The authors of Suburban Nation
tell Gore and Bush to listen up --
the antidote to sprawl is good old-fashioned town planning
April 26, 2000
Images of a dispiriting suburbia are so familiar as to be cliché: new
homes sitting isolated on lonely cul-de-sacs, miles from any job or anyplace
worth walking to; endless highways and strip malls; outsize garages, acres
of parking, and roads that are dauntingly wide to pedestrians. With
increasing frequency, newspapers and magazines are addressing the ugliness,
congestion, and isolation spawned by sprawl. Citizens, with varying degrees
of success, have tried to stop new development that threatens to impinge on
their space. And some politicians, aware of the growing discontent, have
incorporated anti-sprawl policies into their platforms.
Both citizens and politicians, it seems, tend to equate anti-sprawl with
anti-growth, and therefore direct their efforts toward impeding development
altogether: decades of growth-as-sprawl have convinced most people that any
new construction at all is detrimental to the landscape. In Suburban Nation,
however, Andres Duany, Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk, and Jeff Speck argue that
although growth may be inexorable, sprawl, as their own experience attests,
need not be.
Duany and Plater-Zyberk, a husband-and-wife team who are both
architect-developers, have long been designing communities engineered to be
vibrant and convivial -- antidotes to sprawl. They believe that community
planning as it was done in the old days of town greens and dense villages,
with people of different income levels mingling in a landscape of
pedestrian-oriented scale, makes for far more viable communities than do
today's mainstream practices. The couple is perhaps most famous for Seaside
-- the resort town in Florida that awakened many to the idea that
traditional town planning still works. With its emphasis on walkability,
consistency of building design, and on appealing spaces for public
gathering, Seaside has proved so popular that it costs more to buy or rent
there than in adjacent communities where homes are larger and have more
In 1993 Duany and Plater-Zyberk helped found the Congress for the New
Urbanism, which advocates public-policy changes that facilitate the kind of
development they practice. Membership in the organization has swelled in
recent years, and the principles of New Urbanism, though criticized by some
as promoting an overly quaint aesthetic, have been embraced not just by
fellow designers, but by many engineers, developers, and public servants as
well. With Jeff Speck, their firm's director of town planning, Duany and
Plater-Zyberk have continued to apply their planning principles to
communities, both urban and suburban, around the country.
Suburban Nation, which contains much practical advice to help
citizens effect desired change in their communities, is an outgrowth of
their collective experience. The authors hope their book will serve as a
catalyst in the effort to remake America as a community of places that
people can care about.
Plater-Zyberk and Speck spoke recently with Atlantic Unbound's Sage
Some say that sprawl represents not an unhealthy degeneration, but
part of an inevitable evolution from higher-density living to the
lower-density living that Americans seem to want. What gives you confidence
that the tide of sprawl can (or should) be turned?
Jeff Speck: Saying sprawl was inevitable ignores the degree to
which it was promoted by government policies. A 41,000-mile highway system,
for example, was 90 percent funded by the federal government. And Federal
Housing Administration and Veterans Affairs mortgage programs made it easier
to build a new house than to pay rent for an apartment.
It was demonstrated long before we came along that sprawl is a
fundamentally unhealthy way to grow by any measure -- the amount of gasoline
burned, the degree of pollution, global warming, deforestation, evisceration
of farmland, time wasted in traffic, the rate of obesity as a function of
driving everywhere, and 40,000 deaths a year in car accidents.
As for the question of high-density vs. low-density living, everyone on
both sides of the argument seems to get our position wrong. Urban apologists
accuse us of being "New Suburbanists" because we do projects with suburban
densities. Meanwhile, the sprawl cartel accuses us of trying to force all of
America into urban tenements. But we do suburban developments at five units
per acre, and we also do developments at a hundred units per acre -- the
density of Greenwich Village. It's not about which density is right, it's
about the organization of the neighborhood system -- about ensuring that
pedestrian life is possible.
Do you think that it's possible that some of the worst examples of
sprawl could eventually get filled in with corner stores, town centers,
Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk: Yes, in fact it's already happening.
There are a number of examples in which shopping centers, for instance, are
being rebuilt as town centers. There's one on Cape Cod called Mashpee
Commons that our firm designed. And there are many in California. I think
the best one is Mountain View designed by Peter Calthorpe. There are even
(still rare) cases of people getting together and deciding to sell out of a
subdivision so it can be remade.
As more and more cities and towns go through the process of trying to
implement New Urbanist principles, do you think that New Urbanist consulting
will emerge as a kind of professional specialty?
JS: The number of consultants who would at least call themselves
New Urbanist is quite large and is growing in response to the fact that a
lot of municipalities are asking for them.
EPZ: There are architects, planners, engineers, and others, who
serve as New Urbanist consultants. But I think the best consultant, in a
sense, is an educated citizenry. There are principles that are universal,
but in the end, how those principles are applied to each different community
or region is highly individualistic. The decisions have to come from the
communities themselves, so they're not imposed by some external force.
The ideal of the solitary homestead on a good-sized plot of land is
deeply rooted in the American imagination. Have you found it important to
look for and play up the existence of American historical antecedents to the
kind of densely built, stylistically consistent developments you design?
EPZ: Over the years we've used the American small town as an
example. Many of our illustrations come from historic towns which have a
green in the center and mixed uses and different kinds of housing all
around. Clearly that's part of America's tradition. It's also part of our
tradition to be controlling about land use and boundaries and dimensions.
Many New England towns had rules stating that you couldn't live more than a
mile from the town green, in order to maintain some sense of community and
control. Others controlled the way you could graze your animals on the land
or how many animals you could own, in order not to deplete resources.
So there's a long tradition of control and design for public benefit --
not just for the sake of restricting individuals, but to serve private
interest as well.
You refer frequently in Suburban Nation to the Kentlands development
in Maryland as exemplary of various principles of New Urbanism. Do you
consider Kentlands to be the most effective of the projects you've designed?
EPZ: It's one of the first non-resort communities we designed, so
we've been able to watch it develop over time. And it does have a range of
uses, a range of incomes. It's not perfect -- it went through some
compromises between design and production -- but it still exhibits the
principles quite well. Also, it's a greenfield community (meaning one that
was built from scratch), and it influenced the restoration and rebuilding of
a pre-existing community nearby -- downtown Gaithersburg.
JS: When I assess one of our projects I always ask two questions:
first, What's wrong with it?, which generally produces a depressing answer,
because there are always things wrong. But then I ask, In what ways does it
differ from contemporary practice? What are the battles that were won? In
that regard, almost every one of our projects is cause for elation. The
battles at Kentlands included mixing the price points (having different
houses of different prices near each other), designing it so that all the
kids could walk to school and everyone could walk to shops, and basically
creating an extremely pleasant, comfortable streetscape. The streets are
much narrower and much more pedestrian-friendly than in the communities
around it. I lived in Kentlands for a summer, and I watched as people would
drive there, park their cars, and walk their dogs there. For me, that feels
Do you often stay on at a project after it's been built?
JS: There's a role called the Town Architect, where someone has to
administer the code -- actually ensure that the buildings that are
constructed follow the code's rules. That can be a developer's
representative, or a government official. Sometimes it's us. In the case of
Kentlands it was us.
Do you have a favorite of the projects you've designed?
EPZ: Our projects are like a large family of many children. It's
been very interesting to watch them all grow individually. Some, I suppose,
we do wish could have done better, but most have turned out extremely well.
At some point they become adolescents that are fully formed, and they start
developing on their own based on their genetics as well as their context.
I think we can look back and be very pleased with how well many of these
new -- and renewed -- places have done.
What did you make of Seaside's portrayal in The Truman Show?
EPZ: Seaside was remade to a certain degree in order to play the
role. They gave it makeup, just like you give an actor. Some of the more
modern-style buildings were given overlays, with façades added and color
changes and so on, so that they would better match the wooden houses.
JS: It's actually gotten us a lot of business. People say, "Oh,
you're the people who designed The Truman Show," and they hire us. I'm not
sure if that's good or bad.
Do they want something like what they saw in The Truman Show?
JS: Not once we've spoken to them. We convince them that they
should know better.
There are two criticisms we usually get about Seaside. The first is that
it's too cute and gingerbready, and the other is that the codes we wrote
control it too much. But what the critics don't realize is that the codes
that we wrote did not in any way suggest or demand gingerbread architecture.
In fact the gingerbready architecture was a result of the market -- of
people building their own houses and popular taste. So the great irony is
that the only way to have avoided the hated gingerbread architecture would
have been to tighten the hated codes.
You suggest in Suburban Nation that you don't feel strongly about what
architectural style your planning principles are clothed in. Are you hoping,
though, to have the opportunity to design a more modern-style development
than those you've done so far?
JS: I think it might be a half-hearted hope. I'd like it if we
designed something modern, because I love modern architecture, and I'm
getting a lot of pressure from my architecture school classmates to prove
it! But I'm losing certainty over Andres's interest in ever building
anything modern again. Every day he seems to become more convinced that
classical architecture is superior.
Why do you think that is?
We keep coming across problematic evidence. Andres and I were just in
Berlin a week ago, and we visited a new town by Rob Krier that's in Potsdam.
It's exactly what we advocate. It's a traditional town plan, but it's with
modern architecture. And it looked horrible. We asked ourselves how this
could be made better. We decided that if the architecture had been
traditional it might have been a fantastic project. The clashing of all the
different isms and attitudes and pyrotechnics that modern architects do to
get on the cover of the architectural fashion press was just too much for
one town to handle. Also, a lot of it felt very cold. As an architect I
appreciate it, but as a pedestrian, I'm made uncomfortable by it.
This also brings up an interesting point, which is that modernist
architecture is itself now a historic, dated concept. The flat roofs and the
big cantilevers and all that -- that's seventy years old. So in fact,
perhaps it's all historicism of one sort or another.
EPZ: We're living in a time in which the underlying urbanistic
principles are so neglected that that's what we must stress. But as a
designer I feel very strongly that the style is also important. It doesn't
really matter which style it is (although I have my own preferences for
styles that are vernacular to a place), as long as there's a harmony and
continuity of style.
In our time, establishing identity is a real challenge because there are
so many places and so many people. If you allow a pluralism of styles -- if
you say "A lot of styles can go here, or any style" -- you lose the
opportunity to establish identity.
Once a consistent style has been established so that a place feels
like it has a coherent identity, would ecclecticism within that be okay?
EPZ: Yes. You can make a specific contrast to the prevailing style
for specific reasons: a special public building, for instance.
What kind of implications for community life do you think the current
craze for ordering everything from groceries to furniture over the Internet
JS: If you believe like we do that society evolves as a function
of casual encounters in the street -- people actually seeing each other and
bumping into each other -- then it's a scary prospect. However, if you read
contemporary philosophers like Paul Nesbit or Alvin Toffler, they talk about
a concept called "high-tech, high-touch" -- that the more disassociated we
are from each other in our work and in our means of communication, the more
we seek out an environment that fosters physical interactions.
EPZ: I think the implications we look forward to are the fact that
a sense of community and a sense of place are becoming more important.
People can make choices about where they work and how they live more than
ever before. Maybe centers like Kinkos -- where you can buy paper or use a
certain kind of machine or communications device that you don't have at home
-- could become a new focus for community-making: a combination of workplace
Throughout his campaign, Al Gore has emphasized his committment to
fight sprawl. How well do you think the proposals he's outlined mesh with
JS: From our perspective, Gore, Christine Todd Whitman of New
Jersey, and the Sierra Club are all halfway there. They're all focusing on
preserving land. We're certainly all for open-space preservation, but that
argument never wins for more than a political generation. They might stop
growth temporarily and then someone else gets elected and it starts again in
the worst possible form. The quality of community life isn't going to
improve unless new communities that are built have centers and edges and
offer the ability to enjoy life as a pedestrian. We're not saying "stop
growth" -- we're saying "shape growth in a beneficial form."
Do you have any sense of what the election of George W. Bush in 2000
might mean in terms of addressing sprawl?
JS: We heard a rumor last week that Bush's advisors are
investigating Andres's political affiliation. Which makes us wonder if
there's some potential contact and education that might go on. A superficial
reading of our principles sometimes gives people the idea that we're
anti-business. We find that very surprising, given our client base and the
money we've made for them. We actually see the TND [Traditional Neighborhood
Developments] as the salvation of the American homebuilding industry.
Imagine the power of this message: it's not growth vs. no-growth; it's good
growth vs. bad growth. The message we're trying to put out there -- listen
up George W.! -- is that we can end the sprawl mess and build all the new
homes we want.
EPZ: As New Urbanists, we feel that this should be a nonpartisan
issue because more-sustainable communities should be everybody's agenda. So
whether it's Gore or Bush is not the issue as much as that it's being
discussed as part of the electoral picture. Gore has taken the lead on this,
but both parties will be laying claim to it because it's such an important
issue for our time. I think it's becoming more and more everybody's issue.
In your guidelines for successful city development, you write that "a
proactive municipal government ... must determine the type, scale, and
quality of new growth and then act as the lead booster for that growth." Are
there any cities that you think are currently doing an especially successful
job of developing in that way?
EPZ: There are a number of cities that have managed well for a
long time. Charleston, South Carolina, is one of the models that we admire
the most. Mayor Joseph Riley, who's been in office for about eighteen years,
is one of the main reasons for it. There's a whole government that's behind
the effort, but he's the leader. Riley was one of the founders of the
National Endowment for the Arts Mayors' Institute, which sponsors workshops
that help mayors around the country deal with design and development issues
in their cities. The Institute is really one of the chief proponents in this
country of the idea that the quality of a city's built environment affects
its economic future.
We've been engaged with several different cities that have been making
very focused efforts on their physical environments. Providence, Rhode
Island, under the initiative of an elder-statesman architect named William
Warner, took the highway off its river and has restored urban streets with
granite bridges and balustrades.
West Palm Beach, under the leadership of Mayor Nancy Graham and now Mayor
Joel Davies, is doing a major redevelopment effort. There are a lot of
buildings there that are being restored and reused. And there's a lot of
open land where buildings were taken down in the seventies, which is now
being developed in accordance with the traditional urbanism that was
originally planned for the city.
You can point to cities and small towns all over the country. Another
city very close to home is Miami Beach, where the design of the city is such
an important part of the political agenda that many of the activists who
were initially preservationists trying to save buildings are now on the city
What's your take on Boston's "Big Dig" project, which is rerouting
Interstate Highway 93 so that instead of cutting through the middle of the
city, it will tunnel underneath?
EPZ: I don't know that much about it. I know it's big; I know
there are cost overruns. But I think actually, generally speaking, the U.S.
needs to be investing in infrastructure in a big way. If you go to a city
like Brussels, which is not the largest city in Europe, it has a myriad of
tunnels underneath it to get traffic out of it. These are investments in the
future of an urban area. We could just leave those areas behind. We've been
doing that for decades -- the "disposable city" syndrome. Where if something
doesn't work you just leave it and go find something new. That's what causes
We want to use our public money wisely. I suspect that when the Big
Dig is done and the city has grown back together again, people will be
saying "How did we ever live without this?"
JS: My first thought has to do with what happened in New York when
the West Side Highway was taken down in 1973 and in San Francisco when the
Embarcadero Freeway was destroyed by an earthquake and taken down. In both
cases, the car trips pretty much disappeared. Those cities have demonstrated
that if you remove highways people actually find other ways to get around.
But as a native Bostonian, it's hard to imagine that the removal of that
highway could fail to create a complete meltdown. We'll never know.
Secondly, I'm extremely troubled by what appears to be a reneging on the
promise of a transit line that was supposed to be a part of the tunnel. I'm
not completely up on this, but I remember that there was going to be a line
between North and South Stations so that commuters from New York could go
all the way to Maine. The transit line was the major justification made to
the greens for the passage of the funding. From what I hear, that line has
either been cut or is in question. It's the typical bait-and-switch by the
road-building lobby. You end up with the zillion-dollar automotive
infrastructure and, as usual, transit falls by the wayside.
Finally, I'm concerned that one seam is being replaced by another. The
idea was to reunite the city. The latest plan as I understand it is that
everyone's just calling for open space. My question is, How does a huge
green swath -- particularly a cheaply-built huge green swath -- reunite the
city? If it's done as well as Olmsted did it with the Emerald Necklace and
Commonwealth Avenue, that's one thing. But I don't think the budget is there
to design it and to plant it in that quality. We don't need a seam of green
-- we need parks and buildings and boulevards. With the appropriate plan and
code in place it could be a wonderful combination of parks and urbanism
that's worthy of Boston.
As the three of you worked together on this book, did you discover any
areas of significant disagreement in your thinking about sprawl or planning?
EPZ: It wasn't the subject matter as much as the tone of the book.
Andres's lectures have been quite caustic and sometimes snide. He's used a
combination of anger and humor to get a lot of people's attention. It works
a lot better in speech, in my opinion, than it does in writing. So we were
having discussions about just how badly we should tread on people's toes and
how many people's toes we should tread on.
JS: Andres and Lizz taught me practically everything I know about
urbanism. And I've seen them proved right again and again. So I had very
little to disagree with them about. But we had different visions as to who
our audience was. I was pushing to go entirely for a popular audience. And
Lizz was more interested in clarifying our arguments for a professional and
academic audience. Andres was somewhere in between. But I think the book is
much stronger as a result of those discussions. The book took five years to
write. It was not by any means a walk in the park. But we can all claim all
of it as our own.
Did you know from the very outset of your careers that you were
interested in community planning? Or did you start out with a focus on
architecture or something else?
EPZ: We all have architectural education. Andres and I coincided
at school together. It was in the early-to-mid 1970s, when people were just
beginning to be aware of ecology and green building. And there was a
burgeoning interest in cities. The preservation movement really was just
beginning. There were some wonderful urban courses. I don't think we ever
dreamt that we would be designing whole communities or working with whole
sectors of cities, but we certainly had a good grounding for it in the
education that we had.
With membership in the Congress for New Ubanism growing, and with so
many people making efforts to learn the New Urbanist principles, are you
feeling optimistic about your ideas starting to catch on?
JS: Herbert Muschamp, the New York Times architecture critic,
who's generally quite critical of our work, described the New Urbanism as
the most important collective effort of architects in the second half of the
twentieth century. If he says that, then we figure we're well on our way.
So there's hope for turning the tide against sprawl?
JS: Every little bit helps. Fifty years from now we'll look back
and we'll either say, "Well, we did it -- we stopped sprawl." Or we'll say,
"Well, so much for that idea." But even if it's the latter we'll have the
satisfaction of a whole bunch of great projects that at least made a
difference individually -- even if, as whole, they weren't enough to change