Architecture, Towns, Cities > Cities > Suburbs
Untitled Arizona IV
by Christoph Gielen
Can Paradise Be Planned?
APRIL 18, 2014
estates seen from the air
in Queensbury, north-west London in 1935.
what's become of England’s original vision of suburbia?
Thursday 10 September 2015 10.33 BST
Metropolitan Railway’s PR people
accidentally invented English suburbia.
Alamy/Swim Ink 2/Corbis
what's become of England’s original vision of suburbia?
Thursday 10 September 2015 10.33 BST
A photo of a new housing development in San
Jose, CA, USA.
Photo by Sean O'Flaherty
Date : ?
Source: Wikipedia - 7 October 2009
city > suburbs > Detroit
sprawl / urban sprawl
on the outskirts of
suburb / fringe suburb / suburbia
residential suburbs / suburban offices
suburban corporate landscapes
Paradise Be Planned?
The New York Times
The Opinion Pages
Contributing Op-Ed Writer
architect Robert A. M. Stern was a kid in the ‘40s, he used to spend his Sundays
perusing The New York Times real estate section. In those days, recalls the
self-described “modern traditionalist” best known for buildings like 15 Central
Park West and the George W. Bush Presidential Library, “It was all about new
houses that were being built in suburbia. I would look at them and redraw the
plans. At the basic level I thought they were so damn bad and I thought I could
Decades later, Stern is still fed up with the state of suburbia and remains
resolutely committed to its betterment. He’s now thrown down the gauntlet with
what can be described as a McMansion-size manifesto called “Paradise Planned:
The Garden Suburb and the Modern City.”
Stern and his co-authors David Fishman and Jacob Tilove want to bring back the
garden suburb, and in so doing hope to restore a “tragically interrupted,
150-year-old tradition.” While the book engages a bit with contemporary issues
plaguing suburbia — homogeneity, automobile-dependency, sprawl — its primary
focus is former and existing garden suburbs, in hopes of transforming the ways
future suburbs are created. (It also continues a deep and fractured academic
debate among modernists, traditionalists and a whole host of other “ists,” but
we won’t bother ourselves with that here.)
“Paradise Planned” appears at a time when suburbia is rapidly losing its appeal.
As The Times reported Thursday, suburbs are experiencing a major exodus as young
people move to cities — and stay there. They’re increasingly delaying, or
avoiding altogether, the “inevitable” move to suburbia. Young people want what
cities have to offer. Can suburbia shift its own paradigm to give them something
similar? Stern would say yes — that the garden suburb can do just that.
The garden suburb is — because it still exists in many places — a planned,
self-contained village located usually outside a major city. Ideally, it
features a variety of housing types, though by variety, we’re talking
single-family homes and a few low-rise multifamily buildings. These buildings
are similar in architectural style, but similar is understating it. The
vernacular of the garden suburb is most definitely traditional — some modernist
examples crop up but they were either never built (i.e., Frank Lloyd Wright’s
Broadacre City and Norman Bel Geddes’s Futurama, both of which might have been
darn near close to paradise) or were hard to love (such as the Mussolini-backed
Sabaudia). In contrast to the suburbs we’ve come to be most familiar with, these
featured homes are situated in a comfortably dense, highly walkable environment
designed around a public center or square.
Stern sees the garden suburb as an antidote to the current suburban sprawl but
also views it as a smart way to think about what he calls in the book “the
middle city,” neighborhoods found in cities like Detroit, for example, where, he
writes, “now, virtually empty of people and buildings, [they] have no
discernible assets except the infrastructure of the streets and utility systems
buried under them.”
While the garden suburb does provide a nice alternative to bad suburban
development, the book isn’t very prescriptive about how that retrofitting might
happen (check out Galina Tachieva’s “Sprawl Repair Manual” for a more
comprehensive strategy).Stern proposes what is probably a smarter use of the
garden suburb today: deploying it in a very suburbanized, spread-out city — say,
Indianapolis or San Jose — that would work better as a collection of
neighborhoods than as a sprawling metropolis. “I think there is a
misunderstanding of what a city is,” Stern told me recently. “A city has
suburban areas inside it. Even the city of New York, once you get off the
island, is suburban in scale.” Some good local examples would include Prospect
Park South in Brooklyn and Sunnyside in Queens.
What people are trying to do, Stern told me, is to get out of what he calls
“sprawling ‘slurbias’ where they’re chained to their cars whether they’re taking
their kids to school or getting a haircut. Everyone doesn’t want to live in a
90th floor penthouse overlooking the Hudson River but people do want to live in
But what about the people who live in the very antithesis of what’s he’s arguing
for, yet the form that is most prevalent on the American landscape. Let’s call
it the “post-garden suburb.” Well, Stern says that in order to go forward, we
often have to go backward. It’s hard to dispute that these well-planned
communities he has documented are often the perfect mix between town and country
— lots of green space, community gathering spots, paths for ambling, all in
dense (but not too dense) urban settings. But it is easier to suggest that
publishing a 1,072-page, 12-1/2-pound hardcover book might not be the best
strategy for pushing the needle. When all is said and done, it’s a solid
historical document but only offers models for what to do if you have the luxury
of starting from square one. As Stern well knows, those opportunities are few
and far between. “You have to put the infrastructure in before you build the
community,” he says. “And governments won’t even do that anymore. It’s come to
that. Arguments are about who can put in the least amount of infrastructure into
Case in point, one of the more successful (or controversial, depending on your
point of view) garden suburbs of recent times — Celebration, Fla. — which, Stern
admits, needed Disney’s backing to become a reality. I’m not sure that
corporation-financed communities offer a replicable — or desirable — model,
however, particularly when they are described, as Celebration was by Andrew
Ross, an academic (and my former Ph.D. adviser) who spent a year living there,
as “the product of a company that merchandises the semi-real with an attitude
that the architectural historian Vincent Scully once described as ‘unacceptably
And while it’s lovely to look at the suburbs of yore in this tome, perhaps
that’s the real problem with “Paradise Planned”: it’s unacceptably optimistic.
Stern shows what was as a means of demonstrating what could be. In contrast, the
photographer Christoph Gielen shows, with his startling aerial photographs of
contemporary suburbs, what actually is. The only rational response to these
images would seem to be, “What the hell were we thinking?”
“It is an encounter in the most literal sense,” writes the futurist Geoff
Manaugh in Gielen’s jarring yet utterly mesmerizing new book, “Ciphers.” “A
forensic confrontation with something all but impossible to comprehend.”
We may be starting to comprehend the mess a little better. Smart Growth
America’s just-released report, “Measuring Sprawl 2014,” is illuminating. In it,
researchers determine that several quality-of-life factors improve as sprawl
decreases. Individuals living in compact, connected metro areas (akin to the
garden suburb) were found to have greater economic mobility. These folks spend
less on both housing and transportation, and have greater transit options. They
tend to live longer, safer, healthier lives than their peers in metro areas with
sprawl. The report cites evidence that people who live in areas with sprawl
suffer from more obesity, high blood pressure and fatal car crashes.
Whether viewed through the lens of data, nostalgia or aerial photography,
automobile-dependent sprawl not only has a damaging impact on the environment
but is also connected to poorer economy, health and safety. There’s no question
that things need to change. The Smart Growth report suggests that many
decision-makers like mayors and planning commissioners are re-examining
traditional zoning, economic development incentives, transportation access and
availability (or the lack thereof), and other policies that have helped to
create sprawling development patterns — and are opting instead to create more
connections, transportation choices and walkable neighborhoods in their
communities. Still, I fear we’re going to be stuck in traffic for a long time.
Can Paradise Be Planned?, NYT, 18.4.2014,
To Rethink Sprawl, Start With Offices
November 25, 2011
The New York Times
By LOUISE A. MOZINGO
IN an era of concern about climate change, residential suburbs are the focus of
a new round of critiques, as low-density developments use more energy, water and
other resources. But so far there’s been little discussion of that other
archetype of sprawl, the suburban office.
Rethinking sprawl might begin much more effectively with these business
enclaves. They cover vast areas and are occupied by a few powerful entities,
corporations, which at some point will begin spending their ample reserves to
upgrade, expand or replace their facilities.
The bucolic business office is not a state-of-the-art workplace but rather a
decades-old model of corporate retreat. In 1942 the AT&T Bell Telephone
Laboratories moved from its offices in Lower Manhattan to a new, custom-designed
facility on 213 acres outside Summit, N.J.
The location provided space for laboratories and quiet for acoustical research,
and new features: parking lots that allowed scientists and engineers to drive
from their nearby suburban homes, a spacious cafeteria and lounge and, most
surprisingly, views from every window of a carefully tended pastoral landscape
designed by the Olmsted brothers, sons of the designer of Central Park.
Corporate management never saw the city center in the same way again. Bell Labs
initiated a tide of migration of white-collar workers, especially as state and
federal governments conveniently extended highways into the rural edge.
In metropolitan areas across America, corporate campuses for research and
development units proliferated and top executives ensconced themselves in
palatial estates like the Deere & Co. Administrative Center outside Moline, Ill.
Meanwhile, branch offices, small corporations and start-ups found footing in the
office parks that lined suburban highways and arterial roads, like those of
Silicon Valley in California and the Research Triangle Park in North Carolina.
Born in an era of seemingly limitless resources, this pastoral capitalism
restructured the landscape of metropolitan regions; today it accounts for well
over half the office space in the United States.
Yet suburban offices are even more unsustainably designed than residential
suburbs. Sidewalks extend only between office buildings and parking lots,
expanses of open space remain private and the spreading of offices over large
zones precludes effective mass transit.
These workplaces embody a new form of segregation, where civic space connecting
work to the shops, housing, recreation and transportation that cities used to
provide is entirely absent. Corporations have cut themselves off from
participation in a larger public realm.
Rethinking pastoral capitalism is integral to creating a connected, compact
metropolitan landscape that tackles rather than sidesteps a post-peak-oil
future. This requires three interrelated strategies. State and federal
governments should stop paying for new highway extensions that essentially
subsidize the conversion of agricultural land for development, including
corporate offices. Existing infrastructure needs maintenance and renewal, not
Suburban jurisdictions that now require little of the next corporate campus
other than plentiful parking can demand more. For instance, they can use zoning
codes to require pedestrian, bicycle and mass-transit links to adjacent
residential developments. Add to the mix new public spaces, a greater diversity
of uses, and transit between multiple employment centers and residential
districts — not only to and from the downtown — and suburban corporate offices
could initiate a wave of reform.
While suburban offices will continue to exist, some corporations can re-occupy
city centers that they abandoned two generations ago. Development parcels,
vacant offices and economic subsidies lie waiting in cities like Cleveland,
Hartford, Raleigh, N.C., and Birmingham, Ala. These downtowns are well served by
transit and pedestrian connections, a mix of retail and service uses, and a
surprising amount of newly built and renovated housing where workers can live.
All three steps — a halt to agricultural land conversion, connecting dispersed
employment centers with alternative transit, and encouraging downtown
development — are needed to create renewed, civic-minded corporate workplaces
and, in the process, move toward sustainable cities. Even leaving aside climate
change, very soon the price of energy will make the dispersed, unconnected,
low-density city-building pattern impossibly costly. Those jurisdictions and
businesses that first create livable, workable, post-peak-oil metropolitan
regions are the ones that will win the future.
Louise A. Mozingo,
a professor of landscape architecture
at the University of California, Berkeley,
is the author of “Pastoral
A History of Suburban Corporate Landscapes.”
To Rethink Sprawl, Start With Offices, NYT,
The Death of the Fringe Suburb
November 25, 2011
The New York Times
By CHRISTOPHER B. LEINBERGER
DRIVE through any number of outer-ring suburbs in America, and you’ll see
boarded-up and vacant strip malls, surrounded by vast seas of empty parking
spaces. These forlorn monuments to the real estate crash are not going to come
back to life, even when the economy recovers. And that’s because the demand for
the housing that once supported commercial activity in many exurbs isn’t coming
By now, nearly five years after the housing crash, most Americans understand
that a mortgage meltdown was the catalyst for the Great Recession, facilitated
by underregulation of finance and reckless risk-taking. Less understood is the
divergence between center cities and inner-ring suburbs on one hand, and the
suburban fringe on the other.
It was predominantly the collapse of the car-dependent suburban fringe that
caused the mortgage collapse.
In the late 1990s, high-end outer suburbs contained most of the expensive
housing in the United States, as measured by price per square foot, according to
data I analyzed from the Zillow real estate database. Today, the most expensive
housing is in the high-density, pedestrian-friendly neighborhoods of the center
city and inner suburbs. Some of the most expensive neighborhoods in their
metropolitan areas are Capitol Hill in Seattle; Virginia Highland in Atlanta;
German Village in Columbus, Ohio, and Logan Circle in Washington. Considered
slums as recently as 30 years ago, they have been transformed by gentrification.
Simply put, there has been a profound structural shift — a reversal of what took
place in the 1950s, when drivable suburbs boomed and flourished as center cities
emptied and withered.
The shift is durable and lasting because of a major demographic event: the
convergence of the two largest generations in American history, the baby boomers
(born between 1946 and 1964) and the millennials (born between 1979 and 1996),
which today represent half of the total population.
Many boomers are now empty nesters and approaching retirement. Generally this
means that they will downsize their housing in the near future. Boomers want to
live in a walkable urban downtown, a suburban town center or a small town,
according to a recent survey by the National Association of Realtors.
The millennials are just now beginning to emerge from the nest — at least those
who can afford to live on their own. This coming-of-age cohort also favors urban
downtowns and suburban town centers — for lifestyle reasons and the convenience
of not having to own cars.
Over all, only 12 percent of future homebuyers want the drivable suburban-fringe
houses that are in such oversupply, according to the Realtors survey. This lack
of demand all but guarantees continued price declines. Boomers selling their
fringe housing will only add to the glut. Nothing the federal government can do
will reverse this.
Many drivable-fringe house prices are now below replacement value, meaning the
land under the house has no value and the sticks and bricks are worth less than
they would cost to replace. This means there is no financial incentive to
maintain the house; the next dollar invested will not be recouped upon resale.
Many of these houses will be converted to rentals, which are rarely as well
maintained as owner-occupied housing. Add the fact that the houses were built
with cheap materials and methods to begin with, and you see why many fringe
suburbs are turning into slums, with abandoned housing and rising crime.
The good news is that there is great pent-up demand for walkable, centrally
located neighborhoods in cities like Portland, Denver, Philadelphia and
Chattanooga, Tenn. The transformation of suburbia can be seen in places like
Arlington County, Va., Bellevue, Wash., and Pasadena, Calif., where strip malls
have been bulldozed and replaced by higher-density mixed-use developments with
good transit connections.
Reinvesting in America’s built environment — which makes up a third of the
country’s assets — and reviving the construction trades are vital for lifting
our economic growth rate. (Disclosure: I am the president of Locus, a coalition
of real estate developers and investors and a project of Smart Growth America,
which supports walkable neighborhoods and transit-oriented development.)
Some critics will say that investment in the built environment risks repeating
the mistake that caused the recession in the first place. That reasoning is as
faulty as saying that technology should have been neglected after the dot-com
bust, which precipitated the 2001 recession.
The cities and inner-ring suburbs that will be the foundation of the recovery
require significant investment at a time of government retrenchment. Bus and
light-rail systems, bike lanes and pedestrian improvements — what traffic
engineers dismissively call “alternative transportation” — are vital. So is the
repair of infrastructure like roads and bridges. Places as diverse as Los
Angeles, Phoenix, Salt Lake City, Dallas, Charlotte, Denver and Washington have
recently voted to pay for “alternative transportation,” mindful of the dividends
to be reaped. As Congress works to reauthorize highway and transit legislation,
it must give metropolitan areas greater flexibility for financing
transportation, rather than mandating that the vast bulk of the money can be
used only for roads.
For too long, we over-invested in the wrong places. Those retail centers and
subdivisions will never be worth what they cost to build. We have to stop
throwing good money after bad. It is time to instead build what the market
wants: mixed-income, walkable cities and suburbs that will support the knowledge
economy, promote environmental sustainability and create jobs.
Christopher B. Leinberger
is a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution
and professor of practice in urban and regional planning
at the University of
The Death of the Fringe Suburb, NYT,
Gas prices drive push
to reinvent America's suburbs
29 July 2008
By Haya El Nasser
MARICOPA, Ariz. — Mayor Tony Smith proudly waves a thank-you letter from a
major builder telling him that no city has ever reached out to him in his
30-year career the way Maricopa did.
What Maricopa has been doing is unusual, especially for a distant suburb.
This city about 35 miles south of Phoenix is asking builders not to develop just
isolated subdivisions behind walls, but whole communities that encourage walking
by including stores, schools and services nearby.
"The people of Maricopa don't want to be a bedroom community, a city of
rooftops," Smith says. "They want a self-sustained community."
Especially today. As gas prices hover around $4 a gallon, the nation's
far-flung suburbs — which have boomed because they could provide larger homes at
cheaper prices to those willing to drive farther — are losing their appeal.
Soaring energy costs and the foreclosure epidemic have jolted many Americans
into realizing that their lifestyles are at risk. For many, ever-lengthening
commutes in the search for affordable homes no longer make financial sense.
In Maricopa and elsewhere, a movement is underway to transform suburbs from
bedroom communities that sprang up during an era of cheap gasoline to lively,
more cosmopolitan places that mix houses with jobs, shops, restaurants, colleges
Suburbs on the far edge of metro areas are turning aside strip malls and
creating new downtowns and neighborhoods that favor pedestrians. They're trying
to attract more employers and services such as hospitals, colleges and small
The appeal of urbanism is spreading to far suburbs such as Rancho Cucamonga,
Calif.(about 42 miles east of Los Angeles), and Huntersville, N.C., about 16
miles north of Charlotte. Centers that combine residential, retail, office and
entertainment are becoming popular far from urban centers.
Small historic towns on the edge of metropolitan areas such as Brighton, Colo.,
northeast of Denver, and Plainfield, Ill., southwest of Chicago, are emphasizing
their Main Streets and history to provide a sense of community outside the walls
of sprawling subdivisions.
Mass transit is being embraced by towns that wouldn't have been born without the
automobile. Here in Maricopa, the city introduced bus service to Phoenix and
Tempe this year, providing the first mass transit alternative to residents, many
of whom commute about 35 miles to Phoenix.
Such changes could have a profound effect on the way the nation develops as it
prepares to absorb an estimated 100 million more people by about 2040.
The scent of change is in the air in Maricopa, even in the way city officials
talk. Words such as "bedroom community" have become dirty words. "Green,"
"sustainable," "walkable," "mass transit," "conservation," "open space" and
"energy-efficient" punctuate the suburban dialogue.
"Absolutely, suburbs are not going to go away," says David Goldberg, spokesman
for Smart Growth America, a national coalition of groups pushing for
conservation and sustainable growth. "But the math is becoming very clear."
Until now, people were willing to drive increasingly far for a home they could
afford. "Drive-till-you-qualify collapsed," Goldberg says. "It's done. It's not
going to work as a housing strategy anymore."
Living costs soar
In the past year, as gas prices skyrocketed, the housing bubble burst and
transit ridership soared, the cost of living farther out for many Americans went
from manageable to pricey.
An analysis of real estate data by Fiserv Lending Solutions shows that home
prices have fallen more in towns and neighborhoods far from urban centers than
in close-in suburbs.
Developers traditionally have flocked to fields at the edge of metro areas to
avoid the stricter zoning rules and higher fees they face in older, more densely
populated communities. But that could be changing.
"The trends that pushed housing demand toward distant suburbs and rural areas
were not sustainable," says David Stiff, chief economist at Fiserv. "The problem
is that it can be two, three, four times as expensive to develop in close-in
neighborhoods vs. outlying neighborhoods, if there's any space at all."
If gas prices continue to climb or government provides incentives to build more
densely and closer in, development patterns should evolve, planners say.
"People respond to economic incentives," Stiff says. "Reducing commuting costs,
trying to be more environmentally conscious and trying to find the cheapest
housing affect decisions simultaneously."
"We're sort of stuck with retrofitting the suburbs," says Scott Bernstein, head
of the Center for Neighborhood Technology, which for years has urged that
transportation costs be a criterion for mortgage qualification. "That's not all
that bad. … There's nothing like a crisis to get people to try something."
Fresh ideas about development are spreading. A new website gives "walk" scores
for more than 2,500 neighborhoods in the 40 largest cities (walkscore.com).
Bernstein's group publishes a housing and transportation affordability index for
52 metropolitan areas (htaindex.cnt.org/).
Kenneth Himmel says now is "the perfect moment to be doing everything we're
The developer of the Reston Town Center in Virginia, the Time Warner Center in
New York and City Place in West Palm Beach, Fla., says: "Some people will say,
'For $300,000 to $325,000, what are my options to live closer?' Maybe it's a
smaller home. … Do they want to drive or do they want to be five or 10 minutes
from their office? People will make the trade."
The new reality
The Phoenix area is legendary for sprawl. The city alone covers 517 square
miles. Surrounding it is 14,000 square miles (twice the size of New Jersey) of
desert dotted by seas of rooftops.
Foreclosures have hit the region hard — more than 5,500 the first six months of
this year. Home construction permits have slowed by more than half in many
communities. Still, building crews are grading tracts of land far from downtown.
Buckeye, more than 30 miles west of Phoenix, and Maricopa, a similar distance to
the south, are the suburbs that have the highest number of new single-family
It's there that the seeds of change are taking root.
"We've got to get jobs to keep people from driving," says Buckeye Mayor Jackie
Meck, who worries that gas "could easily go to $8, $10" a gallon.
Meck and town manager Jeanine Guy say Buckeye's goal was never to be a bedroom
community but a gateway to California and the Pacific Rim. Already, developers
of a master-planned community on 1,100 acres 30 miles beyond Buckeye — 60 miles
from Phoenix — are rethinking their project because of fuel costs. They want to
turn it into a distribution center that would cut gas costs for truckers from
the West who are delivering goods to the Phoenix area.
In Maricopa, the city for the first time is encouraging builders to create
sustainable communities that use alternative forms of energy or are near jobs,
goods and services. Already, the city is home to Arizona's first ethanol plant
and a facility that uses recycled water to flush toilets. And there are the
commuter buses to downtown Phoenix and Tempe.
When gas prices inched toward $4 a gallon, Donna Nance bemoaned her 40-mile,
one-way commute to work her job as the court clerk in downtown Phoenix. Gas
would now cost her $60 a week, a blow for a single mom who had moved here to get
a house at a better price.
She considered moving closer, at the risk of giving up her three-bedroom,
single-family home and might have done it if Maricopa had not introduced
Phoenix-bound commuter buses in April. Nance, 43, now drives 7 miles to the bus
stop and enjoys the ride. Even if gas prices keep climbing, Nance says she has
no reason to leave.
"We hit a sweet spot starting a transit program here," Mayor Smith says.
It's a reflection of how some suburbs are trying to replace their "middle of
nowhere" image with a "there." "Maybe gas drops to $3 a gallon and people will
say we don't need to do this anymore," says Guy, the Buckeye town manager. "We
Gas prices drive push to
reinvent America's suburbs,
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