THE WORD "SUBURB," as viewers of the recent hit movie American Beauty know, has for decades been shorthand for an artificial no-man's land of the soul, a place that only an automaton could love. Mention Bel Air, Westchester or Rancho Vistoso, and you'll conjure up an image of consumerist sameness, of carefully manicured lawns and sturdy front doors behind which lurk horrors of dysfunction and ennui.
Suburbs were not always seen in such a dark light. The earliest of them, situated on the edge of still-thriving cities, were regarded as places in which the best virtues of the countryside -- fresh air, open space -- mixed with the pleasures of civilization. Cities were places one went to gawk at spectacles of human vice, but in the suburbs you raised a proper family.
But that was long before greenbelt school shootings became commonplace, long before single-parent households and latchkey children became the norm.
The run-of-the-mill suburb of today, suggest architects Andres Duany, Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk and Jeff Speck in their provocative book Suburban Nation, is a social disaster, a grimly featureless and spirit-killing congeries of look-alike houses and dead-end lanes. "For the past fifty years," they write, "we Americans have been building a national landscape that is largely devoid of places worth caring about."
Part of the problem, they continue, is that for much of our history we Americans have been mistrustful of anything that is not brand-new. Poll after poll shows that Americans prefer living in small towns over living in cities, and that they value nice neighborhoods over almost every other consideration -- including nice individual homes.
But that is the ideal. In the real world that lies beyond the pollsters and clipboards, what everyone wants is a spacious new house with all the latest conveniences. This desire is well served: as the authors write, "Dollar for dollar, no other society approaches the United States in terms of the number of square feet per person, the number of bathrooms per bedroom, the number of appliances in the kitchen....The American private realm is simply a superior product."
But go outside that private realm, and the picture changes. Those mini-palaces come at a cost, as developers scrape away open spaces to make unimaginative, stylistically inappropriate, and ill-planned clusters of housing that have none of the good features of either small towns or cities, and that add up to anything but good places to live.
When suburbanites leave their wondrous homes to go to work or the mall, they enter a public realm that Duany, Plater-Zyberk and Speck do not hesitate to call "brutal," a world of identical subdivisions, treeless roads, and endless parking lots, passing across "an uncoordinated agglomeration of standardized single-use zones with little pedestrian life and even less civic identification, connected only by an overtaxed network of roadways."
Such places are not good for people, but they are a paradise for cars, inside of which we Americans are spending more and more of our lives. And necessarily: in Los Angeles, on average, freeway traffic moves at only 14 miles an hour. In Atlanta the pace is about the same, with the average commuter traveling 65 miles from home to work and back, spending at least three hours a day on the road.
And in Tucson -- well, you have only to spend the eternity it takes to cross Kolb Road and Speedway or Grant Road and Campbell Avenue to appreciate the hell that cars have wrought on earth.
Still, without a car, suburban life is nearly impossible. Those who cannot afford to buy an automobile or who for one reason or another cannot drive -- infirmity, say, or youth -- are effectively trapped in communities that lie far from the places where people gather. They become prisoners of cul-de-sacs and split-level ranch homes, escaping through suicide or violent crime, the incidence of which has risen dramatically in the suburbs in just the past few years.
The authors, who designed the model community of Seaside, Florida, as well as 200 other neighborhoods, propose ways to make suburbs livable chiefly by increasing the prospects for neighborly interaction. To make their ideal the norm, they admit, will not be easy. Community planners who attempt to build neighborhoods that favor foot traffic over the automobile find themselves faced, for instance, with zoning laws that forbid mixed commercial and residential structures and alleyways -- places, in other words, in which people might want to walk.
Duany, Plater-Zyberk and Speck do not offer much cheerful news in their illuminating critique. They do, however, provide plenty of arguments for why the American suburb has to be remade. If it is not, then we're in for a future of Columbines and road rage, of numbness and despair -- or about what we've got now, God help us all.