Bye-Bye, Suburban Dream

Phoenix Sprawls into the desert at the rate of an acre an hour. Greater New York City stretches clear into Pennsylvania. Strip malls, traffic, fear of crime have wrecked the tranquil 'burbs of Ozzie and Harriet's time. How can we bring civility back to Suburban life?

PAVED PARADISE p> The "new urbanists' are going back to the future to take the edge off edge cities. They want to bring small-town charm to blighted metropolitan landscapes.

Viewed from the air, there's no apparent reason why a city like Phoenix, Ariz. already the seventh largest in the nation, couldn't keep growing forever. Four times a year, a pilot from Landiscor, an aerial-surveying company, flies over the city at 20,000 feet, snapping pictures to be assembled into vast photographic maps. They show the white boxes of downtown, the graceful loop of the freeways as they intersect and sort themselves out by compass point, and the gleaming roofs of suburbia stretching to the horizon in nested curves of roads, streets, drives and lanes. The pictures from the end of March show .5,000 more houses than the ones taken three months earlier. Houses squeeze through the gap between two Indian reservations and follow the highways into the desert, which they are consuming at an acre an hour. Excluding federal land, the only thing standing in the way of Phoenix's swallowing the rest of the state, says Michael Fifield, director of the Joint Urban Design Program of Arizona State University, is Tucson.

Unless, that is, you subscribe to the view of former mayor Terry. Goddard, that Phoenix is approaching the marginal disutility of suburban sprawl. This is the point at which each new subdivision subtracts more from the quality Of life than the new inhabitants will contribute to the economy by buying wind chimes, mesquite logs and Nayajo-motif throw rugs. Many other places in the country are coming round to this view Most suburbs are exploding in size without even the compensation of economic growth: the Cleveland metropolitan area expanded by a third between 1970 and 1990 even as its population declined. Over roughly' the same period, California's population increased by 40 percent while the total of vehicle-miles driven doubled. Maintaining a fleet of cars to navigate among the housing tracts, commercial strips and office complexes of the American landscape now takes 18 percent of the average family budget.

As anyone who reads the fiction in The Now Yorker knows. Americans mostly live in banal places with the souls of shopping malls, affording nowhere to mingle except traffic jams, nowhere to walk except in the health club. By itself, this hasn't been a reason to stop building suburbs. But economic unsustainability may carry more weight. A conference on "Alternatives to Sprawl" at the Brookings Institution this year was electrified by a report from the Bank of America endorsing the formerly elitist view that sprawl in California has created "enormous social, environmental and economic costs, which until now have been hidden, ignored, or quietly borne by society . . . Businesses suffer from higher costs, a loss in worker productivity, and underutilized investments in older communities." "You can't keep spreading out." says Mike Burton, executive director of Port-kind. Ore.'s metropolitan government, Metro. "The cost to make roads and sewers gets to the point where it doesn't work."

The challenge is to devise an alternative to sprawl, where people can envision their children playing in the streets. It must not evoke "the city." an alien place where by definition middle-class Americans refuse to live. So a growing corps of visionaries. of which the best-known are Miami-based architects Andres Duany and his wife and partner, Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk, are looking to an even older model-the "village," defined as a cluster of houses around a central place that is the focus of civic life. Under the banner of "new urbanism," they have promulgated some surprisingly simple and obvious rules for building better suburbs described in detail on the following pages. They can be roughly summarized in these three principles:

A typical modern suburb may have one to two dwelling units per acre, and is laid out entirely for the convenience of the automobile. The new urbanism strives for five or six units per acre, including a mix of housing types: detached houses. row houses, apartments, "granny fiats" tucked away, above the garages. In theory and the new urbanism still exists mostly in theory--the village would extend no more than a quarter-mile from the center to the edge and include a transit stop and a place to buy a quart of milk and a newspaper (actually, probably, a decaf latte and a copy of The Kenyon Review, but the point is the same).

Suburbs--except for the streets--consist of almost exclusively private space, much of it devoted to the single most useless form of plant life in all botany, the ornamental lawn. A suburb is a place that's two-thirds grass but with nowhere for kids to play ball, except in the streets. Communities need parks and outdoor public spaces in which people can gather and interact.

Obviously, no one with a choice in the matter would want to look out his window at a 7-Eleven. New urbanist practitioners impose elaborate design and zoning controls intended to create harmonious streetscapes. The results can be intensively cute and not to the taste of people unaccustomed to seeing dormers, gables and porticoes on every building. But cuteness is the glue that holds neighborhoods together at five units per acre.

Like most visionary architectural schemes, this idea has sold more books than houses. Its principles were known to planners early in the century, when such charming communities as Scarsdale, N.Y., Mariemont, Ohio, and Lake Forest, Ill., were built. But they were forgotten in the postwar rush to build suburbs on the same principles of efficiency that had been employed in constructing army bases. Their first new application came a decade ago, when Duany and Plater-Zyberk drew up plans for a small resort town on the Florida panhandle, called Seaside. Seaside--with its cozy, narrow streets, its jumble of pastel homes with mandatory front porches -- is probably the most influential resort community since Versailles. Prince Charles noted it approvingly in his BBC special on architecture. Since then other "neotraditional" developments have been built in places as far-flung as suburban Maryland (Kentlands. also planned by Duany and Plater-Zyberk) and the outskirts of Sacramento, Calif. (Laguna West. planned by Peter Calthorpe of San Francisco). But the real test of this idea will come in about a year, when the Disney Co. opens its first planned community ever, Celebration, Fla., on a 5,000-acre swath of land near Disney World. After considering a typical subdivision built around a golf course, the company opted for a plan which vice president Wing Chad described as "traditional little-town America." Celebration will either validate the new urbanism with the imprimatur of Disney--"safe for middle-class consumption"-- or prove the point of its critics, that it's a plot to lure unwitting citizens into living in theme parks.

You can look at Phoenix as a pretty good example of what the new urbanism is up against. It is among the five fastest-growing metropolises in the country, and few places are as relentlessly suburban in character. It has a downtown so exiguous that a pedestrian outside its biggest office building at 9 on a weekday morning is a phenomenon as singular as a cow in Times Square. Meanwhile the new subdivisions race each other toward the mountains. Del Webb Corp., a major national developer, recently won approval over heated opposition for a 5,600-acre project in New River, 80 miles north of downtown and at least 10 miles beyond the outer edge of existing development. The environment, which to developers used to just be the stuff they knocked down to make room for houses, is now a cherished selling point. There is a catch, according to Frances Emma Barwood, a city council member who represents most of the sparsely populated northeast quadrant of Phoenix: "The people who bought houses in Phase One [of a popular development] were told they'd be surrounded by beautiful lush deserts, hut instead they're surrounded by Phases Two and Three."

Left behind in this rush to embrace nature are thousands of 1960s-era ranch houses that are too old, small and unfashionable to attract middle-class buyers, and as a result are turning into that new American phenomenon, the suburban slum. This may be the fate of an area called Maryvale, which like all west-side suburbs suffers from the competitive disadvantage that commuters must drive into the sun both ways. Interspersed among the houses are large tracts of vacant land, dreary commercial strips and a mall, once the cynosure of a thriving neighborhood, now dark and empty. "For the same money that Del Webb is spending in New River, I'll bet they could buy up most of this area and rebuild it," Goddard says. "What is the imperative that says we have to go to a beautiful rural area when we have all this land a few miles from downtown? We're destroying ourselves in shorter and shorter cycles."

The imperative, as Goddard well knows, is "the market." To build in an existing neighborhood, says Jack Gleason, a senior vice president at Del Webb, is to "run against the market, instead of with it." Banks are reluctant to lend to such "infill" projects because they have no assurance the houses will sell. A prime engine of Phoenix's growth apparently consists of middle-aged couples fleeing California. This is a market, Gleason notes, heavily driven by "security," the polite term for "fear." "Fear of crime is a great motivator for development," says Joe Verdoorn, a Phoenix planner. "Everybody wants to be on the far side of the fleeway."

So the new subdivisions go up behind ocher-colored stucco walls six feet high, with guards and gates between the public roads and the inner sanctum of residential streets. Other kinds of barriers defend something nearly as dear to suburbanites as their own skins, property values. Homeowners are isolated by design from apartments, shops, public squares or anything else that might attract people with less money or of a different race. Deed restrictions and community associations see to it that no one will ever bring down the tone of the neighborhood by turning his living room into a beauty parlor. Success for a development lies in freezing for eternity the social and economic class of the original purchasers.

No wonder they're so sterile-sterility is designed into them! Anything else is a threat to the steady appreciation of resale value homeowning Americans take as a basic economic right. You drive down the wide, curving streets of Terravita, in north Scottsdale, whose sales slogan is "The Harmony of Land and Life," and the only signs of "Life" are the saguaro cactuses, which accrue at the rate of about an inch a year. The houses themselves are magnificent monuments to family life: thoughtfully designed, carefully constructed, with master bath suites the size of the Oval Office, but the face they turn to the street is the blank brown plane of a three-car garage.

To even think of changing this culture is an enormous task. It runs counter to the dominant ideology of free-market economics, which in its reductive fashion holds that developers by definition are building what people want to buy. "There is this strange conceit among architects," says Peter Gordon, a professor of economics at the University of Southern California, "that people ought to live in what they design. If you look at how people really want to live in this country, suburbanization is not the problem, it is the solution." And for that matter, Oscar Newman, a celebrated New York-based urban planner, describes the new urbanism as "a retrogressive sentimentality." American families typically live in a neighborhood for three to five years, forming communities based not on common birthplace but on interest: young singles, families with children, "active adults." Who among us, Newman asks, really wants to re-create the social ambience of an 18th-century village? He thinks the suburbs need more exclusivity, gates and barriers where none exist already, recognizing that most of us are going to live among strangers for most of our lives.

On the other hand, people can buy only what's for sale. The housing market is notoriously conservative and conformist, if for no other reason than that most people expect to sell their houses someday. Perhaps more people would choose to live in urban villages if they were exposed to them. "if you ask people if they want "density,' they' will always say no," says Peter Katz, author of "The New Urbanism." "But if you ask if they want restaurants and schools and other things close to where they live, they say yes." But you couldn't build a village in most places in the country even if you wanted to. Suburban sprawl is built into the zoning codes of most communities and the lending policies of virtually every bank. For new villages to become a reality, they will have to get past a phalanx of planning boards and bank officers, whose first principle is, "Nobody ever lost his job for following the code."

We are, nevertheless, on the verge of a great opportunity. Americans moved to the suburbs for the best of motives--to give their children better schools, cleaner air, a place to ride their bicycles without getting their tires caught in the trolley tracks. Suburbs should teem with life, with humanity in all its diversity (or as much diversity as you can find within one standard deviation of the median family income)--with people walking, running, biking, rocking. But their design has promoted instead the ideals of privacy and exclusivity: the clapboard-sided ranch house, evocative of empty plains; the brick colonial, hinting at descent from the Virginia aristocracy. We can continue the trend of the last 40 years, which Gopal Ahluwalia, director of research for the National Association of Homebuilders, complacently describes as bigger houses, with more amenities, situated farther from the workplace. Or we can go down a different path, which probably will begin with the kind of humble observation a visitor made at a subdivision near Phoenix recently. Like most new developments, this one aimed to conserve water for important uses-namely the golf course--by landscaping the houses with gavel and cactus rather than lawns. As the visitor paced the lot with a puzzled look, it suddenly dawned on him that the desire for an acre of land is not an unvarying constituent of human nature. "Gee," he remarked wonderingly to a saleswoman, "if it's all gravel, you don't really need that much of it, do you?"

"SEASIDE' PLANNERp> American city planning went to hell during World War Ii, says Andres Duany, the architect who, with his wife and partner, Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk, designed the neotraditionalist town of Seaside, Fla. "Any town-planning text prior to 1935," he says, "has references to social Issues, to technical issues, to esthetic issues." But after the war, specialists and bean counters took over it. Was as if America had suffered a stroke. "We lost language, we lost the ability to think complexity." As a result, "the suburbs we have are cartoons of planning."

Phoenix has sprawled alomst tenfold since 1950.

1994 Area of city: 449.8 sq.mi. Population: 1,052,000 1970 Area of city: 247.8 sq.mi. Population: 584,000 1950 Area of city: 17.1 sq.mi Population: 107,000