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Wednesday, March 23, 2011

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

In the mid-1990's three respected architects (Andres Duany, Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk, and Jeff Speck of DPZ Architectural Firm) who had been influential in building the Congress of New Urbanism, decided to write down all the aspects of suburban sprawl which made it such a wasteful and psychologically damaging way to build, and contrast that with the ways in which traditional neighborhood structures correct for these mistakes. Those writings would eventually become the book Suburban Nation: The Rise of Sprawl and the Decline of the American Dream, a comprehensive guide to the evils of sprawl and the common beauty of traditional neighborhoods.

Originally published in 2000 to a skeptical architectural community, Suburban Nation has taken a long and winding journey from outsider manifesto to growing acceptance to canonization in the latter part of the last decade. Now, ten years after its first print, the book has been reproduced in a nice 10th Anniversary edition with new forewards by the authors. Largely written by Speck, from the ideas and principals pioneered by Duany and Plater-Zyberk, the prose is easy and concise and filled to the brim with snarky honesty. Speck takes full aim at the main purveyors of sprawl and pulls no punches in explaining how ugly and dysfunctional modern American design is. No one is immune from his pen, architects, designers, zoning boards, politicians, everyday consumers, and developers all get their moment under the heat lamp.

But this is no dry, political manifesto, this is a field guide for a revolution, with pictures, diagrams, and plenty of suggestions for what each an every one of us can do to affect change in our neighborhoods, and cities, and regions. What I liked so much about this book was exactly that, that it didn't simply bemoan the ways that sprawl is ugly and dysfunctional and terrifying, but devoted nearly two thirds of its pages to ways in which traditional design can be fashionable, forward-thinking, beautiful, and profitable.

This is necessary reading for anyone whose spent an hour in traffic, gazing out over the sea of cars and wondering how the hell we got here as a nation. This book is for anyone whose ever wished they could just walk to the supermarket, or walk their child to the playground, or grab a beer with friends without worrying about car accidents and DUI's and blood on the highway. This is the future, if we choose to grab it and make it our own.

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