How civic design went astray

'Sprawl" conjures up images of out-of-control development, in which subdivisions, strip malls, high-speed feeder roads, traffic congestion, and cookie-cutter bedroom communities grow like crabgrass.

How did this all happen, what forces are at play, and what can be done about it? These are some of the questions addressed in "Suburban Nation: The Rise of Sprawl and the Decline of the American Dream" (North Point Press, $30).

The three authors are not dispassionate observers. Andres Duany and Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk are well known in architectural/design circles for their work developing the neotraditional communities of Seaside, Fla., and Kentlands, Md. Jeff Speck is director of town planning at Duany Plater-Zyberk & Co., based in Miami.

These designers are clearly in the New Urbanist camp, which values pedestrian-friendly communities. While "Suburban Nation" is a personal platform, the authors provide a highly readable short course on civic design, including how it went awry.

They explain that sprawl isn't necessarily ugly, especially in affluent areas, but it's not functional and often fosters economic segregation.

Maybe worst of all, sprawl diminishes human interaction in the public realm and erodes the feeling of community. Residents are less citizens and more motorists.

Despite the continued growth of sprawl, "Suburban Nation" recognizes a number of encouraging developments, including a rising awareness of the problem and a commitment to doing something about it.

The authors acknowledge they are troubled that so much new construction occurs at the suburban edge when there are so many promising "infill" lots just waiting to be developed in existing cities and suburbs. These areas could blossom by:

* Encouraging mixed-use neighborhoods.

* Building houses with garages at the back.

* Providing public parking in carefully located municipal garages and lots.

* Putting a friendlier face on traffic by creating narrower streets and eliminating one-way streets, which contribute to speeding and confusion.

* Making public transit cleaner, safer, with more predictable, frequent service.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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