Book review by the Austin Chronicle’s Penny Van Horn

May 4, 2001:
by Penny Van Horn

BOOK REVIEW: How Cities Work Suburbs, Sprawl, and the Roads Not Taken
by Alex Marshall
University of Texas Press, 216 pp., $50; $24.95 (paper)

Does this ring a bell? “The standard choice today of lacing a metropolitan area with big freeways for purely internal travel means we will have a sprawling, formless environment.” Uh-huh.

Now more than ever, Austin could use accessible writing that addresses the challenges of urban sprawl. Journalist Alex Marshall (Salon.com, The Washington Post, among others) offers a clear-headed approach to the urban issues that so deeply affect Austin and other overgrown cities in his jargon-free new book How Cities Work: Suburbs, Sprawl, and the Roads Not Taken. He cuts right to the chase by spelling out the basic interaction of the three great controlling forces of urban growth — transportation, economics, and politics. The topics are overwhelming, but Marshall makes them understandable in the context of four case studies that form the backbone of the book.

First up is Celebration, the Disney-controlled development in Florida that is a paragon of New Urbanist design. New Urbanism claims to appropriate the best features of old-fashioned city centers such as those of Savannah, Ga., and Annapolis, Md., while also providing the amenities demanded by car-dependent suburban residents. Celebration sports limited street widths, houses built with porches close to the sidewalk, and a shopping street in its center. But the whole project was bankrolled by Disney, the shopping street is full of tony boutiques that rely on tourist traffic, and the faux-antique houses in Celebration cost three times as much as comparable ones in the neighboring — real — town of Kissimmee. Marshall convincingly portrays Celebration for what it is, one more suburban development dependent on yet another highway off-ramp. Far from offering solutions to sprawl, New Urbanism compounds it. Marshall writes: “The New Urban design philosophy is akin to dressing up a car to look like a horse-drawn carriage, and then saying you have brought back the intimacy and community of carriage life.”

Marshall is similarly critical of the endless suburbia that makes up the Silicon Valley of California. He outlines the history of the valley as it made the transition from fruit farming to microchip production, and probingly questions the logic that has allowed sprawl to take over prime agricultural land that in many places has prime topsoil 40 feet thick … sitting under freeways and strip malls.

Jackson Heights in Queens offers a contrast: a vibrant community that for generations has offered immigrants and their children a place to live and trade — without needing a car. Throughout these case studies and intervening thematic chapters, Marshall analyzes how Americans’ obsession with the car inherently prevents many of the improvements we say we would like made in the fabric of our cities.

Marshall’s most absorbing case study is of Portland, Ore. While he lauds Portland’s success in establishing a strict growth boundary, he also points out that the city benefited from doing so during the early Seventies, when environmental sentiment was cresting and when the region was even more culturally homogenous than it is now. Portland’s growth boundary, along with a ban on construction of downtown parking facilities, has supplied a form of creative pressure that has forced successive waves of real-estate development back into the heart of Portland rather than out into the countryside that surrounds it. This has meant higher density in the city’s core, which makes viable Portland’s showcase mass-transit system and downtown retail center.

Can something like this happen for Austin? Marshall’s analysis shows that any sort of worthwhile urban planning requires the sort of hard choices Austin has seemed incapable of making. “People are living differently in Portland because of the policies they have chosen,” he writes. “Actual shaping of cities requires making choices. More of this, less of that. Some people lose, some people win.” He also argues that government “is the only actor with the size and scope to make foundational changes” in the way our cities grow, and thus encourages a sort of government activism atypical in Texas: “[Portland’s planning policies] are no more activist than building freeways for more malls and subdivisions; they are just activist in a different way.”

If this new sort of activism ever will come to pass for Austin, it seems to be a long way off. But maybe books like this one can get the ball rolling.

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