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HOW CITIES WORK: Suburbs, Sprawl, and the Roads Not Taken.

THE ONLY THING AMERICANS hate worse than sprawl is density. Nobody likes the traffic and the architectural ugliness in and around virtually every metropolitan area in this country, but building on bigger lots and cheaper land remains hard to resist.

Maryland is home to a vaunted smart-growth policy, under which the state refuses to pay for basic infrastructure--water, sewer lines, and roads--m support development outside designated areas. But even there, turning down specific projects that appear to be beneficial has proven tough. Last year, for instance, the state supported construction of a massive new regional mall in Anne Arundel County near Annapolis, even though it despoiled 300 acres of supposedly protected woodland. A top state official told The Washington Post the exemption was understandable because people, including her daughters, "are always going to need somewhere to shop."

Alex Marshall, in his new book How Cities Work, notes that downtowns and other old-fashioned urban environments were all constructed before the advent of the automobile. Since World War II, cities have been a dead art. Given the cost advantages of centralized, car-dependent warehouse-style stores such as Wal-Mart, we aren't likely to build a new Paris anytime soon.

In Marshall's vision, the central fact about cities is always transportation. Believing that building freeways breeds cars, Marshall's goal in this book is to demonstrate how cityscapes are formed by their main transportation systems--the ports that originally shaped New York or the freeway interchanges behind every suburb in America today.

Much of Marshall's book is devoted to case studies of four metropolitan areas. Two of the chapters are a bit weak. He describes the vitality of a Queens neighborhood called Jackson Heights, but doesn't get at the root of why--or how--it works. He's also a bit utopian in his view of Silicon Valley, wishing that area had preserved more apricot orchards through use of mass transit, while ignoring its lack of enthusiasm for such projects.

But his remaining two portraits are highly instructive. Disney's well-covered development of Celebration, Fla., lends ammunition to Marshall's cogent exposure of the lies behind the trendy "New Urbanism." New Urbanists are academics and architects who seek to revive pedestrian-friendly environments by incorporating design elements from classic urban neighborhoods, such as porches and narrow streets, into a suburban neighborhood. But Marshall argues the New Urbanists are merely dressing up subdivisions in old-fashioned clothing ill-suited to the automobile age, like Hollywood stage sets with pleasant facades that hide their lack of inner workings.

Major arterial roads are still the life-blood of communities such as Celebration, the Kentlands in suburban Maryland, and Mud Island in Memphis. Celebration has a Disney-subsidized downtown complete with restaurants and other amenities for tourists, but no place to get your shoes repaired. Celebration residents have to do their shopping in strip malls outside the development and must drive to their jobs. Celebration's office buildings are well beyond walking distance, placed out by the highway.

Marshall labels New Urbanism "a type of design where form perversely does not follow function." His attention to observable fact makes How Cities Work valuable. Backyards in Celebration have been sacrificed for alleyway service roads since garbage trucks can't navigate the cute but narrow main streets. Residents can barely open their car doors when they pull into their little carports. Those who want to live in an urban environment, Marshall argues, should avoid the fakery of the New Urbanism and move to an existing city, where the housing will probably be cheaper anyway.

But he recognizes that the cost of New Urban developments are part of their appeal, allowing home buyers to believe they might meet their neighbors walking the streets, secure in the comfort that these won't be the wrong kinds of neighbors. Marshall is aware that Portland, Oregon, site of his final case study, has enjoyed great success in regional planning in large part due to its racial homogeneity. Getting citizens of the city, suburbs, and surrounding countryside to believe they are all in the same boat has been made much easier by the absence of racial politics that dog regionalist efforts in segregated metropolitan areas such as Buffalo and Washington, D.C.

Marshall expresses his belief in regionalism--the sense that entire metro areas are the true "cities" of today--but he doesn't explore the history or evolution of that decades-old school of thought. Still, his glimpse of Portland shows how it can work. Oregon imposed true growth boundaries, without exemptions for favored malls, to preserve rural land. That has made development within existing urban and suburban areas economically more attractive, guaranteeing markets for a light-rail system that in turn has taken people out of their cars and onto thriving downtown and retail corridor streets.

Aside from questions of race, Marshall worries that the increased cost of living within constrained areas will ultimately create an exclusionary society in the Willamette Valley as bad as any gated community. That's always the drawback to successful metropolitan areas. When they work, the temptation is to preserve them just the way they are, without accounting for the growth that inevitably results.

Marshall is an unapologetic defender of the strong hand of government in making planning decisions and wouldn't mind seeing a $3-per-gallon gasoline tax to help cut down on the number of cars. Even with views to the left of the crunchiest city planner, he does a service in outlining the dynamics behind growth and development in real cities before indulging in pipe dreams or theory. His book is a further amplification of the point Ring Lardner Jr. made half a century ago in his novel The Ecstasy of Owen Muir, that everyone in America wants to build and no one wants to maintain.

ALAN GREENBLATT is a staff writer for Governing magazine.
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Author:Greenblatt, Alan
Publication:Washington Monthly
Article Type:Brief Article
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jun 1, 2001
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