alter their route to avoid heavy traffic, and streets are manageable and pleasant for pedestrians.

Looking backward, moving forward
At first glance, a thriving neighborhood looks disorderly and chaotic. As we’ve seen, suburban planners decided to institute some order to all of this activity when they created single-use-zoning. It puts offices, retail, and residences into separate areas, making us overly dependent on driving and effectively isolating people who cannot drive (the young, the old, the poor). In a recent issue of Orion magazine, David Oates paraphrases Gil Peñalosa from a Green Urbanist Conference at Portland State University: “Your workers, your children, your old people—your people in need—are your indicator species. How you treat the most vulnerable reveals how successful your city is.” This could be said of any community. Arguably the best places in America are places that are all mixed-up—stores, offices, houses and apartments all intertwined. To have a walkable neighborhood where every ordinary need—even for the most vulnerable—is a short walk away, you have to have neighborhoods where retail, commercial, and residential uses mix. Though it may like chaos, it actually works.

What a lot of this boils down to is that what looks like a step backward is really the way forward.

Not all New Urban developments are fully successful in restoring what suburbia has broken, however. Often I have seen new developments, as well as downtown restoration efforts, that are largely gentrification projects that drive up property values in the name of “urban renewal,” making it impossible for the current residents, members of the working poor, to remain. It seems to me that these projects risk doing even greater harm than the suburbs, bringing hope and promise to a place without sharing them with the most vulnerable. Revitalization is, in these instances, their doom. So New Urbanism is not necessarily the answer to all our ills. But its principles, when fully realized, offer a worthwhile alternative to sprawl.

It’s been difficult to admit that America is suffering the consequences of suburban sprawl. In my case, Churchill was right: My mind was developed and laid out in a suburban pattern throughout my public school education—ideas and schools of thought organized at right angles to each other, studied in separate classrooms, with different teachers, at regularly designated times every day, and neatly occupying separate blocks of my mind at appropriate distances from each other. My thinking has been zoned. And, now, knowing what I know, I’m living the life I’d always aspired to live, the one I’ve been trained to want: a life in a well-manicured neighborhood with nicely organized streets named to remind us of, and artificially connect us to, those bits of the natural world that we’ve paved and built over—Rainbow Falls, Quiet Meadows, Eagle Glen, and the like.

But across America, a new kind of town is emerging right alongside the restoration and revitalization of the old parts of town that were built right. It’s the ultimate makeover—the transformation of our cities and neighborhoods into healthy, diverse, and strong communities. Places worth making and protecting. Places that will help us live, and even think, differently.

My buddies and I at First+Main will be searching the country for healthy alternatives to sprawl. Our pilot webisode, Sprawlanta, launched in May, looks at the effects of sprawl on public health in Atlanta, the home of our National Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Other episodes will focus on issues of environment, social equity, and local economy and food, among others. Keep an eye on it and join us at AmericanMakeover.tv.

Drew WardDrew Ward is part of an ongoing experiment living in intentional Christian community and has been teaching Imagining the Earth in Belize and the South Pacific for the Creation Care Study Program since 2002. With a Masters in English (emphasizing Environmental Literature), Drew recently taught Writing and Literature for Azusa Pacific University, and currently teaches Writing at Chaffey College. A writer himself, he’s a former poetry editor for Creation Care magazine and consultant for Restoring Eden. He speaks around the world about the earth, revolutionary marriage, Christian community, and the Biblical imagination.

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