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Suburban Beauty

Why Sprawl Works

12:00 AM, May 22, 2000 • By FRED BARNES
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Suburban Nation

The Rise of Sprawl and the Decline of the American Dream

by Andres Duany, Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk, and Jeff Speck

North Point, 289 pp., $ 30


Picture Windows

How the Suburbs Happened

by Rosalyn Baxandall and Elizabeth Ewen

Basic, 298 pp., $ 27.50

The Old Town section of Alexandria, Virginia, just across the Potomac River from Washington, D.C., is about as close to utopia as it gets for devotees of traditional communities and critics of suburban sprawl. It's a lovely example of "mixed use" zoning -- shops, offices, homes are interspersed -- and a monument to late eighteenth-century American architecture. Its streets are tree-lined and narrow, forcing cars to move slowly. The buildings are low-rise and close to the street. It's both pedestrian-friendly and accessible to mass transit. Old Town Alexandria is "a unique place to visit to engage in civilized activity," insist Andres Duany, Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk, and Jeff Speck, three widely respected urban planners whose new book, Suburban Nation: The Rise of Sprawl and the Decline of the American Dream, is the most coherent and important attack on American sprawl to appear so far.

And yet there's a problem. When I moved a half dozen years ago to an Alexandria neighborhood not far from Old Town, my neighbors turned out to be immigrants -- from Old Town. The family on one side has four kids and wanted a bigger house and a yard large enough for football and lacrosse games. Old Town was too cramped. The family of four on the other side also needed more room and the father was eager to landscape his back and front yards with dogwoods and azaleas and cherry trees. He couldn't plant a big garden in Old Town.

So what kind of neighborhood did they move to? One with many of the distinguishing characteristics of suburban sprawl: a cul-de-sac, single-use zoning, McMansions, decks behind the houses and no front porches, two-car garages and four-car families, five minutes from a mall and nearer to an interstate highway than to mass transit.

These refugees from Old Town were followed by two more families I know. One lived on the edge of Old Town adjacent to a swath of public housing. They were tired of worrying about the crack dealer who arranged his business deals on the pay phone across the street. And they wanted a spacious house with a yard. The other family had always wanted to live in Old Town. So when their kids grew up and left home, they moved to a townhouse there. They didn't stay long. Old Town was too noisy and parking spaces were too few. They moved to a quieter, lower-density neighborhood miles farther from Washington. They have no trouble parking their two cars now.

All this is merely anecdotal evidence, but it's consistent with an irrefutable fact of American life. For all the scorn that's heaped on the suburbs -- and especially on subdivisions of nearly identical houses on the fringe of metropolitan areas -- people like living there. And not just middle-class drones either. My friends who left Old Town are upper-middle class, highly educated, and reasonably well-to-do. Like millions of others, they prefer a big house with a yard and plenty of room, plus a place to park their fleet of room, plus a place to park their fleet of cars. Old-fashioned towns crammed with stores and homes and apartments or new imitations of them like Seaside, Florida (the town in the movie The Truman Show) have enormous curb appeal, but they're too crowded and expensive for most people. They just aren't where most Americans want to live. And neither are dense city neighborhoods, even ritzy ones like Georgetown in Washington.

This is hard for those with an urban sensibility or a bias for college towns to believe, given their aversion to suburban America. Much of suburbia, after all, is grotesquely ugly, with ubiquitous strip malls and streets lined with fast-food joints. As often as not, neighborhoods in the inner ring of suburbs are decaying. In the exurbs, many homes are newer, but poorly designed and cheaply built. Then there's the traffic congestion that lengthens daily commutes. It's unavoidable because suburbanites are hopelessly car dependent. Yet the truth is they're mostly contented. They've come face to face with sprawl and they like it. And who can blame them?