The American Prospect
June 18, 2001
BY JOANNA MARETH
How Cities Work: Suburbs, Sprawl, and the Road Not Taken, by Alex Marshall.
University of Texas Press, 243 pages, $ 24.95.
Celebration, Florida, is a picturesque town built from the ground up by the Walt Disney Corporation and planners Andres Duany and Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk, pioneers of New Urbanism. By some measures, Celebration is a success. It has a thriving downtown retail district and homes that sell for seven times what similarly sized houses in neighboring towns go for. What it doesn’t have, according to Alex Marshall in How Cities Work, is any real claim to urbanism, new or old.
Marshall, a journalist based in Norfolk, Virginia, picks out four places with little in common — California’s Silicon Valley; Jackson Heights, Queens; Portland, Oregon; and Celebration — for his study of the interplay of forces that determine the shape of cities and towns. In each instance, he shows how the public’s decisions and money are the most important variables in creating urban places. It is government, he emphasizes, that ultimately shapes cities by building the transportation systems that form the skeleton of any place. Rails, ports, interstates, and airports support the flow of goods and capital, while sidewalks, subways, and highways determine how people get around once they’ve arrived.
Silicon Valley, to take one example, may look like a hastily strung-together collection of supersize office parks and shopping developments. But governmental entities made zoning decisions, built mass transit, and stretched country roads into six-lane highways and suburban boulevards. Each decision requires trade-offs. Places with good public-transportation systems are rarely easy to navigate by car, as anyone living in a city like Boston can attest.
What Marshall finds in Celebration is a modern-day automobile subdivision that has been pinched and pulled to resemble small-town America, at least as it exists in popular imagination. But like most contemporary suburban developments, Celebration is dependent on the nearby interstate highway. The dynamics of such a place have not made Marshall into an enthusiast for New Urbanism. “Celebration and most New Urban developments,” he writes, “will remain winking ornaments on the more gritty reality of American urban life, make-believe worlds that, like Disney’s theme parks, lure a public and society
away from addressing the challenges such developments advertise with their image.” New Urbanism’s “have your cake and eat it too” approach should not be confused with real urban policy, which requires tough choices and the involvement of not-so-tidy institutions of democracy, as opposed to the top-down plans of well-oiled corporations.
Marshall’s paragon is Portland, where growth decisions are consciously channeled through local and regional governments. The policies are simple: Use growth boundaries to keep downtowns dense, build fewer freeways (or even tear some down), and fund mass transit. The results aren’t perfect. A ballot initiative approved by Oregon voters last November makes growth boundaries more difficult to enforce and may signal a backlash against the state’s strict land-use laws (a development that is too recent to have been included in Marshall’s book). Still, Portland remains one of the few midsize cities that have a thriving downtown and don’t compel their residents to drive everywhere.
Marshall writes: “If Andres Duany or Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk want to design towns, then they should be working for the planning department of some state or county. Their often elegant streets and squares should be drawn on public documents, which should match the transportation system government is designing.” Too bad that in most of the country, government doesn’t get much respect. In the absence of a cohesive national urban policy, the planning and design of communities have fallen under the jurisdiction of other, more energized movements such as environmentalism, historical preservation, and architectural philosophies like New Urbanism.
New Urbanism’s most important legacy may be the discussion it continues to provoke over the shape and design of communities and the fresh thinking it brings into the field of urban planning. In books, seminars, and demonstration communities like Celebration and Seaside, Florida, New Urbanists get people talking about what they mean when they talk about urbanism. And in fact, what people want isn’t new at all: the ability to walk to the store, drive less, get to know the neighbors. With its sidewalks, front porches, and densely built neighborhoods, Celebration provides these touches with corporate efficiency.
The task now is to move beyond Celebration and tackle the thornier question of how far we are willing to go to get the sort of pedestrian scale that is missing from most newer places. Are we really willing to drive less and live closer to our neighbors if it means giving up some mobility — and giving up the ability to stop undesirable elements at the front gates? Marshall’s enthusiasm for urban places and active government is contagious. Still, while historical memory is short, the bulldozer scars from midcentury urban-renewal projects haven’t disappeared. There’s hope that the almighty interstate won’t reign forever, but urban advocates who call for sweeping government intervention would do well to remember that we’ve been down that road before.
Copyright 2001 The American Prospect, Inc. Reprinted with permission.