Alanna Kaiser ENGL 137H Prof.

Babcock October 31, 2013 Urban to Suburban to New Urbanism: A Double-Shift in American Community Development Picture a happy family donning a white picket fence, two-car garage, and 2.3 children. For a long time, this iconic image has been the ultimate picture of success. It is a snapshot that can be taken in any one of America’s seemingly infinite number of suburbs. For many, living in a suburb is the culmination of the American Dream. These communities are known to be safe, quiet, and indicative of a high standard of living, especially in comparison to the loud, dirty, poverty stricken cities that they border. Suburbs are, however, a dying type of development. The negative effects that suburban sprawl is having on both the environment and sense of community across America are becoming quite obvious to homebuyers and community planners alike. In light of this, efforts are being made to return to traditional neighborhood planning, reducing the negative impact that modern development has on many facets of American life. Suburban development became the norm in America after World War II. Prior to the war, cities were where the majority of the American population lived. After the war, however, programs like the Federal Housing Administration and the Veterans Administration lowered mortgage costs for military families, and promoted habitation of single-family suburban homes, triggering the demand for suburbs to skyrocket. (Duany, Andrés, and Plater-Zyberk 7-10). These incentives, combined with the major economic

Kaiser 2 boom of the time period, caused young men returning from war to flock to the affordable houses to begin raising their families. In order to make this housing affordable, yet still fill the demand of the returning military men, houses were mass-produced using the assembly line business model invented by Henry Ford. William Levitt is largely credited with the development of these cookie cutter neighborhoods, affectionatly dubbed “Levittowns” by the masses. Between 1950 and 1960, 20 million people migrated out of cities and into these mass housing developments. (“Building”). Since then, America has only become increasingly more suburbanized. A close demographic analysis of urban and suburban population distributions noted that 40 years ago, 34 million Americans lived in suburban areas and 49 million inhabited urban areas out of the total 149 million people that made up the country’s population. In 1990, on the other hand, “192 million of America's 248 million people resided in metropolitan areas. Of these, only 78 million lived in the central cities. The remaining 114 million lived in the unincorporated areas and more than 6,700 incorporated urban places surrounding the central cities” (“Suburbanization”). Since the early 1990s, however, there has been a gradual decline in the popularity of these sprawling developments. Many urban planning specialists argue that this can be attributed to the fact that suburbs were doomed from the beginning as they are unsustainable and self-destructive, often described as “idealized” and “artificial.” Others point out that the negative effects of urban sprawl are just recently exhibiting themselves on a grand scale, and in light of them, alternative development solutions must be implemented (Duany et al. 4).

Kaiser 3 The undesirable consequences stemming from suburbia come about as a direct result of its physical makeup. There are five components to sprawl, which when combined are the root of all problems associated with suburbs. The first component of suburban sprawl is the housing subdivision, consisting of only residences. These housing clusters are often advertised as neighborhoods, but typically lack sidewalks and front porches that are necessary for friendly neighbor-to-neighbor interaction to occur. The second and third components of sprawl are shopping centers and office parks. Both of these places are strictly single-use, only playing a role in the functional niche which each of their names suggest. The fourth component, civic institutions, includes schools, churches, town halls, and other large meeting places. The fifth component is perhaps the most important: roadways. Because the first four components of sprawl are isolated to their own geographic locations, large roadways are needed to connect community members’ places of home, work, shopping, and civic engagement. These roads are typically not pedestrian friendly, as they attempt to accommodate for the massive amounts of traffic traveling between components (Duany et al. 5-7). When combined with each other and the requisite low-density population of suburban development, these factors produce an environment that is detrimental to both the natural world and the community that resides within its ambiguous borders. Environmentally speaking, suburbs do not use natural resources efficiently. The large roadways that are essential for linking components within sprawl consume excessive amounts of land and often fragment habitats and entire ecosystems. Since these communities are so spread out, the people that live in them are essentially automobile dependent (Duany et al. 13). This not only creates inconvenient traffic situations, which

Kaiser 4 detract from the overall aesthetic of fringe communities, but also generates excessive amounts of carbon dioxide that is emitted to the atmosphere, playing a large part in the climate change crisis. Furthermore, suburban “communities” often heavily lack any detectable sense of community. The lack of pedestrians throughways and multi-use buildings that could be used by residents to congregate and socialize largely detracts from social interaction within the possible community. There is often a complete disassociation of residents within local suburban communities. Additionally, because people and activities are so widely dispersed within these areas, civic engagement is often lacking. People feel much less connected to their neighborhoods when they do not even know their neighbors. As these issues with suburbia made themselves very apparent in the 1980s and years following, colonization of sprawling communities began to gradually decrease. According to the 2002 US Census report, growth of suburban areas slowed considerably between 1980 and 1990. Then, between 1990 and 2000 the growth seemed to plateau completely (Hobbs and Stoops 38). A major event that seemed to officially solidify the condemnation of the suburban way of life, however, was the housing market crash of 2008. In an article published in the New York Times, Christopher Leinberger notes the drop in housing values that hit suburban communities particularly hard. Not only did this market crash affect the prices at the time, but also cause such a drop in values that many places across the country still have not recovered today. According to data analyzed from the Zillow Real Estate Database, outer suburbs were recorded to have the highest value per square foot in 1990. Since then, though, the highest values have shifted to walkable communities and metropolitan areas that provide all needs to residents with their mixed-

Kaiser 5 use public zoning policies. In addition, because of the low housing values, homeowners are less likely to renovate because their property value may fall “below replacement level,” meaning that any returns on investment as far as trying to increase property value would be slim to none, further decreasing the likelihood that people in search of a new home will move to the suburbs. Leinberger goes so far as to compare the current suburban decolonization as an exact reversal of what occurred in the 1950s; people are moving out of suburbs and into traditional neighborhoods instead of the opposite (Leinberger). With the faults of suburban communities in mind, urban planners and developers formulated the idea for New Urbanism. This movement began in 1993, and was created by a group of ambitious architects, including Andrés Duany and Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk (“CNU”). The New Urbanism movement’s main goals include building communities to serve as the antidote for suburban sprawl “through the creation of pedestrian-friendly, compact, mixed-use neighborhoods [that will] also rebuild civic life and a sense of community” (“New Urbanism”). These new types of communities are modeled after traditional neighborhoods, with grid-like street patterns and a defined town center. Many convenience stores, schools, grocery stores, etc. are within walking distance to decrease or eliminate the need for cars on a day-to-day basis. Thus far, there are over 600 New Urbanism communities nationwide (Handley). The walkability of New Urbanism communities alone makes them functionally very different from suburban communities. Ample sidewalks encourage community members to walk, and also enable them to interact in organic ways. This, combined with the myriad of town centers, civic buildings, and close-knit grocery and retail stores

Kaiser 6 fosters a much greater sense of community than is ever found in suburbia. The lack of large throughways also greatly decreases the negative impact that the community has on the environment, both in the amount of land it consumes and the amount of emissions that enter the air from the excessive traffic. In addition to the physical change that the New Urbanism movement is enacting on the country, there is an associated cultural shift occurring as well. For example, before World War II, when people resided mainly in cities and central metropolitan areas, there was a deep feeling of connection between neighbors and other close community members. Residents of urban communities of old were interdependent. The organic social interactions that they experienced fostered a certain comfort with depending on one’s peers or fellow community members. After society shifted to the suburbs, however, America became insular. Lacking daily social interactions within our local communities at the hands of roadways and single use zoning, America as a society began to exhibit more tendencies toward privacy and avoidance of neighborly interaction of any kind. This disassociation has played a major role in American society’s inability to efficiently communicate and work together in the small scale and as a whole. That being said, the New Urbanism movement is an opportunity to regain this long-lost community connection. Just like in traditional urban neighborhoods, New Urbanism communities provide residents with means by which they are able to interact. As we see a resurgence in developments like these in America, it is possible that we could also begin to see our culture change back to one in which people are more willingly dependent on one another. It is also very possible that with the popularization of these compact new communities, the white picket fence and sprawling green front yards will

Kaiser 7 lose their spot as the ultimate ideal, that one American dream will not occur at the expense of the environment and community (Gallagher). Rather, society may begin to tend again toward preferring the small town, old-timey, community feel that New Urbanism has to offer. Regardless, the shift from suburban to New Urbanism that occurred at the end of the 20th century and continues to occur today is very reminiscent, and almost an exact reversal of the shift in community development tendencies that occurred in America in the 1950s.

Kaiser 8 Works Cited "Building the Suburbs." Levittown. PA State Museum, n.d. Web. 28 Oct. 2013. <>. "CNU History." Project for Transportation Reform. Congress for the New Urbanism, n.d. Web. 30 Oct. 2013. <>. Duany, Andres, Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk, and Jeff Speck. Suburban Nation: The Rise of Sprawl and the Decline of the American Dream. N.p.: North Point, 2001. Print. Gallagher, Leigh. "The End of the Suburbs." TIME Magazine 31 July 2013: n. pag. TIME. Web. 30 Oct. 2013. <>. Handley, John. "New Urbanism: Old Fashioned Design in for Long Run." Chicago Tribune [Chicago] 30 Mar. 2012: n. pag. Tribune Newspapers. Web. 30 Oct. 2013. <>. Hobbs, Frank, and Nicole Stoops. "Demographic Trends in the 20th Century." Census 2000 Special Reports Nov. 2002: 1-139. Web. 30 Oct. 2013. <>. Leinberger, Christopher B. "The Death of the Fringe Suburb." New York Times [New York] 26 Nov. 2011: n. pag. New York Times. Web. 28 Oct. 2013. <>.

Kaiser 9 "New Urbanism." Encyclopedia of American Urban History. Ed. David Goldfield. Vol. 2. Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE, 2007. 531-41. Gale Virtual Reference Library. Web. 29 Oct. 2013. "Suburbanization." Encyclopedia of American Urban History. Ed. David Goldfield. Vol. 2. N.p.: SAGE, 2007. 776-79. Gale Virtual Reference Library. Web. 28 Oct. 2013.

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