Monday, December 20, 2010

Dissertation - Readjusting the American City: the American dream and its influence on the suburban way of life

Here is my final year dissertation about the growth of suburbia in the United States. It's long, but it sets the tone for this blog. 


For generations the United States has been the land of opportunity. The nation has been a beacon for millions to escape the bonds of a previous life and start anew. It is a nation constantly striving to be the biggest, the best, and the first. This pioneer spirit pushed westward to unexplored territory, invented the nuclear bomb, and put a man on the moon. On an individual level this spirit is reflected in the loosely defined tenets of the American Dream, which has been at the heart of the nation’s development since the term was coined in 1931, but dreams drove the Puritans in 1630 just as strongly as they did the earliest suburbanites. The American Dream is a mixture of aspirations and goals, some easier to meet than others, but its loose definition guarantees that it means something different to every American. The dream of your own home is an undeniable constant across all walks of life, however. This singular constant has contributed to the relentless growth of suburbia, a wave of single-family homes stretching for miles, one mile very much like the next. Once outlying districts, newer cities such as Los Angeles and Phoenix are nothing but suburbs, with every imaginable activity given its own zone. Across the country, Americans have very little choice but to live in the suburbs, other forms of housing usually nonexistent and often illegal due to local codes. An inescapable element of most Americans’ lives, suburbia is not just a form of city, but a dictator of lifestyle, a sorting machine which compartmentalizes based on perceived identities.

Suburbia is one of the most significant aspects of the American way of life, but from its start it has been criticized by architects, planners, and those in opposition to its monotony as an inappropriate representation of American individuality. Movements such as the New Urbanism have been gathering significance as offering alternatives to suburban America without letting go of the traditional values of the American Dream. Such movements envision American cities wherein community once again plays a role in the American way of life, where ones’ home is not an individual entity but part of a greater whole. These movements acknowledge the automobile’s role today while proposing communities dense enough to make walking a viable option for daily errands. Without a wholesale re-examination of the American city, however, how much of an impact can individual new developments have? Is the American city in need of a few careful adjustments or a more radical approach?

One did not come to the United States to retire, to sit back and let the world pass by unnoticed. No, one came to the United States to do great things, to start a new life. One came full of energy, hope, and ideas. And first and foremost one came with dreams for a better life for themselves and their family. This was a land which promised everything to everyone. Some came for the land and a house, while others for ideals, freedom, and opportunity. But everyone had a dream. One of the world’s youngest nations, early Americans could write their own stories, free of the bonds of their forebears. For John Winthrop and his fellow Puritans, this young new world promised religious paradise. For Martin Luther King Jr. it was racial equality. And for thousands of others this has been a land where “all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.” That, of course, is the idealized promise. That many of those who wrote, witnessed, and signed the Declaration of Independence were themselves a slave owner is an oft dismissed yet uncomfortable fact. The history of the United States is full of such irregularities but also of rapid changes. The United States is a nation which suffered, and continues to suffer, many bumps along its way.

A Uniquely American Dream: understanding the American psyche

Abraham Lincoln was one of the first to publicly define what the United States meant to so many when he said “you can have anything you want if you want it badly enough… if you hold to that desire with singleness of purpose.” The chance to do anything you wanted, to be whomever you wanted to be, has been a guiding ethos for the nation. It was with a surge of patriotism that the young, newly successful playwright Moss Hart suddenly realized that his success “was one that could happen… only in, America.” Writer David Kamp believes that an “invigorating sense of possibility, though it is too often taken for granted, is the great gift of Americanness” (Kamp). This “rags to riches” ideology has been a cornerstone of American society ever since Americans sought solace in Horatio Alger’s uplifting stories at a time of hardship in a rapidly industrializing post-Civil War nation. They identified with Alger’s characters, very much like themselves; normal, everyday people who pulled themselves out of poverty through “industry, perseverance, self-reliance, and self-discipline” (Warshauer).

Both out of choice and necessity, America was founded on the principles of success, fame, and wealth through thrift and hard work. Poor Richard’s Almanack taught that “early to bed, and early to rise, makes a Man healthy, wealthy, and wise” (Warshauer). This Protestant work ethic survives in the minds of most Americans, but it is increasingly clear in the day to day actions of many that hard work has deteriorated significantly as the key to a fulfilling life. With the coming of industrialization and the shift from a rural to urban society, Americans lost their individuality doing monotonous, unskilled labour. Traditional work ethic was worn away as workers felt trapped and no longer responsible for their own fate. Seeing no way out, work began to be seen as a necessary evil rather than an integral part and solution to betterment.

The Dream has always had tumultuous periods, when it could seem distant to all but a few lucky individuals. The dreams of many were dashed when, in 1890, the US Census Bureau declared the end of the frontier. It was an end to the individualistic pursuits of the wild west that had “dominated the thoughts of the poor, the restless, the discontented, the ambitious” (Kamp). The Great Depression followed a period of readily available loans and was a time when very few could attain their dreams. Equally, however, this was a time of reflection. It was after all in 1931 that John Truslow Adams wrote The Epic of America with the aim to discover “what makes this land so unlike other nations, so uniquely American” and in which he coined the term “American Dream.” Instability in Europe led many to see value in the American way of life, even at a time of hardship. President Franklin D. Roosevelt used this atmosphere to promote America’s entrance into World War II. In his 1941 State of the Union address, Roosevelt held up the American way of life as a model for other nations “everywhere in the world.” The United States was to be a global missionary, spreading American values throughout Europe. Perhaps the American way of life would no longer be “uniquely American”?

Roosevelt’s speech inspired Normal Rockwell to paint his iconic Four Freedoms in 1943, an insight into Americans’ idealized views of themselves during the war. The four were based on the essential human rights Roosevelt had identified in his address: freedom of speech, freedom of worship, freedom from want, and freedom from fear. Originally published in the Saturday Evening Post alongside essays, they would later be used by the government in promoting the war effort. These paintings would serve not only as a model for American families but be used globally in propaganda material to spread Americans’ “love of freedom, a feeling for the equality of opportunity” (Kamp).

Upon the end of the war, the stage was set for the idealized way of life to be directly reflected in the form of an idealized way to live. Urban townhouses and apartments were European imports and no longer desirable. The American home could not bear similarity to any other if it was to be reflective of their sense of uniqueness. Returning war veteran Bill Levitt had been involved with efficient production techniques while serving in the Navy, and used this knowledge to convert his family’s homebuilding business into a model of mass production. The first of his new communities was the aptly named Levittown on Long Island, largely considered to be the first postwar suburb upon which others around the country would be based on. Levitt struck gold with Levittown and the suburban model in general. Conditions were perfect as there was a serious housing shortage following decades of recession and the economy was on a quick rebound. It is of little surprise that Levittown was an instant success, with half of all homes sold within two days of the project’s unveiling, and a construction rate of thirty homes per day. Levitt went on to build several more nearly identical communities, and nationwide hundreds of such communities were constructed in a very short time frame. While just 114,000 new homes were constructed in 1944, by 1950 this figure had increased to 1.7 million (Kamp).

With a home suddenly accessible, it was not long before home ownership became a tenet of the American Dream. Mass culture was quick to present the idealized suburb in television shows such as The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet and Leave it to Beaver, both also known as introducing the concept of the suburban teenage upbringing and the suburbs as the place to raise a family. Suburban teenagers were presented as leading carefree, pleasure-seeking lifestyles with plenty of freedom and open space. Most significantly, however, teenagers were eager consumers. They had not lived through the Great Depression and therefore never experienced hardship and thrift. They sought social inclusion through purchasing power. Soon car and television ownership made their way onto the prerequisite list for the American Dream. As the list expanded, “keeping up with the Joneses” became an important facet of the Dream. The first credit card in 1958 ensured that this wasn’t a particularly difficult task for millions of Americans. By the 1980’s, the Dream had begun to take on “hyperbolic connotations” (Kamp). Television families such as portrayed in The Cosby Show and Dynasty were undeniably wealthy. Suddenly a home, car, television, and college were no longer enough. The Dream now demanded wealth and fame. One couldn’t just keep up with the Joneses; one had to be the Joneses, setting the standards for others to follow. The Dream has become a moving target, always out of reach, forcing people to set unachievable goals. In a 2006 poll, 54 percent of respondents viewed the Dream as out of reach, based on their own definition of what constituted the Dream ( Despite having greater material wealth than ever before, a decreasing amount of the population believes they live the Dream and unhappiness is on the rise. This, surely, is not indicative of a sustainable culture. But what is this Dream and why is it so elusive?

The Founding Fathers’ dreams most certainly did not include a home, a car, or any material object. The young Colonies were on the brink of a revolutionary war that would test the dedication of these men. They were highly-educated, wealthy members of society who had travelled widely. Fighting a war could risk everything. They had to sacrifice their material wealth and security, and some their lives, for a cause they considered of greater importance. Their American Dream was freedom and independence, a dream based on ideals and principles. Today the Dream is something entirely different. It is a dream equated with things; it has “undergone a metamorphosis from principles to materialism” (Nestler). The Dream has always been reflective of contemporary culture, of the spirit of the age. What then does today’s materialist Dream say of contemporary America?

President Barack Obama has warned of a decreasing standard of living for an indefinite period of time, a concept which would be hard to imagine just a few decades ago, when the country always seemed to be on the up. A downward spiral is difficult for many to comprehend and could spell the collapse of the American Dream. But equally the current tide may be not so much a collapse as a correction, a readjustment of expectations. Rather than always expect a rising standard, it would be far more sustainable to be satisfied with a high quality yet steady, continually revolving standard. Every American has a right to expect a home, car, and a good education but the number and size of each of these should not always be expected to increase. The United States is entering a mood of change the outcome of which is difficult to predict. Undoubtedly it will be this generation’s most difficult period.

The Dream City: the growth of suburbia

The story of the American city is largely that of the American Dream. It is a story of constant longing and dissatisfaction. Starting with early explorers, pilgrims, and other socially distanced groups, and on through Pioneers pushing westward, the history of the United States is one of struggle, independence, and a fight for identity. The hopes and desires inherent in the American Dream have been fluid, adapting to the population at any given time. Throughout history, however, one constant has not changed. All rhetoric and idealism aside, the American Dream is a quest for a single family home on a large plot of land. Certainly there are perceived values attached to an American life that spring out of the Dream, but a home is the foundation, and has been since long before the term “American Dream” was popularized. Spurred by “manifest destiny”, the belief that the United States was to stretch from coast to coast, early Pioneers ventured westward into previously unoccupied and often hostile land with dreams of escaping the cities of New England, of starting a new life. “Those who endured the arduous overland travel to settle in the West found their answer to the American Dream - a house which became their home and some land on which they could become self-reliant” (Doty). It is “visions of future joys” (Brooks, 31) with which Americans are filled. Whereas old civilizations such as Europe had well-established cultures and traditions, they were often densely populated and stifled by social mechanisms such as class. In a young America, the Pioneer could be free of these bonds. He was drawn to areas with no history, to areas where he could stake his claim and write his own cultures and traditions. 

At first glance the Pioneer spirit seems to live on in modern day America. In 2002, 14.2% of the population relocated, compared to 8% in the UK, and 4% in the Netherlands and Germany (Brooks, 28). By the time of the 2000 census, more Americans were living in suburbs than in central cities and rural areas combined (Blauvelt, 10) and over 90% of new home construction is likewise in the suburbs (Dunham-Jones, 147). There is much debate regarding the present state and future of suburbs, and indeed to decipher their seeming popularity in the face of much criticism. Regardless of designers’ and academics’ opinions regarding suburbia, Americans are still overwhelmingly choosing suburbs as places to buy a home and raise their families. The dream of a single family home is simply too strong for most homebuyers to instead choose a more urban environment, and even if they wanted to, most cities do not offer a viable alternative. Walker Art Center design director Andrew Blauvelt believes many suburbia theses ignore the most powerful element of suburbs, “its symbolism and the idealism associated with it” (Blauvelt, 12). Quite plainly, people choose to live there. The popularity of suburbs can be traced first, of course, to the American Dream, but it was at the end of the 19th century that the pattern of migration from urban to suburban would start, first with the wealthier classes escaping to larger homes in the country. Electric street cars opened the way for the suburbanization of the middle classes, creating large suburban areas such as Westchester County in the state of New York. These early waves of suburbanites were dissatisfied with life in often crowded, noisy, and dirty inner-cities. The suburbs promised a larger home, better schools, and a safer and greener environment to raise a family. This first wave of growth would continue until the Great Depression, when loans for homes were no longer available. Very little new construction occurred until after the end of World War II, when the nation experienced a sense of euphoria.

The end of the war meant a new beginning for many. The economy had finally recovered and the United States emerged as a world superpower. Once again the population had money to spend and an influx of veterans created an acute housing shortage. In response, the Federal Housing Administration (FHA) launched policies which “explicitly encouraged, through tax incentives and mortgage policies, the construction of new single-family homes rather than multifamily housing types” (Dutton, 50). There was a “widely-held belief” by civic leaders that new homes guaranteed a greater sense of civic responsibility and community pride and therefore a more stable society (50). Society was only too happy to oblige. The suburbs satisfied “long-suppressed desires and demands, especially following decades of Depression-era hardship and wartime sacrifice” (Postrel, 102). Large scale housing developments offered a practical solution to the housing shortage and were easy to implement due to readily available loans and land. To Americans, their own home offered the “potential fulfillment of more abstract and personal longings, such as self-determination and socioeconomic security” (102). New homeowners still had vivid images of growing up during the Great Depression, and for many this was all they ever knew. Suddenly the American Dream was within their grasp.

There was scarcely time to consider the move. And why should they have? From all outward appearances, the suburbs were a far superior place to live, far from the hardships of city slums or Dust Bowl-ridden Great Plains. Consequently, however, the popularity of suburbs has unleashed many negatives into the American way of life. Great swaths of monotonous homes were built, one very much like the other. The independent spirit of American communities has been eroded away. Across the nation there are very few variations between the many new subdivisions, bar the occasional local adaptation. Of a staggering 1.8 million new homes built in the United States in 2003, 30% were a variant of a single floor plan (Dunham-Jones, 151). It would be easy to blame this monotony on undemanding consumers. In reality, however, the financial and construction industries have carefully orchestrated this trend. Large housing developments are funded by Wall Street-based Real Estate Investment Trusts (REITS), which only fund building types which have proven reliable sellers in the past (149). A return on their investment is their only concern. Long-term effects or local consequences do not figure in the equation. Such a system has left little room for non-standard developments, as well as making subdivision homes much less expensive than those which are privately built. This has resulted in what writer Virginia Postrel calls a “geography of nowhere”. In her opinion, “when every place looks the same, there is no such thing as place anymore” (Postrel, 70). A nation once known for its diversity has become increasingly standardized.

As a consequence of large areas containing the same building types and sold at very similar prices, suburbs have become some of the least socially diverse areas in the world. Any given neighborhood is likely to be inhabited by people “of the same class, the same income, the same age group, witnessing the same television performances, eating the same tasteless prefabricated foods, from the same freezers, conforming in every outward and inward respect”, in the words of historian Lewis Mumford (Wlodarczyk, 129). Based on her experience of living in New York City, Jane Jacobs identified diversity as one of the key elements to a healthy city (Jacobs). She found joy in the seemingly insignificant events of a city that as a whole contributed to a thriving community for all ages and social classes. Imagine taking this close-knit puzzle and compressing it outwards, separating each of the city’s elements. That is the modern-day American city. Urban sprawl stretching as far as the eye can see and residential areas compartmentalized based on class, race, gender, and age, with shopping areas elsewhere, and workplaces further still. Once again this is no mere coincidence or demand of the American people.

Whereas traditional cities contain buildings of similar sizes yet different uses, modern city zoning codes dictate single-use areas, thereby requiring automobile travel between activities. This has conditioned people to drive everywhere. The problem is that these single-use areas are often accessible only in limited ways. As their respective cities grow, road arteries become traffic-clogged to the point that they become unusable. Even expanding the roads doesn’t help. It only further encourages road use, and in a system which offers no escape from the automobile, traffic is inevitable. Frustrated residents often relocate from such areas, effectively signing a death warrant. This pattern is repeated at the new location (Duany). This is clearly not a sustainable pattern and is not conducive to a healthy community.

Many Europeans will be familiar with the sort of tight-knit community prevalent in small villages and towns. New England towns in the United States were much the same until the advent of suburbia. The typical square grid small town, with amenities close by, and white picket fences, is now largely extinct. It is not only city activities that have split apart under the onslaught of suburbia. Most suburban neighborhoods have extremely wide roads, again something dictated by city codes. These codes have scarcely changed since the 1950’s, and are closely tied to the idea that wide streets would be easily accessible by heavy equipment in the aftermath of nuclear war (Kunstler, 114). Homes in the suburbs usually have large setbacks from the road and are far apart from each other. All this adds up to a very distant feeling, of individual elements rather than one whole. Standing on ones’ front porch feels like standing at one end of a very large room rather than a cozy, humanely scaled space.

The suburbs have forced on the American people an environment wherein they cannot interact with each other, where they must be sole individuals rather than part of a greater whole. With residents driving everywhere, there is very little opportunity for spontaneous social interaction, especially as city centres, or downtowns, have also vanished. Thus Americans cannot meet in their neighborhoods or anywhere else in town, unless they specifically want to. Urban planner Andrés Duany sees the country as strictly divided between public and private space. In general Americans feel comfortable in their homes, country clubs, and golf courses, but the public realm is seen as traffic-clogged and stressful and Americans do not like public transport (Duany). The country has become a place of vested interests, of private activities.

It is difficult to say whether the conditions of today’s suburbia are reflective of American society or that suburbia modified American society. Certainly there are strong cases for both. The United States has always been a deeply fragmented nation, not at all the “melting pot” frequently referred to. Intermarriage between whites and non-whites was still illegal in many states until 1967 (Hollinger). To this day race plays a large role in marriage. While Black Americans make up 13.5% of the total population, only 4.6% of their marriages were with white partners in 2007 (Fryer). There is growing interest in American academia as regards to whiteness, and the historical importance of white identity and privilege in the development of the nation. Certain Nativist movements have even differentiated between Anglo-Saxon, Protestant immigrants and those from Southern and Eastern Europe, often Catholics and Jews. The Immigration Act of 1924 encouraged immigrants from Northern and Western Europe and completely prohibited Asian immigrants.  White identity has also played a pivotal role in the development of suburbia. As minority groups have historically had lower incomes than whites, it was more difficult for them to follow whites into the suburbs, in a trend known as white flight. Certain racist practices among mortgage lenders and neighborhood covenants further disadvantaged non-whites, preventing Black Americans from moving to the suburbs regardless if they could afford it (Jackson). Even federally guaranteed mortgages were often exclusive to whites.

The process of white flight accelerated the rate of urban decay in inner cities and made them increasingly undesirable places to live. As higher income white residents left, cities’ tax bases were devastated, leading to a loss of infrastructure and lower quality services. Notable examples of white flight include Detroit, Michigan, whose inner city today is over 80% black ( Cultural changes are an ongoing process in the American social fabric. From various religious pilgrims during the Colonial era to displaced Native Americans, and later masses of immigrant groups from throughout the world, the country never had time to integrate the multitude of changes taking place. In the grand scheme of history, the Civil War was not so long ago and rifts between the north and south of the country are still very much alive. Tensions between racial groups have recently been suppressed but are still common. These issues have existed since long before the concept of suburbia, but suburbs have amplified the separation. They are a physical manifestation of issues that were once just palpable.

The development of suburbs closely parallels that of the destruction of inner cities, an event triggered by the passing of the Public Utility Holding Company Act of 1935, an antitrust law which essentially forced many electricity providers to sell their streetcar businesses. More often than not they were bought by National City Lines, a holding company whose major investors included GM and other companies involved in automobiles. More than 100 streetcar systems across the nation were thus dismantled between 1936 and 1950 and replaced with GM buses (Kwitny). With their public transport system in shatters, Americans were all but forced into automobiles, “the agent of chaos, the breaker of the city” (Scully, 131). With everyone in automobiles, old city centres were deemed to be unsuitable with their narrow streets and frequent intersections. As in England, grand civil engineering projects were planned to adapt cities to the automobile, often with little regard to existing conditions. Perhaps the most famous of these projects were in New York City, completed under Robert Moses. His Parkways cut through residential areas of Long Island and some of the densest neighborhoods in the city. The Cross Bronx Expressway is largely regarded as having irreparably destroyed the South Bronx, eliminating entire neighborhoods and splitting the area in two. A self-confessed fan of the automobile, his projects were supported by Le Corbusier and Mies van der Rohe, and always favored private over public transport. Moses finally lost political clout in the early 1960’s, at around the same time as historical preservation began to gain prominence. Had he continued, an expressway would have cut through the heart of Greenwich Village and SoHo (, today among the most vibrant of Manhattan’s neighbourhoods.

While Manhattan may have escaped the worst of post-war urban planning, many cities across the nation did not fare so well. New Haven, Boston, Los Angeles, Milwaukee, Cleveland, and Seattle are just a few of the many cities with freeways that cut through the heart of their downtowns. Often the freeways were part of an overall regeneration plan, relocating entire neighborhoods before demolishing them and constructing new high-rises in their stead. Rather ironically, these freeways were often meant to help save downtown areas. Residents had already started moving away to the suburbs, but it was hoped that freeways would more easily enable them to drive into the downtown area for business and shopping. Instead the reverse took place. Businesses and shopping followed the population into the suburbs, thereby increasing the pace of the downtown’s demise. Shopping malls were sited near freeways and office parks sprang up in the suburbs. With downtowns drained of their life, the heart of the city was gone. As a result of this shift, today most cities do not have a clearly defined centre. They are in essence like a tornado or hurricane, empty in the middle but wrecking havoc ever outward. A civic leader of the city of Irvine has stated he first “missed the city not having a core” because in his youth “you went downtown. But downtown… is an idea whose time has come and gone. We have many cores now” (Forsyth, 73). Today Irvine residents identify with the shopping centre, business park, university, and beach, but Irvine is a classic example of a large scale private development composed of “small projects over short time frames that end up often with fragmented and uncoordinated results” (Forsyth, 279). There is no evidence to suggest that residents prefer this form of city. The civic leader’s observation would suggest a reluctant acceptance rather than a preference.

With the middle classes in the suburbs, urban blight is common in such major cities as Philadelphia and Baltimore. Once thriving downtown communities are now ghettos. One of the most poignant and unfortunate examples is Des Moines, Iowa. Nearly the entire downtown area was razed in the 1960’s to be replaced with what Princeton professor Mario Gandelsonas calls a giant office park. Very few historical structures survive (Gandelsonas, 36). Cities today cater to the automobile, and not even small towns are immune. Saying of his hometown of Saratoga Springs, New York (population 26,000), author James Howard Kunstler describes it as “one big automobile storage depot that incidentally contains other things” (Kunstler, 135). Over the past few decades he has witnessed his hometown lose its small town feel and morph into a strip mall.

Suburbia has long been a worldwide phenomenon. As with music and film, it is one of the many exports the United States has proliferated with the spread of globalization. Yes it is true that the concept of suburbia arguably originated in England during the late 19th century, but in England suburbia has never come to dominate everyday life. A quickly growing population and the popularity of the automobile in the United States guaranteed suburbs a quick foothold. Whereas suburbs in England and in much of the world remain outlying districts of larger cities, American suburbs are often entities of their own, self-sufficient and isolated from a larger city. Furthermore, English suburbs, especially older ones, are well integrated into the fabric of their city via public transport. The automobile is by and large the only form of transportation in an American city, both by choice and necessity.

The now ubiquitous American way of life may be one of the most vulnerable aspects of America, in particular the suburban lifestyle. Suburbia evolved out of the expectation of unlimited economic gains and boundless resources, the belief in everlasting cheap energy and oil. The stereotypical American slogan of “bigger is better” is reflected in national building trends. The average home size more than doubled between 1950 and 2005, from 900 to 2400 square feet (84/223 square meters)(Blauvelt, 13). Such growth is out of step with the realities of American demographics. Increasing numbers of the population now live alone and the standard family arrangement of a married couple with children is also on the decline. Urban planner Peter Calthorpe sees this ironically reflected in the development of cities, with isolated families living in isolated suburbs approached in isolated cars. Suburbs, he believes, “seem to have an empty feeling, reinforcing our mobile state and the instability of our families” (Katz, xi). The American Dream is out of sync with today’s culture, and increasingly expensive energy is making large homes an unaffordable luxury. By encouraging private home ownership, the Dream has become a victim of its own success, creating unmanageable suburbs and an increasingly distanced society. Suburbia and the large single-family home are reflective of a disappearing America.

Economist and theorist Richard Florida is deeply critical of the American Dream’s insistence for a private home. In an increasingly globalized and mobile economy, with much of the population frequently relocating with or in search of jobs, real estate can limit options. Especially during poor economic times when selling a home is difficult, ownership can be an anchor. Creative economies demand flexibility, which includes mobile workers (Florida, 142). Considering that Americans relocate more often than those in any other industrialized nation, renting should be more popular but is still seen as undesirable. An acceptance that a private detached home may no longer be a necessary aspect of the American Dream would liberate millions from the stresses of home ownership and free the workforce from a specific location.

Living the Dream: growing up in suburban America

I grew up in Columbus, Indiana, a small town of approximately 40,000 inhabitants. Doubtless the experience is very different from that of growing up in a suburb of a large metropolitan area. However, the very pattern of suburban development means that the lifestyle is very similar regardless of the size of the host city. Home sizes and land plots are roughly the same in most developments, in all parts of the country. Neighborhood clusters have roughly the same amount of homes. One of the few differences between a large and small city is the quantity of these clusters. Apart from that, one must still drive everywhere, the town “centre” consists of big box chain stores, and the high school will have 1-2,000 students. My daily drive to school was four miles along a four lane road past neighborhoods very much like my own, occasionally interspersed by a petrol station, big box chain store, and agricultural land. It took about 11 minutes and would be difficult to accomplish by walking due to the lack of pavement along any of its length. The only alternative to driving was the school bus, but this was shared with middle school children and therefore undesirable as well as being social taboo.

The American city long ago abandoned preconceived notions of what a city is, standards which had developed over thousands of years of human evolution. Much as the Modernist movement denied the past, so too did the American city. By drastically changing its form into low density developments connected by automobiles, daily lifestyles and habits were forced to adapt. The constant need to drive everywhere is a serious social hindrance. Spontaneous social interactions are largely nonexistent bar the rare case of living in close proximity to a friend. My high school’s district spanned from one end of Columbus to the other, spanning several miles. I lived on the eastern edge of the district while many of my friends lived far west. From my Prairie Streams subdivision to my friends’ Tipton Lakes homes required a drive of about 25 minutes. Living in London today, one has an entirely different perspective on scale and density. From my flat in North London, that kind of distance takes me clear across the Thames into the outer boroughs, encompassing millions of residents.

Social interactions in Columbus were further complicated by the lack of social gathering places within town. Outside of school, friends rarely met except in their homes, and even then it was difficult to forge a sense of independence as parents were usually close by. The constant need to calculate a meeting with a friend beforehand could become tiresome and often resulted in inactivity, likely one of the explanations for television’s high popularity. For many, it was a far easier choice to stay at home and watch television than to organize a social event around seemingly busy schedules at opposite ends of town. It could be equally tiresome to feel forced to drive.

The idea that a personal automobile is a prerequisite of individual freedom has always been worrisome. Often, the exact opposite is true. Americans’ dependence on the automobile has trapped them into a world where it is impossible to live without one. In a dense city with public transportation, one always has a choice, another option besides just the automobile. Choices are liberating and offer different things to different people. In Columbus, growing up, it was always frustrating to have to rely on one’s parents for mobility and upon reaching driving age, the popular saying was that you needed a job to buy a car and then needed the car to drive to the job. In adult life this is mirrored in the constant struggle to achieve the various elements of the American Dream: a car, a home, college, and fame. The American way of life offers only linear opportunities, a well traversed path of socially acceptable successes. It is difficult not to feel trapped and among the middle classes it is difficult to find those who have not traversed life in a linear fashion: high school, college, career, kids, and retirement. Linearity is a theme of the American suburb. The constant quest to compartmentalize based on race, class, gender, race, and age, and dividing the city into linear activities such as residential, shopping, and working areas connected by straight, wide roads.

Especially for the youth of the nation, suburbia dictates that a lack of an automobile is a serious deterrent to movement. Until one has an automobile, a parent would have to drive their kids to a friend’s home, the origin of the “soccer mom.” As more women enter the workforce, this arrangement is not always guaranteed. The automobile is not just an entry to freedom for American teenagers but a necessary social tool in a nation where nearly everything is beyond the reach of those without one. The automobile has become so ingrained in the daily lives of most Americans, even a short journey can warrant a drive. One of my neighbours drove to pick up his mail from the street postbox, a distance spanning at most two homes or around 100 meters. It is little wonder this man was not in the best health. This extreme example is reflective of the kind of lifestyle that many Americans have become conditioned to in the suburbs, unable to perform menial tasks without a car. It is hard to imagine, however, that anyone would choose this kind of lifestyle, given the choice.

Americans often cite their college experience as the best years of their life. College campuses are vital environments, thriving with activity and packed with events. They are dense, and private automobiles are often disallowed for freshmen, necessitating everything being in walking distance. They are, in fact, a lot like a traditional New England town. At college, students have easy access to their friends and campuses are full of spontaneous interactions. Unfortunately, this lifestyle does not carry over into their adult lives. As with current urban planning methods such as zoning, college is compartmentalized into a select few years of life. Colleges are some of the last remaining examples of thriving communities in the United States, places where life is palpable. Despite the nation’s drastically increased population, lowered density has drawn people further from each other, both physically and figuratively.

Solutions: the movement against suburbia

The American city, more specifically suburbia, dictates the lives of its inhabitants more than any other due to its artificial nature as a result of policies favoring automobiles and profits over those of citizens. They are not organic forms, not evolved to the needs of their inhabitants. The American city is a superficial reflection of the American people and their culture, forcing upon them certain specific lifestyle choices over which they have very little to say and which are difficult to avoid. But the American city is not beyond change. The American people can still be offered choices over how they wish to live their lives, choices which value them as individuals capable of making their own decisions and respect their desires for community and social interaction. There are certain promising movements in the United States which aim to address the many serious deficiencies in the American way of life.

In as poor a condition as many American cities find themselves, it is heartening to know that a growing number of the population, including architects, planners, and politicians, have identified the issues and are taking steps to counter the decline. Every individual will have developed their own ideals as to what constitutes their ideal living conditions, and so it is that the counter movement is not as much a rationalized, conscious response to measured problems, but more a result of gut feeling. The baby boomer generation, the most influential politically and economically, is the last to still harbour memories of life before suburbia. They will have heard stories from their parents about strong communities in small New England towns. And to a certain extent, each individual has their own innate feelings of right or wrong, what feels right and what does not. Especially at a time of increasing energy worries, it is not difficult to convince even skeptics of suburbia’s shortcomings. It is not desirable to lead a life which requires a large polluting machine to travel between the most basic of errands. A life in which walking is almost optional. A life in which hundreds of hours each year are spent enclosed in the metal of an automobile. America is waking up to its unsustainable choices and decades of mistakes are coming under increasing scrutiny.

The American planning system is not one of gut feeling or passions. Towns and cities are a haphazard composition born out of tightly controlled codes and zoning slowly adapted over decades to reflect the desires of various government departments. The result is an unharmonious system completely biased toward an automobile lifestyle. Neither is there a harmonious approach to what makes good cities. Various small details are dealt with in exacting scale but there is not a holistic oversight, no acknowledgement of those who would like to live an alternative, automobile-free lifestyle. Despite the passionate pleas of Jane Jacobs to save American cities, she was not an architect, planner, or politician. However convincing a writer, her words rang hollow among the planning elite, still infatuated with the automobile. To counter such an established, rigid system, would require more than passionate words, but rather a fight on equal terms, using rules, codes, and zones. Neither could a counter movement ignore the suburbs entirely, as they do represent the living condition of the majority of the population. Suburbia is as much a part of contemporary America as the terrace was to 19th century England. Any new system would have to accept this condition while aiming for higher density development. Jane Jacob’s intervention was the first of a long line of influential voices, among them architect Leon Krier. In 1991, the Local Government Commission invited architects and planners already involved in city issues such as Peter Calthorpe and Andrés Duany to develop community guidelines for planning. These were presented to local governments throughout the country as the Ahwahnee Principles. Many of these same leaders would form the Congress for the New Urbanism, or CNU, in 1993.

Today, the CNU represents the largest counter group in the country, with over 3,000 members responsible for hundreds of projects in dozens of states. New Urbanism takes as its premise that cities cannot be changed through the vision of any one individual. Most importantly, it is a professional organization which understands that major planning shortcomings are not a result of ignorance or incompetence on the part of the professions but in the laws under which they operate. Current laws in many parts of the country make it impossible to design attractive, walking friendly communities with mixed uses. Architectural historian Vincent Scully sees architecture as “fundamentally a matter not of individual buildings but of the shaping of community, and that… is done by the law” (Scully, 354). Scully cites Baron Haussmann’s plan for Paris as a systemic regeneration whose strengths lie in the composition of its boulevards, in the harmony of its architecture. Haussmann used monuments and landmarks to great effect in defining his streets. As controversial as the plan was, it updated Paris to be the envy of the world.

Scully himself grew up in New Haven, Connecticut, a city known for Yale University. Scully knows what it means to grow up in a community where one could walk to the shop and bicycle to school. A lifelong resident, he witnessed the city’s transformation from a historical college town into a jumble of malls and highways, sacrificing many neighborhoods in the process. To him this was an unfortunate reflection of modernist planning principles, because as he saw it, architects such as Wright, Le Corbusier, Mies, Gropius, and their followers “all despised the traditional city” (344). Another famed historian, Kennenth Frampton, shares this view, stating that the “reductivism of the Modern Movement has played a salient role in the wholesale destruction of urban culture” (Frampton, 290). Today Scully still lives in a modest home in one of the city’s few surviving historical neighborhoods. An avid supporter of New Urbanism, to him it represents “a revival of the classical and vernacular planning tradition as it existed before International-style modernism perverted its methods and objectives” (Scully, 350). He sees the real challenge in shaping the city centre “into the kind of place most Americans want to live in” (354), which at present does appear to be a low-rise, suburban type environment.

The tenets of New Urbanism mainly deal with community defining spatial elements, such as narrow streets with minimum building setbacks lined with trees to create a well-defined outdoor space. Streets form grids to offer more than one route to any destination and to prevent any one route dominating local traffic. Cul-de-sacs are banned. Other tenets focus on social issues, such as the proximity of playgrounds and walking distances to shops and schools. Some of the most difficult elements to implement due to local planning laws are ancillary buildings such as garage apartments, something Duany sees as critical in creating mixed neighbourhoods not limited to a single social class (Duany). New Urbanism believes in mixed-use communities with a variety of social classes, accomplished by encouraging a variety of home types such as rowhouses and apartments, a rarity in suburbia. Some or all of these tenets have been applied to new communities with mixed results.

One of the first and most well known New Urbanism communities is Seaside on Florida’s west coast. Master planned by Andrés Duany and Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk and their Miami firm DPZ, Seaside was widely publicized and served as a demonstration model for New Urbanism. The picture perfect development was for DPZ a test case of a code enforced development, a code which established both planning and architectural guidelines (Mohney, 46). As with most subsequent communities, Seaside dictated the width of roads, the distance between buildings, setbacks, and even the type of windows. A belief of New Urbanism is that people care about their communities if there is a well defined hierarchy between private and public space, a dialogue wherein the duty of care is evident. Much as traditional old towns, Seaside has a main street with shops and restaurants, and residential streets branching off from the centre. As a model for a community, however, Seaside is fundamentally flawed. Based on the premise that such a development was a radical departure from the norm, it is not a full time town but a holiday resort with homes rented for a weekend or week. Only a small minority live in Seaside year round. For all its awards and accolades, Seaside was not the penultimate alternative to suburbia, white picket fences notwithstanding.

Since Seaside, however, a number of high profile New Urbanism communities have been established. Kentlands, Maryland, I’on Village, South Carolina, and Stapleton, Colorado are notable examples. These communities are well liked by residents and homes have higher property values than adjacent communities (Bruegmann, 259). Their popularity can be traced to their New Urbanism elements but it undoubtedly helps that they are generally more up market than the competition. They have been less successful, however, in integrating various social classes, largely due to their higher prices and the difficulty in convincing local governments to allow ancillary buildings. It is still unclear to what extent these developments change the lifestyles of their residents, but thus far they have proven to be no less automobile dependant than other suburban subdivisions. And therein lies the problem. New Urbanism has not yet impacted the planning system to such a degree that it influences the planning of entire cities. These developments have not been integrated in parallel with a complete rethink of the American city. They are still suburbs, albeit catering to populist, pastoral urges. None of them features a public transportation system, largely a result of governments’ lacking investment (Garvin, 337).

Existing examples of New Urbanism simply do not go far enough, being neither replicas of a traditional town or something entirely new, but rather a mild improvement of postwar suburbia. The American city needs more than mild improvements. Drastic measures must be taken if they are to be sustainable, healthy places to live. It is of course essential to tackle small-scale communities as New Urbanism does, but far more essential are extensive regional masterplans of the type that Peter Calthorpe is involved with. Crucially, his plans always centre around public transportation nodes, which must be embraced if the nation is to reduce its reliance on automobiles and automobile centric planning. At present the United States lacks impetus for serious change. There are no central figures, no contemporary Robert Moses, despite the serious peril of cities such as Detroit and Cleveland.

In its nearly two decades, New Urbanism has failed to be little more than the “lesser evil,” an intermediate step for those who have never known a lifestyle beyond postwar suburbia. By identifying with traditional architecture, the movement has alienated a large majority of the profession, and it has failed to move beyond the American tradition of always starting anew. With a few exceptions, New Urbanism ignores the vast amount of existing conditions. Inner city brownfield sites represent some of the best opportunities and potential for change in places with existing infrastructure and close proximity to city centres. Sociologist Robert Putnam believes New Urbanism is “an ongoing experiment to see whether our community life outweighs our hunger for private backyards, discounted megamalls, and easy parking” (Wasik, 161). It can be hoped that community does still matter. Surveys among homebuyers suggest it is still a prime concern.

Especially at the time of the internet’s expansion, there was much talk about working from home, but it would be unfortunate if this concept were to expand, for spontaneous interactions with other people are an essential part of a viable life and a necessity for innovation. Concentrations of certain groups of people support cultural institutions and events, making the introverted theme of suburbia an even greater concern. A keen observer of humanity for many decades, architectural visionary Paolo Soleri is pessimistic about society’s prospects, observing in the 21st century man a desire to escape from others, a subconscious fear of social interaction. “Individuals”, he says, “believe they can reach a level of self-sufficiency that can isolate them, or their family, in an ideal place. Then they somehow expect the civilization that has made them to serve them. It’s a parasitic kind of life” (Rose). If the United States is to rely on suburbia, their culture is destined to languish, or at best to place all cultural relevance in the hands of a few remaining cities, thus ignoring the vast majority of the population. Suburbs isolate whole swaths of the population into modes of life where they have very little opportunity to experience and influence culture and society. It is little wonder the average American relies so heavily on television as their window onto the world, and explains the many similar behavioral patterns present in social interactions. Abandoning the suburbs for denser, less automobile dependent forms of living is an environmental, social, and cultural necessity and bold, for some painful, steps will have to be taken. Soleri adds: “we need to reformulate, rather than simply reform, our strategy for civilization.”


It is not often that a nation is forced to reevaluate the very core of its principles, but such a task now faces the United States. Ever since World War II, Americans have been the world’s greatest consumers of natural resources and the greatest polluters. This attitude is reflected by the penchant for suburbia. Americans live on average in the largest homes on large plots of land. It is the American Dream embodied or at least the contemporary understanding of the Dream as a materialist ambition. The world over, the American way of life is to many a source of envy, while to others it is reflective of a selfish, irresponsible, and even vulgar mindset. One certainty, however, is that suburbia is an unsustainable form of city, bankrupting many state governments no longer able to afford maintaining such a low density built environment. The current economic crisis has caused many to question their lifestyle choices, little surprise considering many large suburban homes are occupied by just one individual. Today, many of these homes stand empty, unable to be paid for or unable to be sold, but either way suburban developments have rarely been more threatened. The American Dream demands more, more, more, but it didn’t take long for cracks to appear as this materialist mindset has failed to deliver enjoyable cities and satisfying lifestyles.

If anything, suburbia and the American Dream have caused Americans to lose sight of what they value most. Traditional family values have eroded away and community is an enigma. Millions of Americans try to cling to the last vestiges of community through social or church groups, but, like many aspects of the American city, this is a desperate, artificial bid, just another form of compartmentalization. The little joys in life such as random, frequent, and spontaneous social interactions elude the suburban resident.

It is encouraging to see organizations such as the Congress for the New Urbanism identifying the flaws in suburbia and forming a strong initiative to better cities, but it is disheartening that in its nearly 20 years it has failed to infiltrate mainstream planning practice. Developments just as poor as ever are still being constructed across the country. Barack Obama has been called the first urban President of the United States due to his urban Chicago background but the economic climate and issues such as healthcare have left little time to tackle urban reform, which is more often than not seen as a periphery yet controversial issue. Projects such as high speed rail have been given trivial amounts of funding and focus on inter-city travel rather than the far more pressing issue of intra-city public transport. More local public transport is necessary if higher-density developments are to succeed. The task will not be easy nor will it yield instant results, but a long-term development strategy would be a first step for many communities, as too often short term gains eclipse all others.

Unless solutions for suburbia are tackled soon, it could well be a situation of too little too late. Americans must stop being so defensive in protecting their suburban lifestyle, and they must distance themselves from the notion that suburbia is part of the American identity. Americans were no less American before the suburbs came along. On the contrary, those in favour of urban reform are some of the most patriotic Americans who have a strong desire to see their cities thriving, enjoyable places to live. The United States is not synonymous with suburbia. In the suburbs Americans cannot be themselves but are slaves to the automobile and distanced from each other. That is not America. America is bold, friendly people unashamed to be themselves and eager to try new things. Those are the qualities American cities must reflect, something planners must be unafraid to strive for. They must cast away the certainties they have worked within for decades, and not take the automobile for granted. A bold America unafraid to try new things and not tied down to a form of living. Winston Churchill said “you can always count on Americans to do the right thing - after they’ve tried everything else.” The great suburban experiment is over.


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