The Magazine

Visions of Green

When suburban sprawl is a Good Thing.

Feb 24, 2014, Vol. 19, No. 23 • By ANTHONY PALETTA
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There’s Hershey, Pennsylvania, one of three “chocolate towns” built by real-world Willy Wonkas. There’s Pullman, Illinois, proof that while the feudalism of an employer designing a community for employees may not be a bad thing, renting to them certainly is. There are Canberra and New Delhi, efforts at applying classical garden-city thinking to whole cities. There’s Penderlea, North Carolina, a town conceived as a “farm city” that would provide room for farms located closely within a coherent framework. There are plots scattered over any number of continents, designed for all varieties of income and taste, from Heliopolis outside Cairo to Vancouver Island to Chapultepec Heights in Mexico City. Just the maps and photographs of these far-flung, tidy communities would alone be worth a monograph.

While the authors’ express aim is to document and extol the earlier ranges of traditionalist planning that high modernists “held in contempt for the scenographic use of stylistic precedent,” their enthusiasm for the topic incorporates many protomodernist efforts that bear garden-suburb-like traits. Adolf Loos, J. J. P. Oud, Bruno Taut, Eric Mendelsohn, and other early modernists crop up in fine detail—as do Mussolini’s new towns, which were grandiose but difficult to dislike.

Modernism and the automobile are the villains here. While never built, Frank Lloyd Wright’s Broadacre City, Le Corbusier’s Plan Voisin, Norman Bel Geddes’s Futurama, and a variety of other emerging plans embraced the possibilities of the automobile to detonate any conception of traditional planning. And considerably less artfully, that’s what generations of developers, and the absence of planning, produced.  

Hardly anyone would argue with this depiction of events, but the greater tragedy is that subsequent waves of reaction against the automobile often made little effort at distinguishing between good suburbs and bad ones. Any escape from urban tumult came to be seen as circumspect. Jane Jacobs’s criticism of a delightful middle-income development, Chatham Village in Pittsburgh, is typical: “There is no public life here, in any city sense. There are differing degrees of extended private life.” It has become fairly easy in academic literature to read “suburbs” as “topographic racism.”

Consider, however, the rise of the New Urbanism in the 1990s, which brought traditional connective urban qualities back to the forefront of design thinking. Exemplars of New Urbanism (Seaside, Florida; Celebration, Florida; Poundbury in England), while attracting broad praise for their return to an emphasis on pedestrian connectivity, encountered a wave of criticism for their vernacular traditionalness, “artificiality,” and narrow income ranges. The cultural depiction of planned communities cannot have helped: Seaside, of course, served as the setting for The Truman Show (1998); more recently, the tidy design and boulevard of England’s Welwyn Garden City might be familiar as the location of Simon Pegg and Nick Frost’s 2013 film The World’s End, which was filled with pod people. 

Paradise Planned, as an “activist” history, is probably the best argument yet offered against such criticism. It is not the condition of being dense that mandates that a suburb harbor a Michael Graves post office. If you dislike pop traditionalism, simply build in another style. If today’s new suburbs seem economically inaccessible, take it as a sign that demand is high—and build more. “The suburbs will never go away,” write the authors, and Paradise Planned makes us glad that they won’t. 

Anthony Paletta writes the Spaces column for the Wall Street Journal.