Suburban Nation: The Rise of Sprawl and the Decline of the American Dream

Suburban Nation: The Rise of Sprawl and the Decline of the American Dream

by Andres Duany, Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk, Jeff Speck

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For a decade, Suburban Nation has given voice to a growing movement in North America to put an end to suburban sprawl and replace the last century's automobile-based settlement patterns with a return to more traditional planning. Founders of the Congress for the New Urbanism, Andres Duany and Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk are at the forefront of the movement, and


For a decade, Suburban Nation has given voice to a growing movement in North America to put an end to suburban sprawl and replace the last century's automobile-based settlement patterns with a return to more traditional planning. Founders of the Congress for the New Urbanism, Andres Duany and Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk are at the forefront of the movement, and even their critics, such as Fred Barnes in The Weekly Standard, recognized that "Suburban Nation is likely to become this movement's bible." A lively lament about the failures of postwar planning, this is also that rare book that offers solutions: "an essential handbook" (San Francisco Chronicle).

This tenth anniversary edition includes a new preface by the authors.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
Like "an architectural version of Invasion of the Body Snatchers, our main streets and neighborhoods have been replaced by alien substitutes, similar but not the same," state Duany, Plater-Zyberk and Speck in this bold and damning critique. The authors, who lead a firm that has designed more than 200 new neighborhoods and community revitalization plans, challenge nearly half a century of widely accepted planning and building practices that have produced sprawling subdivisions, shopping centers and office parks connected by new highways. These practices, they contend, have not only destroyed the traditional concept of the neighborhood, but eroded such vital social values as equality, citizenship and personal safety. Further, they charge that current suburban developments are not only economically and environmentally "unsustainable," but "not functional" because they isolate and place undue burdens on at-home mothers, children, teens and the elderly. Adapting the precepts that famed urbanologist Jane Jacobs used to critique unhealthy city planning, Duany, Plater-Zyberk and Speck call for a revolution in suburban design that emphasizes neighborhoods in which homes, schools, commercial and municipal buildings would be integrated in pedestrian-accessible, safe and friendly settings. While occasionally presenting unsupported claims--such as that gated communities (of which there are now more than 20,000 in the U.S.) deprive children of gaining "a sense of empathy" in a diverse society--their visionary book holds out hope that we can create "places that are as valuable as the nature they displaced." (Mar.) Copyright 2000 Cahners Business Information.|
Lucidly detailing the environmental, aesthetic, and social costs of sprawl, the authors deliver a passionate, stylish manifesto on community quality of life.
Entertainment Weekly
Suzannah Lessard
Suburban Nation is a little like a New Urbanist town: smooth, adept, controlling in the way that tacitly excludes alternative views of reality.
WQ Magazine

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Suburban Nation

The Rise of Sprawl and the Decline of the American Dream

By Andres Duany, Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk, Jeff Speck

Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Copyright © 2000 Andres Duany, Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk, and Jeff Speck
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-4299-3211-0




The cities will be part of the country; I shall live 30 miles from my office in one direction, under a pine tree; my secretary will live 30 miles away from it too, in the other direction, under another pine tree. We shall both have our own car.

We shall use up tires, wear out road surfaces and gears, consume oil and gasoline. All of which will necessitate a great deal of work ... enough for all.



This book is a study of two different models of urban growth: the traditional neighborhood and suburban sprawl. They are polar opposites in appearance, function, and character: they look different, they act differently, and they affect us in different ways.

The traditional neighborhood was the fundamental form of European settlement on this continent through the Second World War, from St. Augustine to Seattle. It continues to be the dominant pattern of habitation outside the United States, as it has been throughout recorded history. The traditional neighborhood — represented by mixed-use, pedestrian-friendly communities of varied population, either standing free as villages or grouped into towns and cities — has proved to be a sustainable form of growth. It allowed us to settle the continent without bankrupting the country or destroying the countryside in the process.

Suburban sprawl, now the standard North American pattern of growth, ignores historical precedent and human experience. It is an invention, conceived by architects, engineers, and planners, and promoted by developers in the great sweeping aside of the old that occurred after the Second World War. Unlike the traditional neighborhood model, which evolved organically as a response to human needs, suburban sprawl is an idealized artificial system. It is not without a certain beauty: it is rational, consistent, and comprehensive. Its performance is largely predictable. It is an outgrowth of modern problem solving: a system for living. Unfortunately, this system is already showing itself to be unsustainable. Unlike the traditional neighborhood, sprawl is not healthy growth; it is essentially self-destructive. Even at relatively low population densities, sprawl tends not to pay for itself financially and consumes land at an alarming rate, while producing insurmountable traffic problems and exacerbating social inequity and isolation. These particular outcomes were not predicted. Neither was the toll that sprawl exacts from America's cities and towns, which continue to decant slowly into the countryside. As the ring of suburbia grows around most of our cities, so grows the void at the center. Even while the struggle to revitalize deteriorated downtown neighborhoods and business districts continues, the inner ring of suburbs is already at risk, losing residents and businesses to fresher locations on a new suburban edge.


If sprawl truly is destructive, why is it allowed to continue? The beginning of an answer lies in sprawl's seductive simplicity, the fact that it consists of very few homogeneous components — five in all — which can be arranged in almost any way. It is appropriate to review these parts individually, since they always occur independently. While one component may be adjacent to another, the dominant characteristic of sprawl is that each component is strictly segregated from the others.

Housing subdivisions, also called clusters and pods. These places consist only of residences. They are sometimes called villages, towns, and neighborhoods by their developers, which is misleading, since those terms denote places which are not exclusively residential and which provide an experiential richness not available in a housing tract. Subdivisions can be identified as such by their contrived names, which tend toward the romantic — Pheasant Mill Crossing — and often pay tribute to the natural or historic resource they have displaced.

Shopping centers, also called strip centers, shopping malls, and big-box retail. These are places exclusively for shopping. They come in every size, from the Quick Mart on the corner to the Mall of America, but they are all places to which one is unlikely to walk. The conventional shopping center can be easily distinguished from its traditional main-street counterpart by its lack of housing or offices, its single-story height, and its parking lot between the building and the roadway.

Office parks and business parks. These are places only for work. Derived from the modernist architectural vision of the building standing free in the park, the contemporary office park is usually made of boxes in parking lots. Still imagined as a pastoral workplace isolated in nature, it has kept its idealistic name and also its quality of isolation, but in practice it is more likely to be surrounded by highways than by countryside.

Civic institutions. The fourth component of suburbia is public buildings: the town halls, churches, schools, and other places where people gather for communication and culture. In traditional neighborhoods, these buildings often serve as neighborhood focal points, but in suburbia they take an altered form: large and infrequent, generally unadorned owing to limited funding, surrounded by parking, and located nowhere in particular. The school pictured here shows what a dramatic evolution this building type has undergone in the past thirty years. A comparison between the size of the parking lot and the size of the building is revealing: this is a school to which no child will ever walk. Because pedestrian access is usually nonexistent, and because the dispersion of surrounding homes often makes school buses impractical, schools in the new suburbs are designed based on the assumption of massive automotive transportation.

Roadways. The fifth component of sprawl consists of the miles of pavement that are necessary to connect the other four disassociated components. Since each piece of suburbia serves only one type of activity, and since daily life involves a wide variety of activities, the residents of suburbia spend an unprecedented amount of time and money moving from one place to the next. Since most of this motion takes place in singly occupied automobiles, even a sparsely populated area can generate the traffic of a much larger traditional town.

The traffic load caused by the many disassociated pieces of suburbia is most clearly visible from above. As seen in this image of Palm Beach County, Florida, the amount of pavement (public infrastructure) per building (private structure) is extremely high, especially when compared to the efficiency of a section of an older city like Washington, D.C. The same economic relationship is at work underground, where low-density land-use patterns require greater lengths of pipe and conduit to distribute municipal services. This high ratio of public to private expenditure helps explain why suburban municipalities are finding that new growth fails to pay for itself at acceptable levels of taxation.


How did sprawl come about? Far from being an inevitable evolution or a historical accident, suburban sprawl is the direct result of a number of policies that conspired powerfully to encourage urban dispersal. The most significant of these were the Federal Housing Administration and Veterans Administration loan programs which, in the years following the Second World War, provided mortgages for over eleven million new homes. These mortgages, which typically cost less per month than paying rent, were directed at new single-family suburban construction. Intentionally or not, the FHA and VA programs discouraged the renovation of existing housing stock, while turning their back on the construction of row houses, mixed-use buildings, and other urban housing types. Simultaneously, a 41,000-mile interstate highway program, coupled with federal and local subsidies for road improvement and the neglect of mass transit, helped make automotive commuting affordable and convenient for the average citizen. Within the new economic framework, young families made the financially rational choice: Levittown. Housing gradually migrated from historic city neighborhoods to the periphery, landing increasingly farther away.

The shops stayed in the city, but only for a while. It did not take long for merchants to realize that their customers had relocated and to follow them out. But unlike America's prewar suburbs, the new subdivisions were being financed by programs that addressed only homebuilding, and therefore neglected to set aside any sites for corner stores. As a result, shopping required not only its own distinct method of financing and development but also its own locations. Placed along the wide high-speed collector roads between housing clusters, the new shops responded to their environment by pulling back from the street and constructing large freestanding signage. In this way the now ubiquitous strip shopping center was born.

For a time, most jobs stayed downtown. Workers traveled from the suburbs into the center, and the downtown business districts remained viable. But, as with the shops, this situation could not last; by the 1970s, many corporations were moving their offices closer to the workforce — or, more accurately, closer to the CEO's house, as ingeniously diagrammed by William Whyte. The CEO's desire for a shorter commute, coupled with suburbia's lower tax burden, led to the development of the business park, completing the migration of each of life's components into the suburbs. As commuting patterns became predominantly suburb to suburb, many center cities became expendable.

While government programs for housing and highway promoted sprawl, the planning profession, worshipping at the altar of zoning, worked to make it the law. Why the country's planners were so uniformly convinced of the efficacy of zoning — the segregation of the different aspects of daily life — is a story that dates back to the previous century and the first victory of the planning profession. At that time, Europe's industrialized cities were shrouded in the smoke of Blake's "dark, satanic mills." City planners wisely advocated the separation of such factories from residential areas, with dramatic results. Cities such as London, Paris, and Barcelona, which in the mid-nineteenth century had been virtually unfit for human habitation, were transformed within decades into national treasures. Life expectancies rose significantly, and the planners, fairly enough, were hailed as heroes.

The successes of turn-of-the-century planning, represented in America by the City Beautiful movement, became the foundation of a new profession, and ever since, planners have repeatedly attempted to relive that moment of glory by separating everything from everything else. This segregation, once applied only to incompatible uses, is now applied to every use. A typical contemporary zoning code has several dozen land-use designations; not only is housing separated from industry but low-density housing is separated from medium-density housing, which is separated from high-density housing. Medical offices are separated from general offices, which are in turn separated from restaurants and shopping.

As a result, the new American city has been likened to an unmade omelet: eggs, cheese, vegetables, a pinch of salt, but each consumed in turn, raw. Perhaps the greatest irony is that even industry need not be isolated anymore. Many modern production facilities are perfectly safe neighbors, thanks to evolved manufacturing processes and improved pollution control. A comprehensive mix of diverse land uses is once again as reasonable as it was in the preindustrial age.

The planners' enthusiasm for single-use zoning and the government's commitment to homebuilding and highway construction were supported by another, more subtle ethos: the widespread application of management lessons learned overseas during the Second World War. In this part of the story, members of the professional class — called the Whiz Kids in John Byrne's book of that name — returned from the war with a whole new approach to accomplishing large-scale tasks, centered on the twin acts of classifying and counting. Because these techniques had been so successful in building munitions and allocating troops, they were applied across the board to industry, to education, to governance, to wherever the Whiz Kids found themselves. In the case of cities, they took a complex human tradition of settlement, said "Out with the old," and replaced it with a rational model that could be easily understood through systems analysis and flow charts. Town planning, until 1930 considered a humanistic discipline based upon history, aesthetics, and culture, became a technical profession based upon numbers. As a result, the American city was reduced into the simplistic categories and quantities of sprawl.

Because these tenets still hold sway, sprawl continues largely unchecked. At the current rate, California alone grows by a Pasadena every year and a Massachusetts every decade. Each year, we construct the equivalent of many cities, but the pieces don't add up to anything memorable or of lasting value. The result doesn't look like a place, it doesn't act like a place, and, perhaps most significant, it doesn't feel like a place. Rather, it feels like what it is: an uncoordinated agglomeration of standardized single-use zones with little pedestrian life and even less civic identification, connected only by an overtaxed network of roadways. Perhaps the most regrettable fact of all is that exactly the same ingredients — the houses, shops, offices, civic buildings, and roads — could instead have been assembled as new neighborhoods and cities. Countless residents of unincorporated counties could instead be citizens of real towns, enjoying the quality of life and civic involvement that such places provide.


Because sprawl is so unsatisfying, it remains tempting to think of it as an accident. For those who wish to take refuge in that thought, the caption under this photograph may come as a surprise: "Becoming a Showcase: Virginia Beach Boulevard-Phase I celebrated its completion ..." This "city center" is regarded with pride, for it is the successful attainment of a specific vision: eleven lanes of traffic and plenty of parking.

What is pictured here is the direct outcome of regulations governing modern engineering and development practice. Every detail of this environment comes straight from technical manuals. After reading them one might easily conclude that they are organized, written, and enforced in the name of a single objective: making cars happy. Indeed, at Virginia Beach they should be happy: no more than eight cars ever stack at the light, and the huge corner radius of the intersection means that turning requires minimal use of the brake. The parking lots are typically half-empty, since they have been sized for the Saturday before Christmas. Such excess is inevitable; anyone who has shopped in suburbia knows that the inability to find a parking space makes the entire proposition unworkable. As a result, the typical suburban building code has ten or twenty pages of rules on the design of parking lots alone, with different requirements for each land use. For retail locations, the square footage of parking often exceeds the square footage of leasable space.

Perhaps surprisingly, the creation of this environment is also guided by rules pertaining to aesthetics. These mostly came about during the sixties, when Lady Bird Johnson's beautification campaign and the nascent environmental movement opened the door for tree and sign ordinances. Notice the trees preserved in the parking lot, and the absence of large signs. These regulations result in suburban settlements that are neat, clean, and often more appealing than their deteriorating counterparts in the older city. In truth, a lot of sprawl — primarily affluent areas — could be considered beautiful. This raises a fundamental point: the problem with suburbia is not that it is ugly. The problem with suburbia is that, in spite of all its regulatory controls, it is not functional: it simply does not efficiently serve society or preserve the environment.


Excerpted from Suburban Nation by Andres Duany, Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk, Jeff Speck. Copyright © 2000 Andres Duany, Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk, and Jeff Speck. Excerpted by permission of Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

What People are saying about this

Robert A. M. Stern
Robert A. M. Stern, Dean, Yale School of Architecture

Suburban Nation is an essential text for our time, as compelling and important as Jane Jacob's The Death and Life of Great American Cities and Venturi, Brown, and Izenour's Learning from Las Vegas. This book is not only a passionately argued, carefully reasoned dissection of the mess that is becoming man-made America but also a clear program of steps that can be taken to enhance the humanity of both our suburbs and our cities while conserving our rapidly dwindling countryside. Everyone who cares about the future of our American way of life should read this book.

Vincent Scully
Vincent Scully, Sterling Professor Emeritus of the History of Art, Yale University

A clear-eyed, closely reasoned description by its founders of the most important movement in American architecture and city making of this generation: the New Urbanism, based not upon the "nostalgia" for which it has been unjustly criticized but upon solid architectural, historical, and sociological analysis and hard common sense.

Witold Rybczynski
One does not have to agree with all the arguments in this impassioned critique of suburbia to admire-and learn from-the authors' proven commitment to improving our built environment. An important book by America's premier town planners.
—Witold Rybczynski, author of City Life and The Most Beautiful House in the World
Richard Moe
Richard Moe, President, National Trust for Historic Preservation

For anyone interested in fighting sprawl and promoting smart growth, this important new book is essential reading. Andres Duany, Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk, and Jeff Speck have put flesh on the bones of the New Urbanism movement and given much-needed impetus to the promise it holds for America.

Joseph P. Jr., Riley
Joseph P. Riley, Jr., Mayor, City of Charleston

Neighborhoods, towns, and cities that make the heart sing; how do we create them? The answers can be found in this wonderful book.

Andrew Cuomo
This book packs a powerful punch: The city of the future turns out to be the old neighborhood. Sprawl, the dominant pattern of the past, doesn't have to be the wave of the future. Whether or not you subscribe to all of its arguments, Suburban Nation draws attention to the need to radically re-think the way our cities grow- both in our inner cities and on the urban edge.
Kurt Anderson
I usually find missionaries and visionaries tiresome, or scary. But the authors of this book are different. Their diagnosis of late-twentieth-century American ugliness is full-bore, but their prescriptions are nuanced and sensible. Their single-mindedness about what's right is tempered by a hard-earned knowledge of what's practical. They even have a sense of humor. Suburban Nation, as inspiring as it is useful, may be the best guide to reforming the free market ever published. It made me feel like a citizen again.
—Kurt Anderson, author of Turn of the Century
Andrew Ross
The ideas set forth in this book amount to a revolution in design. They will be hailed or denounced; copied or spurned; realized or aborted. But they cannot be ignored, not if we care about the landscapes and localities where a majority of Americans now life.
—Andrew Ross, American Studies Program, New York University, and author of The Celebration Chronicles
James Howard Kunstler
A book of luminous intelligence and wit. The fiasco of suburbia has never been so clearly described. This is not just a manifesto on architecture and civic design but a major literary event.
— James Howard Kunstler, author of The Geography of Nowhere and Home from Nowhere

Meet the Author

Andres Duany and Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk lead a firm that has designed more than 200 new neighborhoods and community revitalization plans, most famously, Seaside, Florida.

Jeff Speck is director of town planning for the firm.

Andres Duany, with Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk, leads a firm that has designed more than 200 new neighborhoods and community revitalization plans, most notably Seaside, Florida. He is co-author of Suburban Nation.
Andres Duany and Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk lead a firm that has designed more than 200 new neighborhoods and community revitalization plans, most notably Seaside, Florida.
Jeff Speck, coauthor of the landmark bestseller Suburban Nation, is a city planner who advocates for smart growth and sustainable design. As the former director of design at the National Endowment for the Arts, he oversaw the Mayors’ Institute on City Design, where he worked with dozens of American mayors on their most pressing city planning challenges. He leads a design practice based in Washington, D.C.

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