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Monday, June 15, 2009

Book Review: Two Books on Suburbia

Building Suburbia: Green Fields and Urban Growth 1820-2000 by Dolores Hayden
Vintage, 2004
Paperback, 336 pages

The Cul-De-Sac Syndrome: Turning Around the Unsustainable American Dream by John F. Wasik
Bloomberg, 2009
Hardcover, 240 pages

Changes to suburbia's physical structure can be said to fall into one of two types: those created by attempts to reverse its negative characteristics and those acted upon by the forces that helped shape it initially. While in neither case are the formal properties of change apparent, it's clear the first is a proactive response -- ideally a combination of bottom-up and top-down strategies -- and the latter is closer to a doomsday scenario enacted by those who see the suburbs as wasteful, misguided, and completely unsustainable. Arguments against the latter's validity are many, rooted in the fact that most Americans choose to live in what can be considered suburbs. Proactive responses are understandably growing in number, as more illustrations of the ills of suburbia circulate (its link to obesity is just one of many) and as energy prices and other factors make it clear that the path of suburbia cannot continue indefinitely on its current trajectory. The wastefulness and unsustainability of most suburban conditions is a real thing, but now is a time for change that embraces the positive aspects of these places, instead of ignorance or refusal to accept the problems of 21st-century suburbs. These books are two components of this positive change, one geared towards an understanding of the circumstances of the suburbs and the other towards an understanding of suburbia's relationship to our current economic crisis.

Historian and architect Dolores Hayden continues her investigation of the American landscape, a word used in its broadest sense to include the physical character of our inhabitation of the land, the mechanisms that shape this use, and the social interactions and processes that both influence and arise from this inhabitation. The last sets Hayden apart from other authors tackling suburbia, in such titles as 1984's Redesigning the American Dream, in which domesticity and gender roles are investigated where normally they are ignored. Building Suburbia tackles close to 200 years of suburban growth, a formidable subject and time period that is reined in by the author's delimiting of seven historic patterns and her use of specific examples to portray sweeping pictures. This is history at its best, as understanding is gleaned from a depth of investigation that, while hardly all-encompassing, succinctly explains the path of suburbia's rise, its "triple dream" of house, land, and community. After Hayden's chapter on Rural Fringes -- the seventh pattern, today's outer suburbs disconnected from cities, unlike old suburbs -- she outlines future scenarios for dealing with suburbia's ills. After finding fault in both New Urbanism and high-tech houses, she targets older suburbs as the canvas for change, a sentiment shared by John F. Wasik in his new proposal for making suburbs sustainable.

Bloomberg columnist Wasik usually doles out financial advice, but here he attempts to link the "worst housing bust in generations" with the American Dream's realization in the suburbs. This is not an easy task. The book reads like two parallel tracks -- economics and suburbia -- that only occasionally touch each other, though by the end of the book it is clear that the affordability that Americans hoped for in distant suburbs ("spurbs", as Wasik coins them) cannot last, subject to rising energy costs, ill health and other factors. Wasik's primary argument sees Americans' belief in the insoluble equity of their homes as the root of the housing bust. Blame goes to homeowners more than lenders and others who push the American Dream, but the privatization of expenses that accompanied house depreciation did not help matters, as people could not then afford their mortgages. Wasik's reporting on sustainable houses does not address this problem. He is enamored by engineering and technical solutions, going so far as to equate prefab house designer Michelle Kaufmann with Henry Ford and Thomas Edison. (As discussed in this week's dose, Kaufmann's design practice recently closed, tempering Wasik's hyperbole.) His solutions are a combination of homeowner-generated ones (green homes, energy production) and policies (transportation funding, adopting LEED in building codes, change real estate tax breaks) that ignore land use, density and other factors that would make living closer together the most sustainable solution of all.

What separates these two titles is the social. Hayden argues for the importance of community, of how we live together, not isolated in smart homes on large lots. Wasik barely mentions community, favoring a presentation of green homes and New Urbanism, the latter almost exclusively in terms of reduced VMT's (Vehicle Miles Traveled). It's clear the future of suburbia must encompass the social aspects of living alongside others. In this regard Hayden's book is a valuable resource in generating ideas for moving forward that Wasik, and others, should read.

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