Americans like their private single-family homes – but maybe less if forced to be there

The 2000 book Suburban Nation is a New Urbanist declaration. It includes this argument regarding the public and private realms in the United States:

Americans may have the finest private realm in the developed world, but our public realm is brutal. (41)

This comes amidst a discussion of the suburban single-family home, one of the most attractive features of suburbia for Americans. American homes are large, providing plenty of space for occupants, a range of activities, and vehicles. They can be filled with all sorts of consumer goods, from electronics to clothes to media to equipment for hobbies. Through the Internet and other connected devices, occupants can access all sorts of information, videos, music, and other parts of the world. The homes can be the single largest investment for many. They are often separated from other dwellings (or at most share a wall or two). For decades, Americans have promoted, built, and purchased such homes.

All of this may be good for many Americans but what do these private realms feel like when the occupants cannot leave? It is one thing to choose these private spaces; it is another to be pushed by outside forces to stay in them. With the spread of COVID-19, people are being encouraged to stay home. Does “the finest private realm” become confining when one cannot easily leave?

We are about to find out. Even if Americans might prefer their private realms, some might miss the public realm or the easy opportunities to visit other private realms (such as stores and shopping malls). This may not lead to a revival of public spaces but it might remind some homeowners that the private realm has limitations.

A way to fight app directed through traffic: cul-de-sacs

The suburbs are full of of cul-de-sacs. Homeowners might prefer them because of the quiet and the space that they allow for kids and vehicles. They can help developers and builders fit more houses into spaces.

At the same time, cul-de-sacs may be the bane of New Urbanism as neighborhoods with many of them do not have a consistent street grid and they are primarily lined by private single-family homes. One video promoting New Urbanism put it this way: The greatest threat to our planet is…

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Yet, cul-de-sacs do provide one additional advantage in today’s world. They can limit the effectiveness of Waze and other traffic or mapping apps: cars and traffic cannot cut through cul-de-sacs. I saw this argument recently in a 2001 newspaper article where a suburban leader said they had restricted commercial development to main roads and highways and the high percentage cul-de-sacs and loops among the residential roads kept neighborhoods quiet. With more cul-de-sacs, more traffic is routed to arterial roads, streets that can usually accommodate more volume. Cul-de-sacs help make residential neighborhoods harder to navigate; I can think of several residential neighborhoods in my area that make it very difficult to find your way through if you are not familiar with it because of the winding roads and dead ends.

New Urbanists would argue that this is not ideal: more cars on arterial roads is going to lead to more congestion (as opposed to a grid system that provides drivers lots of options), arterial roads may be less friendly to pedestrians and bicyclists, and we should be working to reduce driving anyhow rather than planning communities around cul-de-sacs that depend on cars.

Speed bumps, roadside speed monitors, and other devices might not be enough to stop through traffic in residential neighborhoods. Permanent cul-de-sacs could do the trick – but at a cost to the overall fabric of the neighborhood and community.

Prince Charles as New Urbanist?

With the British royals in the news lately, I encountered Prince Charles’ current project adding to a Cornish town:

Nansledan is an extension to the Cornish coastal town of Newquay on Duchy of Cornwall land that embodies the principles of architecture and urban planning championed by HRH The Prince of Wales.

The Prince has long been concerned with the quality of the natural and built environment, urging a return to sustainable human-scale development that is land-efficient, uses low-carbon materials and is less car dependant. His vision is to plan connected urban centres where mixed-income housing, shops, offices and leisure facilities combine so that daily needs can be met within walkable neighbourhoods.

Development should enhance the quality of life, strengthen the bonds of community and place, and give people a sense of pride in where they live. Buildings should look as if they belong in the landscape, drawing on regional traditional styles, where the use of local materials and craftsmanship is vital to the aesthetic and the local economy. Nansledan is all these things, embodying timeless principles that have created enduring communities the length and breadth of Britain.

And from an article written by the Prince of Wales in The Architectural Review:

As traditional thinking teaches, basing designs on the timeless universal principles expressed by Nature’s order enables the full scope of our humanity to be fulfilled, on the physical, communal, cultural and spiritual levels.

What has concerned me about the design and planning of so many modern built environments during the greater part of the 20th century is that these four interconnecting levels have been completely abandoned and ignored, to the extent that their rediscovery is seen as an exciting revelation. Emphasis has been placed purely on the functional with no integrated understanding of how the order of Nature informs the well-being of people. Hence, towns have been systematically broken down into zones with shopping and commercial zones sitting separately from the housing zones they serve, many of which look exactly the same, being made of the same industrialized materials wherever in the country they are built. And, with business parks and leisure centres built on urban fringes, the entire system only functions because of the car. The opportunities for fragmentation and isolation are everywhere.

Three quick thoughts:

  1. New Urbanism or related principles have their boosters but few would able to compete with the fame of Prince Charles. At the same time, I have never seen Prince Charles officially linked to New Urbanism, which I have mainly viewed as an American movement led by architects.
  2. I do not know if New Urbanists would view themselves this way but it seems like advocating for traditional town design is truly a conservative effort. The pitch goes like this: people over the centuries figured out principles for planning communities at a human scale that worked. With industrialization, urbanization, and the spread of the automobile, we lost sight of the value of this knowledge. If the conservative movement at its best is holding onto to valuable knowledge and traditions from the past, this could be an example through calling people back to older methods.
  3. It could be easy to commodify Nansledan because of its connections to royalty. Think back to the example of Celebration, Florida which was planned with New Urbanist principles: because of its connection to Disney, people were drawn to it. Yet, New Urbanism hopes to return people to a more social, community-oriented life rather than a modern commodified existence.

Reasons for replacing “Freeways Without Future”

A new report from the Congress of New Urbanism titled “Freeways Without Futures” looks at the ten urban highways and interchanges that need to go. Why might cities pursue these projects? Here are some common themes in such plans:

1. Reconnect neighborhoods and communities that highways split. When constructed, highways with their width and imposing traffic split social collectives. Or, highways can impede development by providing a barrier. Removing the highway allows for more pedestrian traffic as well as more meaningful connection between residents and businesses on both sides of the highway. New development can span the former highway or help bridge the divide.

2. Create more green space. Highways are the result of auto-oriented urbanism that trampled over and through communities. Removing the highways allows for more parks and trees, among other natural features. Plus, it reduces noise and emissions from the highway (though these might be simply moved to another kind of thoroughfare).

3. Remove eyesores. Highways can create visual blight on the urban landscape. Highways block sight lines and present an imposing concrete structure. Without their presence, particularly elevated highways, people are free to see more of the city.

4. Removing the highway could be part of a larger project of reducing dependence on cars and vehicles and a shift toward mass transit and pedestrians. Removing the above-ground highway is one step but that same highway could simply be routed elsewhere or underground without affecting transportation choices.

Quick Review: “The Ghastly Tragedy of the Suburbs”

Critics of the suburbs are plentiful yet few make their argument in the style of James Howard Kunstler. I use his 2004 TED talk “The Ghastly Tragedy of the Suburbs” often in class because of its clarity and humor. A quick review:

  1. He has a provocative argument: are the American suburbs placing worth dying for? Kunstler explicitly links the design and experience of suburbs to the armed forces fighting in the Middle East: are they willing to die for their suburban communities? This question helps elevate the conversation from one about personal preferences – some Americans like suburbs, some do not – to a larger question of whether our communities are worth fighting for and living in. With the suburban emphasis on single-family homes, it can be hard to orient suburban conversations around the public good.
  2. The primary critique of the suburbs Kunstler offers involves architecture and urban planning. He shows some great examples of American buildings that offer little to pedestrians and the surrounding areas. He shows what a tree-framed streetscape should look like. He discussed a typical American Main Street and how it provides useful public space. He ends up making a pitch for New Urbanism as it recovers a lost understanding of how to create lively public spaces. It is too bad that he does not have a little more time to show how a typical suburb might be transformed (a retrofitted shopping mall is as far as he gets) because of different planning choices.
  3. There is plenty of humor here. While his own books can be somewhat bombastic, he sprinkles in plenty of funny lines in the TED talk including comparing the design of a civic building to a DVD player and discussion of “nature band-aids.”
  4. As someone who teaches courses about suburbs regularly, it is hard to find succinct and effective video clips to use in class. This talk is relatively short, has some humor, and summarizes an important critique of suburban life. Of course, it does not cover everything: Kunstler has little chance to cover some of his own critiques (such as peak oil and driving – although these came along years later, I would be interested to hear him respond to the possible invention of self-driving cars that could further sprawl) and says nothing about racial and class exclusion. Yet, this is my go-to video to discuss what some see as problems in the suburbs.

TED Talks cannot easily cover the nuance of particular social phenomena. However, if they are engaging presentations, they can provide helpful summaries of an issue that can then serve as a springboard for more in-depth exploration. Kunstler’s talk does just that: it is a worthy entree into a decades-long conversation about the downsides and merits of American suburbs.

Plopping a New Urbanist metroburb into the middle of sprawling suburbia

I recently discussed plans for a “metroburb” to replace a sizable AT&T office campus in Hoffman Estates. Reading more about the proposal, I wondered: does it really work to put a New Urbanist development right in the middle of suburbia?

Under Zucker’s plan, which would rename the former campus City Works, the four-level, 1.3 million-square-foot main building would house offices of varying sizes and shops. About 175 townhouses and 375 multifamily rental units would be constructed on the edges of the property. The estimated total cost is about $250 million. Unlike a typical suburban subdivision, the town homes would line straight streets and have alleys…

Zucker, 57, is a devotee of the New Urbanism, the urban planning movement that seeks to replace the car-oriented monotony of suburban sprawl with lively, mixed-use streetscapes that encourage walking and the formation of community.

Chicago suburbs like Arlington Heights have put New Urbanist thinking to use in greenlighting high-rise housing near train stations. That approach is called transit-oriented development, or TOD. Under Zucker’s plan, Hoffman Estates, which doesn’t have its own train station, would do a variation of transit-oriented development.

“Taking the TOD (elements) and putting them inside a building is really the novel part of this,” said Jim Norris, the suburb’s village manager.

While this may be a clever use of what is a large facility, the overall fit between the redevelopment and the surrounding area could be less than ideal. Here is why:

  1. They want to include transit-oriented development elements even though there is no mass transit nearby. Indeed, this office corridor owes much to roads and Interstate. This could represent an opportunity to push for mass transit to the area: rapid buses along major roads? light rail?
  2. It seems like much of the redevelopment is focused on orienting residents, customers, and workers to the original large facility. While this may be a good use of the existing space, how many people from outside of this development will come in? Will this just be a self-contained area?
  3. The new tissue intended to connect the redeveloped area – walkable streets, alleys, interesting places to go – may or may not connect with anything beyond this development. This happens sometimes with suburban New Urbanist developments; they look and feel great on the inside but then have little interaction with the terrain that surrounds them. In other words, it requires requires a car to get to these interesting New Urbanist areas.

In the long run, a redevelopment that has a more permeable edge as well as is situated in a community that truly wants more New Urbanist development overall rather than in just an isolated location could lead to better outcomes.

When sidewalks and paths are in bad shape

I was reminded by seeing Blair Kamin’s complaints about a path at Northerly Island in Chicago that the condition of sidewalks and paths can matter a lot for those who want to use them. A few thoughts about my experiences with local sidewalks and paths:

  1. On one hand, I grew up near and am still located near a tremendous bike path system: the Prairie Path. Originally an electric interurban line that closed for good in the late 1950s, local residents and officials started converting it into a recreational asset in the 1960s. The path is generally wide, covers dozens of miles with connections of other trails, and offers access to a number of communities and parks. On the other hand, riding a bike on the path can be frustrating at times, particularly in sections with more roads and tracks that need to be crossed (and there are other parts where one can ride much longer without interruption) as well as more pedestrians who are less speedy and often take up more of the path. Additionally, the path offers access between communities but one can often be stuck with limited options with roadways and sidewalks as soon as they leave the path.
  2. Nearly all suburban roads are built for cars. People like to drive fast. Not all roads, particularly in older parts of town, offer adequate space for pedestrians or bikes. Many drivers do not look for bikes or pedestrians.
  3. Sidewalks are sometimes present and sometimes not. I know this is often dependent on the regulations when the road was built but it can be confusing how sidewalks suddenly appear and disappear.
  4. Sidewalks that do exist are often in various states of repair. Some are really narrow. Cracks are common as are different angles and difficult ramps on and off streets. This may be something I am more aware of because I have a road bike that can be harmed by these imperfections as well as young children who can more easily trip on uneven surfaces. Hence, I would almost always rather ride in the road because the condition of the street is usually much better than the sidewalk.

In other words, life for non-vehicles in the suburbs can be difficult, particularly when the infrastructure provided for them is less than ideal. I get it; the suburbs are about cars. At the same time, without adequate opportunities for walking and biking, people will likely simply not try them as much. And this likely continues to fuel a car-driving, suburban society.

(If one wanted to go further, the New Urbanists place a lot of emphasis on street life and allowing residents to get to important places within a reasonable walk. They are usually referring to mixed-use neighborhoods where people are consistently on the sidewalks. Some newer subdivisions are full of walking and bike paths, though these may have few connections to anything outside the neighborhood. In other words, there are some people arguing sidewalks and paths are important – particularly those interested in vibrant street life or interested in boosting property values – but this has not trickled down to all suburban places.)