Suburbia is a cold place. Absent are the bright billboards, neon lights, and tall street lamps that arch over the long straight boulevards and avenues of the city. It goes without the constant fluctuation of people and purposes where a single block can be the station of a newspaper vendor in the morning, a worn out mother trying to calm her tourist family at midday, and a gaggle of texting teenagers walking blindly forward come nighttime.
However, suburbia can also be a warm place. It is a place where your nearest neighbor is not a mile and a half down the road and where the silence of a rural night is periodically broken up by a car or two.
Suburbia is right in the middle. And like most middle children, it is often lost in the minds of its parents who worry over and chastise its younger brother, the troublesome urban centers, and express their admiration and pride for the older American heartland. So where does that leave these places that have neither the action of the city nor the peace and quiet of the plains? It leaves them forgotten, poorly kept, and seemingly unsalvageable.
It did not have to be this way though. Suburbia did not have to fall victim to sprawl- giant sidewalk-less curved roads buried in the cliffs and hills overlooking an eight lane highway. Or stretched like a bowstring along that highway so it is hard to decipher where one town ends and the next begins as the various chain restaurants and the bigger-and-bigger-box stores blend together in undetermined yet predictable orders; Wendy’s, Costco, Target, Home Depot, KFC, Taco Bell, Wal-Mart.
Three urban planners, Andres Duany, Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk, and Jeff Speck, in their book Suburban Nation, decided to backtrack and discover where the relationship between the highway and the small suburban town went so horribly wrong.
It has been ten years since they retraced the steps of the American populace and no substantial shift in mentality has accompanied the revolutionary text. Perhaps because the three co-creators of Seaside, Florida blamed an American institution for the long lasting suburban predicament; the automobile.
The car makes the highway possible. The ability to go 60 miles per hour magically turns a store 30 miles away into something down the road-a road with numerous stoplights, twice as many merges, and four to eight lanes separated by a wall of cement because double yellow lines simply would not do.
Highways, of course, are necessary for speed, commerce, and commuting but their unfavorable proximity to the towns they facilitate could have, to take advantage of the pun, taken a better route.
Duany, Plater-Zyberk, and Speck highlight what was done in the Suburbs and what should have been done with the opposing models of the townless highway and the highwayless town. The former is everything that is wrong today-a town intermingling with a high frequency highway until they are inseparable only marked by a little green sign telling motorists “Now Entering Borough of Nonexistence.”
The latter is a dying kind of town in America and definitely in New Jersey as population density forces new routes alongside existing routes just to funnel the traffic. In some sectors, however, in some pockets slightly untouched by the population blast, a highwayless town may still exist to remind everyone what planning should look like-“highways connect cities but do not pass through them,” said eloquently in Suburban Nation. Thereby returning the highway to the role it plays so well; providing a picturesque car ride for the three-hour long vacation trip where the views are predominantly of the American heartland of which everyone craves a little piece.
Hope is not all lost in New Jersey. The dense population also provides for more opportunities to create and fix towns correctly.
Perhaps now, more so than ten years ago, the perfect cocktail of conditions exists for the wide acceptance and implementation of Suburban Nation teachings. With environmental concerns and high oil prices as continual issues, maybe more people will walk to the small restaurant on Main Street for Friday night dinner than drive to the chain on Route ##.
That bulk change in mentality will inevitably lead to change in the physical world and the knot that is the townless highway will be untied so rush-hour traffic can be kept to the highway and once more foot traffic can dominate the town.
Duany, Andres, Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk, and Jeff Speck. Suburban Nation: the Rise of Sprawl and the Decline of the American Dream. New York: North Point, 2000.