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The Next American Metropolis by Peter Calthorpe 2009/12/08

Posted by jtaylorbaxter in Uncategorized.

The Next American Metropolis: Ecology, Community, and the American Dream by Peter Calthorpe

Reviewed by Taylor Baxter

In The Next American Metropolis, Peter Calthorpe has written one of the essential texts of New Urbanism. By exploring how our post-WWII “American-Dream”-inspired suburban landscape has lead to declining quality of life and ecological health, he convincingly presents the need for “a new vision of the American Metropolis and a new image for the American Dream.” While some of his prescriptions for this new vision may lack strength or feasibility, his call for pedestrian-scaled, transit-oriented neighborhoods is a critical step in rethinking how we inhabit the American landscape.

Calthorpe presents his argument in three parts: a detailed analysis of suburbia’s detrimental effects, a set of guidelines for building better communities, and a selection of plans from a variety of locations. The first of these deals primarily with what he calls “The Crisis of Place” in America, or the “growing sense of frustration and placelessness in our suburban landscape.” The goals behind the American Dream — privacy, mobility, security, and ownership — are largely being overshadowed by “isolation, congestion, rising crime, and overwhelming costs.” Calthorpe shows how suburbia, through its degradation of the public realm, anti-pedestrian scale, income-segregated housing, and piecemeal regional planning have all worked to rob this dream of its luster. It is time, he writes, for a new one.

Calthorpe’s commentary on the ties between the failings of suburbia and the American Dream are especially compelling. We didn’t move to the suburbs accidentally; we moved to the suburbs because of the promise that they held. Now that this promise has gone largely unfulfilled, the answer is not NIMBYism or to stop growth, but to rethink our American Dream as one emphasizing community and ecology — one that is appropriate for our rapidly diversifying population. The blueprints for new communities found in the next sections of the book are the physical image of that dream.

The “Guidelines” section goes into great detail about Calthorpe’s rules for new growth, from residential housing type mixes to wetlands management and building facades. He does well to tie all of these prescriptions to his new vision of the American Dream, as all of them are intended to lead to closer-knit, walkable, transit-friendly neighborhoods with a solid emphasis on well-designed, human-scaled public spaces. Mixed housing types bring people of different incomes together on plazas and squares, and undeveloped land is preserved through denser, regionally coordinated planning. The clarity of the connections between the guidelines and the shortcomings of suburban development found in the previous section do an excellent job of showing how improvements to the built environment can have a profound effect on our quality of life.

The “Criteria for New Towns” subsection of the guidelines is worth extra attention, as Calthorpe is adamant about encouraging ecologically friendly development that is beneficial to both suburbs and cities. In this regard, his call for allowing greenfield development only if new growth cannot be accommodated within already-developed areas would be a welcome change from current development practices. However, in the same section, Calthorpe writes that when greenfield development is needed, new towns separated from the existing city by greenbelts should be constructed. These greenbelts, he claims, will “stabilize the edges of a metropolitan region.” This is a curios claim, as the greenbelts would seem only to push the edges of the region into the new towns beyond them. Unless these new towns are self-sufficient or connected by transit, forcing their separation by greenbelts is likely only to cause their inhabitants to have to drive further between them and the city. Of course, Calthorpe expects these towns to be self-sufficient and served by transit, but, as seen in the final section of the book, they are often not.

The final section includes a large selection of plans for developments that have attempted to follow Calthorpe’s guidelines. Most of them are of the highest quality and do well to help alleviate many of the shortcomings of typical post-WWII suburbia. However, many of them are isolated deep in suburbia, far from transit lines or existing development of similar density. By being disconnected from the larger city, these areas will most likely require more driving and will be more isolated than if they had grown directly out of it.

In the end, however, it is far better to build a Calthorpe-inspired neighborhood outside of the city than a traditional suburban subdivision, transit service or not. Cities grow and change, and densely constructed buildings, walkable street networks, and quality public spaces will always be an asset to the diversity, flexibility, and community required by an ever-changing American Dream.



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