Let's make suburbs into cities: New urbanism, car culture and the future of community

Well, with an urban spirit, at least. Can real community grow in a town designed to bring people together?

Published August 17, 2014 1:00PM (EDT)

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Excerpted from "Americans Against the City: Anti-Urbanism in the 20th Century"

By the last quarter of the twentieth century, Americans had succeeded in building an alternative to the dense central city, and the anti-government politics of the New Right had triumphed on the national stage. Roughly three out of every four of us live in large metropolitan regions, but the large cities that anchor those regions do not house a majority of those metropolitans. The greater Philadelphia region, on the East Coast, counts a population of just under 6 million, the city itself only 1.5 million; on the West Coast, the city of Los Angeles is home to nearly 4 million people, but the Los Angeles “metroplex” has grown to nearly 13 million. Hence the paradox: we are a nation clustered around our major cities, we rely on their infrastructure—transportation networks, education and research facilities, cultural institutions—and we remain deeply ambivalent about the city and city-ness itself.

At the same time, despite the flight from the city after the Second World War, despite the proliferation of physical environments shaped primarily by the automobile and private housing, Americans seemed no closer to solving the question of how to live the good life than they had been at the beginning of the century. Indeed, to judge by any number of sociological studies, public opinion surveys, and news reports, they were arguably further from finding that grail than ever before. A country of exiles, bowling alone, inhabiting a geography of nowhere. “At the conclusion of the 20th century,” sociologist Robert Putnam concluded, “ordinary Americans shared [a] sense of civic malaise.” The longing to belong that underscored the twentieth century had not been satisfied, the beloved community that Josiah Royce had anticipated had not yet come to pass.

Into that loneliness and alienation emerged two movements promising to heal what ailed us. One was made up of a loose assemblage of sociologists, philosophers, lawyers, and public policy types who called themselves “communitarians.” They have attempted to formulate an ethos to navigate between an excessive individualism and an overbearing state. The other was a group of planners, designers, and architects who called themselves the “new urbanists.” These new urbanists believe that America’s sterile built environment has contributed mightily to that civic malaise, and that with better planning we can create meaningful communities.

Though each had its own roots, the two movements converged in the 1990s. The communitarians offered a bracing critique of the nation’s social ills, and they argued that a revived “community” would fill its void of values. The new urbanists envisioned landscapes that would facilitate exactly the ethos the communitarians advocated. Space could be reshaped into meaningful places, which in turn would foster the community at the heart of communitarianism. Both groups came to national prominence in the last decade of the twentieth century, both diagnosed the same ailment in American life, and both have been ambivalent about the role of the city in curing the “crisis of community” and have been largely silent on the larger issue of how to invigorate our public sphere.

A Philosophy of Community?

For a brief period in the 1990s, George Washington University sociology professor Amatai Etzioni enjoyed a kind of rock star status, at least in certain circles. In 1993, Etzioni founded the Communitarian Network, the purpose of which was to bring a set of sociological and philosophical discussions out of the seminar room into a wider sphere. The Communitarian Network describes itself as “a coalition of individuals and organizations who have come together to shore up the social, moral, and political environment. We are a nonpartisan, nonsectarian, transnational association.” Etzioni became the public face of the communitarian movement.

In their attempt to “shore up” those environments in contemporary America, communitarians necessarily wrestled with the tension between individual liberties and larger social obligations. In that sense, as some critics pointed out, they were doing nothing new. Whether or not this charge is fair, it is certainly true that communitarianism was entirely of its moment. It grew out of the soil of post-1960s, post-Cold War America, and it tried to resolve the welter of contradictions presented by that moment. Regardless of where one resided on the political spectrum, communitarians believed, everyone felt an emptiness. “People feel alienation,” Etzioni told an interviewer, “that we are atomized, all living separately without enough common bonds. This creates a void. They say, ‘We are supposed to have a community, but we don’t, and we want to do something about it.’ ” The communitarian movement offered itself as the answer for those who yearned for meaningful community.

Communitarianism attempted to intersect the increasingly shrill right–left spectrum of American politics somewhere in the middle and at 90 degrees, in an effort to intervene in the culture wars of that decade, which they saw in ideological fights over museum exhibits and school curricula. Communitarians decried both the “I’m okay, you’re okay” easing of traditional moral strictures and structures that many viewed as the legacy of the 1960s left, and the dog-eat-dog, social Darwinian economics fostered and celebrated by the Reagan right. As presented by Etzioni, communitarianism resonated beautifully with the “third way” politics embraced by British Prime Minister Tony Blair and by the centrist Democratic Leadership Council. Rumors swirled that senior members of the Clinton administration were reading Etzioni’s 1993 book The Spirit of Community.

The Spirit of Community is not a difficult book, as philosophical tomes go, and it was clearly written to engage a wide public, filled as it is with chirpy bromides and commonsensical assertions. Nor is it difficult to see why some liberals found a less-than-subtle reactionary agenda in the book. Although Etzioni and the other communitarians wanted to cast a pox on the houses of both political right and left, The Spirit of Community spends more of its time blaming the erosion of the institutions of community on the agencies of the liberal state than on the corrosive effects of laissez-faire economics. Here is a typical complaint:

More and more people have been gobbled up by the economy—which is taxed to pay for hired hands to accomplish what people used to do as volunteers. Where we had ethnic groups taking care of new immigrants (which some still do), we now have a U.S. Refugee Resettlement Agency and a plethora of government-run welfare agencies. Where once we had families attending to their elderly, now we see families otherwise occupied and many of the elderly are institutionalized in nursing homes (which are often heavily subsidized by the government, which in-community care is not). And so it goes.

And so Etzioni goes, substituting the idea of the private realm of community for the public realm of the state, never mind that many families are simply not equipped to handle the care of their elderly relatives.

Community required a set of institutions—family first and foremost—in order to function in any effective way. But Etzioni’s suspicions sounded a great deal like the anti-government activists ascendant on the political right. Etzioni described it this way in The Spirit of Community:

It is widely recognized that communities provide the social base of the mediating institutions that stand between the individual and the state, protecting the individual from excessive encroachment by the state. For these mediating institutions to be able to discharge this important function they themselves must be shielded from the government. Such protection is high on the agenda of the Communitarian movement.

The public sphere had emerged in the eighteenth century to play that mediating role between people’s private lives, intensely local and inwardly focused, and the state, which otherwise might act oppressively. The communitarians elided the idea of community with the idea of a public.

To his credit, Etzioni addressed people who wanted a greater sense of community by reminding them that it came with hard work, obligations, and perhaps even some restrictions. As one journalist summarized the concept, “Would you like a nation where people cared more for each other but divorces were legally difficult? Welcome to communitarianism.” But sometimes Etzioni sounded like a scold, or worse. In one provocative essay, for example, he called for a return to public shaming. Shaming substituted the authority of the community for the authority of the state, and thus “it is deeply democratic. Shaming reflects the community’s values and hence cannot be imposed by the authorities against a people.” He did not fully explain how this “deeply democratic” process would not simply become the tyranny of the majority.

He could also be a tad defensive when people pointed out that community could be exclusive and oppressive as well as warm and welcoming. “Listen, I know that the KKK was a community of sorts,” he told an interviewer. “So was Salem at the time of the witch-hunts. The cult in Waco was a community. So was Jonestown. I think we can guard against the excesses and still move forward, to more authentic ways of relating and joining together on projects to make life better for us all.”

The communitarians did not or could not see the central problem with that kind of easy formulation. The only way for people to join “together on projects to make life better for us all” is if there is some consensus about what constitutes “better,” about what “projects” might achieve that better, and who the “us” is who gets to decide. Communities tend to function precisely because there is very little internal debate on those questions, especially about who might belong. In a large, complicated democracy, however, those questions can be answered only in the public space of politics, not in the more intimate sphere of “community.”

Etzioni and his fellow communitarians provided a compelling diagnosis of the national illness, and they formulated a prescription to cure it, bad-tasting though some might find the medicine. For that they deserve a great deal of credit. But in addition to the conceptual problems of their notion of community they did not attend much to the question of where, exactly, community could be rebuilt. Etzioni fully understood that Americans move nearly every five years and thus no longer derive their identities from the places they live. He expressed some enthusiasm about communities that did not require physical proximity. One critic noted that what made Etzioni’s conception of community new was precisely that it did not require any physical location or geographic boundaries.

When Etzioni did address the physical nature of community, he walked in a circle. “To make our physical environment more community-friendly,” Etzioni explained, “our homes, places of work, streets, and public spaces—whole developments, suburbs, and even whole cities—need to be designed to enhance the Communitarian nexus.” Thus in order to foster community, our physical environment needs to be built to foster community.

In fact, Etzioni’s suspicion of the state and the dichotomy he saw between government and community put him squarely in the twentieth-century tradition of anti-urbanism. And when Etzioni stopped talking about community in the abstract and imagined it as a place, he saw a small town. When he proposed a return to public shaming, for example, he pointed out that the communities of eighteenth-century New England were “much smaller, more tightly knit, and more moralistic than any here today.” When he published The Spirit of Community in 1993, he saw “a welcome return to small-town life.” But by 1993, unlike, say, 1933, few could argue seriously for a return to the American small town in a nation so thoroughly dominated by metropolitan regions. Etzioni reassured his readers that “although not all suburbs, which attracted millions of city dwellers, make for viable communities, as a rule the movement to the suburbs has enhanced the Communitarian nexus.” Since real small-towns in America have been suffering for at least half a century, Etzioni hoped that some suburban areas would fill the bill.

In this sense, the communitarians of the 1990s sounded much like the anti-urbanists of the 1920s or of the 1970s. They believed that Americans needed “community” of some sort as the mediator between alienating individualism and an oppressive state. And like their anti-urban predecessors, they were suspicious of the role of government in people’s lives, and they saw the city as antithetical to their notion of community.

The Newer New Urbanism

Perhaps Etzioni did not feel it was necessary to be more specific about the physical shape and location of his community. His fellow communitarian Robert Putnam was not sure that mattered much, as he believed that sprawl “might account for . . . 10 percent of the problem” of community. By the time the communitarians began to attract public attention, however, other people were busy planning the shape of community.

In 1993, the same year Etzioni published The Spirit of Community, a group of planners, architects, policy advocates, and others came together to found the Congress for the New Urbanism. The Congress was founded on the principle that physical space really does structure the quality of human experience and interaction, and it has dedicated itself to promoting design and development (and policy) that foster community.

In its charter, ratified in 1996, the Congress announced: “We stand for the restoration of existing urban centers and towns within coherent metropolitan regions, the reconfiguration of sprawling suburbs into communities of real neighborhoods and diverse districts, the conservation of natural environments, and the preservation of our built legacy.” More specifically, the Congress committed itself to a set of principles that included neighborhoods that were diverse socially and economically; spaces that catered to pedestrians and public transit in addition to cars; public spaces that served a wide range of publics; and design that was sensitive to local history, local climate, and local ecology. Those principles stand as a succinct critique of roughly fifty years of American development and a reassertion of the value of urbanism.

Andres Duany and Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk, Miami-based architects and planners, have been the most visible driving force behind the movement. They have become celebrities in the world of planning, architecture, and public policy. But they did not start out that way. After graduate school, the couple designed tall boxes in the modernist style in which they had been trained. Then, in the late 1970s, they were approached by a developer who wanted to build a new town on the Florida panhandle. From a combination of the developer’s desire to evoke the “old” coastal towns of his youth and the architects’ sense that conventional town planning had led to sterile architectural and social environments came Seaside, Florida. It opened in 1989.

Seaside appeared revolutionary to a society conditioned to planned obsolescence and suffering from historical amnesia. It was a town built from scratch, deliberately designed to look like a town that had always been there. This meant smaller building lots than in conventional suburban developments and more residential density; pedestrian-friendly streets; mixed-use spaces—the antithesis of most of the development that had taken place in the United States since the end of World War II.

The “new” in the label new urbanism was, therefore, something of a misnomer. One of the most striking things about new urbanism has been its embrace, driven by a sense of loss, of much that is old. Vincent Scully, perhaps the most influential architectural writer of the second half of the twentieth century, has been among the most enthusiastic supporters of new urbanism. “It now seems obvious to almost everyone . . . that community is what America has most conspicuously lost, and community is precisely what canonical Modern architecture and planning of the middle years of this century were totally unable to provide.” For Scully, mid-century modernism of the sort that dominated urban revival after the war was the architectural analogue to the alienated individualism that Etzioni fretted over. These monuments, Scully wrote, “celebrated the individual free from history and time. One could not make a community out of them.” To fix those mistakes, according to planner Todd Bressi, new urbanism aims to “revive principles about building communities that have been virtually ignored for half a century.” Not for nothing did U.S. News call the new urbanists “neo-traditionalists.”

The problem new urbanism proposed to fix was not new, either. Over and over again there has been a desire to use physical space to create meaningful community. Duany and Plater-Zyberk have been unapologetic in their goal to do just that. As they wrote in their exhortation Suburban Nation, “We believe more strongly than ever in the power of good design to overcome the ills created by bad design.”

Design, therefore, was a means to an end, not an end unto itself. The goal of design should not be architectural or aesthetic, or even about land use for its own sake, but about strengthening our social bonds. “Of course, the ultimate goal must not be limited to the cessation of sprawl,” Duany and Plater-Zyberk wrote. “For our country to prosper, Americans must also concern themselves with the building of community. . . . [C] ommunity flourishes best in traditional neighborhoods. When this fact is widely acknowledged, government officials, designers, and citizens will begin to act with the confidence that what is good for neighborhoods is good for America.” When they wrote “We Americans have been building a national landscape that is largely devoid of places worth caring about,” they nicely echoed the way Josiah Royce extolled the importance of “provincialism” at the beginning of the century.

If Royce saw the city as corroding the American community because of its anonymity, the mobility of its residents, and its sheer size, then the new urbanists saw the threat coming from exactly the opposite direction. For those at the beginning of the century, the problem was urban congestion and overconcentration; for those at the end of it, the problem was too much decentralization. In a word, sprawl.

“Automobile suburbia is a manifestation of the devolution of community from a shared realm with shared purpose to an amalgamation of closely bunched, independent mini-estates,” wrote photographer and writer Richard Sexton, and in that intense focus on people’s private spaces, “residents of suburbia try to own individually what a community once provided for all. They don’t share, but hoard, as each homesite seeks to be a self-sufficient entity.” In other words, they created the opposite of community.

Lest people think that new urbanism amounts to little more than the do-gooding social engineering dreamt up by architects, a growing body of evidence suggests that people would choose to live in a neo-traditional environment, if given the opportunity. In 1997, Vince Graham addressed the National Association of Home Builders and told them, in the most basic math of all real estate developers, “If what you are selling is privacy and exclusivity, then every new house is a degradation of the amenity. However, if what you are selling is community, then every new house is an enhancement of the asset.” Likewise, Pulte Homes, one of the nation’s largest developers, found that people in its surveys and focus groups consistently liked new urbanist designs and neo-traditional neighborhoods precisely because of their shared public spaces. Higher density, mixed-use, and public amenities, it turned out, could be profitable, too.

New Urbanism? Or New Small-Townism?

In its reaction to sprawl, new urbanism has been seen as the savior not so much of cities proper but of their suburbs. By the end of the twentieth century, few people—except the big developers of sprawl and a handful of right-wing free-market fundamentalists—wanted to defend sprawl publicly. U.S. News & World Report defined sprawl as “those tracts of characterless split-levels, with no shops or businesses to walk to, only driveways connecting to streets connecting to rivers of highways,” and it described new urbanism as “putting the brakes on suburban sprawl.” Summing up the difference between sprawl and new urbanism, Amanda Hale, who had just moved her family into a neo-traditional development near Chapel Hill, North Carolina, told a reporter “We want our four children to grow up in a community, not at a highway exit.”

And there can be no question that new urbanism’s principles and goals have been hugely influential. By the turn of the millennium, by Time’s reckoning, more than 100 neo-traditional developments had opened, and another 200 were in the planning stages. New urbanism seems to have succeeded in linking design and community in a way that Radburn, the New Deal new towns, or the Nixon-era new towns never did. But like those earlier experiments, new urbanist projects, more often than not, took place outside cities themselves. They tried to recreate the small town by bringing principles of urbanism out to the suburbs.

Still, it is useful to keep this influence in perspective. New urbanist projects remained a fairly small part of the new housing market. In 2000, the nation saw roughly 1.6 million new housing starts. Most were of the sprawling variety. Old land-use habits die hard. Just ask the developers who came to Middletown Township, Pennsylvania.

Middletown Township is located along Baltimore Pike as it angles south and west out of Philadelphia. You can still get to Baltimore along the old Baltimore Pike if you follow it carefully. These days, however, the trip probably takes only slightly less time than it did in the eighteenth century, when this road provided the main land connection between the two cities. Headed south, the stop-and-go traffic of Baltimore Avenue in Philadelphia yields to only slightly less stopping and going as the road meanders through the increasingly choked suburbs of Delaware and Chester Counties.

For years, the Franklin Mint, stamper of commemorative coins and molder of all manner of collectibles of the sort your aunt might keep on a mantelpiece, sat as a major landmark on Baltimore Pike in Middletown Township, Delaware County. The mint closed in 2004, shaking the QVC crowd to its core, and the site sat empty. Real estate developers abhor vacant land even more than nature dislikes a vacuum, and in the years after the mint ceased operations, developers purchased the campus and adjacent parcels, which eventually totaled 150 acres.

Then they unveiled their plans to the Township Council: 1.3 million square feet of retail space; 1,300 residential units; a 300-room hotel. Township residents balked and mounted a campaign to defeat the plan. They rallied under the slogan “No City!”

The residents won and forced the developers back to their drawing boards, only this time developers brought a number of township residents with them to participate in the planning process. In March 2009, they presented the results of their work. The new proposal was a classic example of new urbanist principles: the whole project was smaller and denser—fewer residences, fewer hotel beds, less retail space, but these elements were clustered to create open space. The developers also added green space buffers, particularly along busy Baltimore Pike. Most dramatically of all, the whole project would be anchored by a regional rail station. It was a pedestrian-friendly, transit-oriented development, dropped down in the middle of suburban sprawl.

Despite the inclusive planning process, some residents remained opposed to it. “We are a well-designed bedroom community,” John Laskas testified; “We don’t want to change the character of our town.” A strange complaint to make, given that there is neither any “town” nor any “character” to speak of in Middletown Township. Mr. Laskas did not seem to see that a “bedroom community” is a contradiction in terms, nor did he realize that it is a virtual antonym of the idea of a “town.” But Laskas’s concerns were entirely predictable and underscored a central conundrum facing new urbanist planners and architects. Americans may report that the “bedroom” suburbs they live in leave them feeling lonely, alone, and alienated, but any plans designed to change that by making their suburbs more “urban” invariably meet with stiff resistance. The anti-urban impulse runs deep in American life.

In fact, most of the influential new urbanist developments are really modeled on small towns, and in that sense they are the latest attempt to solve the “crisis of community” by returning to the small-scaled intimacy of the American small town, or at least what they thought it to be. New town dreamers of the early twentieth century imagined decentralizing the city to reduce its density. New urbanists propose to increase the density of the conventional suburb. Both groups wound up extolling the virtues of the small town, and those virtues are not without their complications.

Among other things, the small town—whether in its 1920s incarnation or in its more recent new urbanist phase—has not been able to sustain itself economically, apart from some larger urban center, nor has it been particularly welcoming of ethno-racial or socioeconomic diversity, though the Congress for the New Urbanism insists that communities ought to be “diverse.” Small towns have stood as among the best examples of the fact that the notion of community is built on exclusion as well as inclusion.

Without question, the most famous and most scrutinized new urbanist project was launched in Osceola County, in central Florida, in the mid-1990s. Sitting on nearly 5,000 acres, the brand new town was designed by marquee architect Robert Stern. It features all the new urbanist elements: front porches and sidewalks; a mix of housing, both in style and in price; and an eighteen-acre commercial “downtown” easily accessible by foot or bike from the surrounding neighborhoods.

It was not the white picket fences or the post office designed by Robert Graves, nor even the town hall designed by Philip Johnson, that were responsible for all the attention. What brought the eyes of the nation to this new urbanist creation in central Florida was the force behind it: the Disney Corporation. Disney built the town, put it right next to Disney World, and called it Celebration. The first residents moved in during 1996; by the end of the decade Celebration had been written about in more than 2,500 news stories.

Celebration has offered a target-rich environment for those who want to critique the neo-traditionalism of the new urbanist movement. Sponsored by Disney and located within ear-shot of Disney World’s nightly fireworks display, and created out of whole cloth but designed to look as if it had been built in the 1920s, Celebration begged to be called ersatz.

Life for the several thousand people who live in Celebration is more mundane than some of the caricatures would suggest. As one resident put it, “We’re not Stepford wives. We still have problems. It’s just a nicer place to have problems.” Initially it proved quite popular with the public: the housing units sold across all the price ranges and the commercial downtown was busy. Even more significantly, housing prices were higher than surrounding comparables—people seemed willing to pay a Celebration premium. To give Celebration its due, it did not look like a typical Florida subdivision, and the people who lived there inhabited their space differently, too. As anyone who has been to Florida knows, there are precious few places anywhere in the state where you can actually walk to get a cup of coffee.

What the Celebration premium bought, however, was not simply good design and planning. For many residents, the attraction of Celebration was the promise that Disney would control the environment of the town just the way it had made its amusement parks the happiest places on earth. Residents contract privately for services, and the town’s Architectural Review Committee strictly regulates the physical appearance of the place. “Most of us came here not because of Disney,” resident Kathleen Carlson told the Miami Herald; “we came because we wanted that type of control over our neighborhood. You don’t have to worry that your neighbor will suddenly start parking an old pickup on his front lawn.” Celebration has substituted corporate control for democratic participation in the life of the town. It is hardly the sort of reinvigorated “community” new urbanists hoped they could create, but exactly the result one might expect, given the way “community” has been turned into a real-estate asset.

When the Great Recession settled into Florida, however, not even Disney could control real estate values inside its model town. By the end of 2010, property prices had dropped even more than they had in the rest of the state—in some cases as much as 60 percent—and foreclosures were happening more frequently as well. In the space of a week at the end of 2010, the town experienced its first murder and then the suicide of a resident who had barricaded himself in his home and held a SWAT team at bay for fourteen hours. Stunned, much like residents of Reston had been when drugs and violence had come to that model town a generation earlier, Celebrationites had to confront reality.

Writing about Seaside, that first new urbanist experiment, Vincent Scully exulted that it “has . . . succeeded, more fully than any other work of architecture in our time has done, in creating an image of community.” “Image” is an interesting choice of word. I suspect Scully meant it in the sense of “template” or “model,” but its meaning can also shade toward the two-dimensional, or the superficial, a meaning reinforced in this case because the movie The Truman Show was shot in Seaside. Architect Alex Krieger looked at Seaside and saw something more sinister. “The current rush of enthusiasm for the ‘community’ found in the traditional small town disregards the many anti-public predilections of small-town life,” he wrote in 1995. “Reading the minutes of the Seaside homeowners association meeting, like re-reading Sinclair Lewis’s Main Street, may temper some of the accolades for Seaside,” he continued. The architecture was not at issue, he was quick to note, but he was skeptical that places like Seaside represented a “paradigm for democratic social exchange.”

The challenge for new urbanism, like the challenge faced by the communitarians, is whether members of these new communities wind up feeling trapped in Gopher Prairie and whether the idea of community itself opens up larger democratic vistas.

Excerpted from "Americans Against the City: Anti-Urbanism in the 20th Century" by Steven Conn. Published by Oxford University Press. Copyright 2014 by Oxford University Press. Reprinted with permission of the publisher. All rights reserved.

By Steven Conn

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