There’s still time to nominate local icons for Best of D.C.
Everybody talks about sprawl, but nobody does anything about it. Well, almost nobody. New books by leftist historian Mike Davis and neotraditional architects Andres Duany, Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk, and Jeff Speck purport to identify the force that will redeem America’s debased urban and suburban areas. According to Davis’ Magical Urbanism: Latinos Reinvent the American City, it’s the burgeoning Latino population. And according to Duany, Plater-Zyberk, and Speck’s Suburban Nation: The Rise of Sprawl and the Decline of the American Dream, it’s Duany, Plater-Zyberk, and Speck.
These two books don’t overlap often, in part because Davis’ is mostly descriptive and Duany & Co.’s largely prescriptive. In fact, Davis’ title is misleading; he devotes only one of 15 chapters to describing how Latinos are reinventing the American city, and it turns out to be only a few cities: New York, San Antonio, Houston, Miami, Chicago, San Francisco, and of course Los Angeles, the subject of the author’s best-known previous studies, City of Quartz and Ecology of Fear. His overarching concern is the treatment of Latinos in the Southwest, especially Southern California, where being Latino, even if you’re U.S.-born, is often treated as a criminal provocation.
Still, when Davis does write about urbanism, he’s in the same neighborhood as Duany & Co. Extolling the Latino transformation of south and southwest Los Angeles into colorful, lively districts, he praises vernacular culture, mixed-use neighborhoods, the natural evolution of urban spaces, and “micro-entrepreneurs.” These are almost exactly the same things that Jane Jacobs identified as the essence of successful neighborhoods in her The Death and Life of Great American Cities, the 1961 book that has long been established as the bible of humane urbanism. According to Davis, L.A. Latinos’ “worst enemies include conventional zoning and building codes.”
Duany et al. are Jacobites, too, and they abhor most American zoning codes. But they wouldn’t support replacing existing regulations simply with the natural ingenuity of any ethnic group; they want new codes that are just as stringent but smarter. (In fact, they’ve already written them.) What they seek is something that in principle resembles Latino L.A., but with an architectural decorum that will be acceptable to suburban zoning boards and resident associations.
Davis has no time for such prettification. In fact, he denounces “the psychosexual anxieties of Truman Show white residential culture”—perhaps an indirect slap at the Duany crowd. (The Truman Show show was filmed at Seaside, Fla., the first and most famous neo-trad new town designed by the Miami-based firm of Duany Plater-Zyberk & Co.) An unapologetic radical, Davis likes his subcultures confrontational and rough around the edges. Still, Magical Urbanism doesn’t proceed merely on his empathy for the Latino underclass. He has plenty of numbers, which he uses to suggest that Latinos will soon transform more than a few neighborhoods. Jose, he writes, “is now the most popular name for baby boys in both California and Texas”; that fact presages Latinos’ becoming the country’s largest minority group (surpassing African-Americans by the end of this year) and rendering non-Hispanic whites a minority shortly after 2050.
Davis’ account of white America’s ongoing official abuse of Latinos is compelling, as is his analysis of the inevitable overlap of cultures, problems (notably ecological), and even politics along the U.S.-Mexico border. (In 1998, he notes, the governor of the Mexican state of Zacatecas asked the state legislature to add two seats to represent the states’ citizens who live in the U.S.) Alas, the book shows signs of having been hastily cobbled together from magazine articles. Sloppy editing allowed “lilly white,” “indiscrete” for “indiscreet,” and the identification of San Clemente as the site of Nixon’s “Western White House” twice within 10 pages.
The book’s fundamental flaw, however, is that its demographic data are not necessarily prophetic. As Davis admits, there is not one U.S. Latino subculture but many: Mexicans, Cubans, Puerto Ricans, Dominicans, and Salvadorans share little besides their language—and they can easily lose that. It’s just too soon to say that Latinos will not be absorbed into mainstream American culture—and, if they are, promptly move to the suburbs.
National heritage is not destiny, as can be demonstrated without looking any farther than Davis and Duany themselves. Davis’ father grew up speaking Welsh in an Ohio enclave, but that identity seems to have had little effect on his son—except, perhaps, to give him an enduring affinity for linguistic underdogs. (When Davis recently left L.A., he moved not to Wales but to Hawaii.) As for Duany, as a first-generation American of Cuban descent he’s actually a member of the emerging Latino majority, yet he’s become the prophet of a white-picket-fence style of suburban architecture that Davis disdains. Who’s to say that the children of L.A.’s magical urbanists won’t take equally unanticipated leaps into the melting pot?
If Magical Urbanism is overly tendentious, Suburban Nation has an entirely different problem: Its points are so self-evident that it seems almost unnecessary. Duany and Plater-Zyberk are the husband-and-wife partners in the firm that designed such neo-trad developments as Gaithersburg’s Kentlands, and Speck is the company’s director of town planning; their book revisits issues that they and many others have already addressed at length. In footnotes and direct references, Duany & Co. concede that they’re reiterating the arguments of such commentators as William Whyte, Bill McKibben, James Howard Kunstler, Jane Holtz Kay, Kenneth Jackson, and, yes, Davis.
For those who haven’t read such books as Kay’s Asphalt Nation and Kunstler’s The Geography of Nowhere, Suburban Nation is an excellent primer on the interlocked issues of suburban sprawl, dependence on the automobile, declining inner cities, and social and economic segregation. People who are well-read on these topics, however, will find little that’s fresh except for Duany et al.’s ready wit and the examples drawn from the architects’ direct engagement with the suburban-planning beast.
Readers needn’t have visited Kentlands (or any other DPZ-planned development) to have experienced the firm’s urban ideal: The authors repeatedly cite Georgetown and Old Town Alexandria as examples of the kind of place they hope to create. To reduce those neighborhoods to their urban-planning elements: That means grid street patterns, pedestrian orientation, architectural homogeneity, on-street parking, mixed uses, and spaces defined by continuous building facades with little or no setback from the sidewalk. These neighborhoods are, in short, places in which it is both agreeable and practical to walk—which is the essence of recovering the country’s lost urbanity and sense of community.
The authors’ nemesis is the status quo, enshrined in zoning codes (especially suburban codes, although the degree to which cities have self-destructively emulated suburban prototypes is significant). These zoning codes express the narrow self-interest of many people, but above all of traffic engineers. The post-World War II suburbs were built primarily to the specification of such “experts,” resulting in collector roads that are too wide (thus disrupting communities and encouraging dangerous rates of speed) and limp-spaghetti cul-de-sacs that divide neighbors and can be used for only the most local of travel (and thus guarantee gridlock every time the local collector road is blocked). Rather than pleasant, useful main streets, the authors write, today’s typical development has “traffic sewers.”
The authors take the controversial (if indisputable) position that American automobile travel is heavily subsidized: About $5,000 of the annual expense of operating a car is not paid by the owner; a gas tax that covered all the direct and social costs of auto use (including pollution and emergency medical treatment) would approach $9 a gallon. In addition, because suburban roads are designed for “efficient” (that is, hazardous) speeds, Americans (especially teenagers) are more likely to die violent deaths in the suburbs than in the city. Before they’re involved in their first serious auto crash—statistically, most drivers between 16 and 20 have at least one—suburban kids are imprisoned in an environment that fosters heavy TV viewing and escalating rates of teen suicide. By the way, new highways simply encourage new car travel, so the construction of urban and suburban highways should stop immediately.
Unpopular as these observations may be, Duany, Plater-Zyberk, and Speck are not radicals. They all admit to owning automobiles themselves, and they design plenty of parking for their projects (although they’re opposed to locating it on-site—which keeps people from mingling in the community). Their idea of a wild-eyed notion is reducing the two-car family to owning only one gas-guzzler, thus freeing up money, among moderate-income people, for buying houses. Duany & Co. have long been accused of ignoring cities and the poor, and they do address these issues in this book. Their focus, however, remains on common-sense, historically based reforms for America’s preposterous postwar suburbs.
Suburban Nation takes the form of a manifesto, but it occasionally reads like a company brochure. As architects who believe they can design a better future, the authors endorse “good growth,” condemn suburban NIMBYs, and sidle up to the real estate developer, who they suggest may be “the greatest victim” of sprawl. They recall suburban zoning and traffic experts who have undermined their designs, but don’t admit to any of their own unfortunate compromises (like the bungled retail at Kentlands).
The architects’ practical experience helps validate their remedies for sprawl. And for those who have heard all this before, it also makes Suburban Nation more entertaining. In amusing asides, the authors note that trees are officially known as FHOs (fixed and hazardous objects); ridicule architectural-school jargon; speculate that woman-led fire departments might end the macho competition to get the biggest possible fire trucks, which require wider streets; and blame the whole suburban mess, quite rightly, on Jefferson and Le Corbusier. These jibes are quite amiable, as they should be; this is an optimistic book. Duany, Plater-Zyberk, and Speck really think they can fix the mess in which most Americans live. CP