One man's vision for the suburban future

As suburbs bloom in America, a city planner advocates smaller houses that blend into the landscape

The image of suburbia has taken it on the chin in recent years. It's been painted as dysfunctional - feeding sprawl, auto dependency, and isolation.

While planning consultant Tom Martinson doesn't dismiss the criticisms, he is a great believer in suburban living and sees brighter days ahead.

Not long ago, Mr. Martinson, a city-planning consultant and urban historian, wrote a book that expresses his views: "American Dreamscape: the Pursuit of Happiness in Postwar Suburbia" (Carroll & Graf, $26). When contacted by phone at his home in Edina, Minn., a suburb of Minneapolis, he further addressed the subject.

Too often, Martinson believes, roads have been "demonized" as the enemy of suburbia, when the real need is for better transportation planning. In particular, he advocates greater reliance on a network of parkways than on freeways. "This strikes me as more humane," he says.

Parkways, such as the beautiful, wooded roadways that lace Minneapolis, make driving more pleasurable, he's convinced.

In Martinson's analysis, the need is to better connect outlying communities, rather than be blinded by the distance of suburbs from downtowns.

These downtowns, he says, are often specialty niche centers. They may attract office workers, yet more jobs are now in the suburbs, and it's possible that many suburbanites are more interested in driving to neighboring towns than visiting the big city.

The challenge for planners and designers, Martinson says, is to think in terms of creating livable regions, not single cities. This could bring a new generation of talented young designers to the table.

"Maybe they're going to say," he conjectures, " 'Hey, here's something the older guys haven't touched for 50 years. This is a wide-open field. I'm going to get into it and see what's available.' I hope that's happening right now. I expect it is."

In what he considers an important precursor to change, discontent with existing suburbs is growing.

For the most part, he sees it expressed in bumper-sticker advocacy of "smart growth" and "sprawl is bad" rhetoric.

"I'm thrilled to hear this, because it tells me lots of people - politicians, opinion leaders, ordinary citizens, and so forth - are starting to articulate that something is wrong," he says. "The fact that they may not have solutions yet isn't bad. In fact, you have to go through this early discontent stage before ever moving into what we really do about it. I have boundless optimism that we will inevitably deal with this."

As an urban historian, he realizes that widespread suburban development in the US has enjoyed a longer run than most imagine, with several formative waves occurring in the 1800s. Yet what has happened since World War II, he says, is "really brand-new in the context of world civilization, or even American urbanism."

The mass migration to new subdivisions is still playing out today, and remains a work in progress.

What concerns Martinson is how limited the current discussion seems, and how driven it is by the advocates of New Urbanism and traditional neighborhood design, who emphasize mixed-use, higher density, walkable communities.

A populist viewpoint

While not objecting to the retro visual charm of such places, he wonders if their attempts to encourage sidewalk social interaction and dictate every last design detail really interest middle- and lower-income Americans.

The urbanists take their cues from cities and are often geographically concentrated in East and West Coast metropolitan areas.

"There aren't many people writing either as suburbanites or from the Midwest," says Martinson, who acknowledges a populist bias on the subject.

"We look at things differently in the upper Midwest, where I live, than even in Chicago, where I grew up. There is a huge diversity in how people feel about the suburbs and in the way these places look and function."

Martinson says he doesn't renounce New Urbanists, but he believes their developments are "detached from a lot of America," expensive, and no more sensitive to regional dynamics than any other development style. So while New Urbanist concepts work wonderfully for a small number of people, in his estimation they are only a tiny part of a big solution.

They get a lot of attention, though, because New Urbanists have succeeded in building communities such as Seaside and Celebration in Florida, and the Kentlands in Maryland.

"People always want to walk into a model house," Martinson observes, and these projects are essentially large-scale models.

Other than New Urbanism, Martinson doesn't observe a lot of visionary thinking being brought to bear on suburban planning and design. He attributes the paucity of ideas to a change in architectural attitudes that occurred midway through the past century.

Before World War II, he says, designing houses was considered an honorable and important undertaking. After the war, though, the rapid growth of the suburbs served to trivialize house design. Consequently, the best architects sought to make their mark in the more heroic commercial and institutional design environments, not in subdivisions.

Without giants like Frank Lloyd Wright around, building regulations, not genius, have shaped the suburban landscape - along with developers and builders.

Martinson is not thrilled by the results, a point he makes clear in "American Dreamscape" when he observes that "even million-dollar homes are routinely drawn up by contractors' plan services. This is astonishing and disheartening when you think of our trillions-of-dollars investments in postwar suburbs."

He is disappointed in the "McMansionization" of the suburbs, which finds people building big, but not graciously.

"What's different about this generation of affluent houses," Martinson says, "is how vapid they are. To me, they seem totally based on size. They have poor scale, no sense of elegance, and the building materials are used thoughtlessly."

And when they replace modest tear-downs, they not only make the neighborhood look strange, they also squeeze out ordinary people, he says.

The 'McMansionization' of America

These McMansions dot what Martinson describes as "gentry" suburbs, which are characterized by large, pretentious houses that overshadow the landscape.

As a populist, he prefers moving toward a suburban paradigm with roots in the past - what he calls "arcadian" suburbs: smaller, better-designed and -built houses that blend into the landscape.

In fact, beginning with landscape, not architecture, is what he advocates.

"What happens now is the landscaping comes at the end," he observes. "A civil engineer lays out the subdivision, an engineering draftsman does the houses, and then a garden service is brought in to throw around some foundation plantings.

"It's so mediocre compared to the norm 100 years ago, when you started out with somebody like [landscape architect] Frederick Law Olmsted laying out a subdivision."

Martinson says there are still examples of landscape-oriented developments to guide future development. One of his favorites is Riverside, an older suburb in Chicago that incorporates ornamental lakes, ponds, and streams as a form of natural plumbing, to help with drainage.

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