Marshaling an impressive array of facts to show how the American Dream is changing, Leigh Gallagher offers a breezy refresher course in everything you wanted to know about the suburbs but never thought to ask. The certainties Americans had 40 years ago about the ideal life containing "a house, a lawn, a picket fence, two or more children, and a car" are no more. The country has evolved, the birthrate is decreasing, and multigenerational living is becoming more common. Add to this the fact that wealth and new development are moving to cities and that many parts of the country have yet to recover from the recent housing and financial crises, and a recipe for a paradigm shift is set.
On the other hand, Gallagher, a managing editor at Fortune magazine, is quick to concede two things: Some people still really like the suburbs, and not all of suburbia is facing certain demise. In fact, as she clarifies early on in the book, the suburbs are not really going away. Rather, the suburbs — as we thought of them in their mid-20th-century heyday — have ended, but older street-car suburbs — those that are closer to cities, with walkable downtowns — are surging in popularity. There is a new residential development world order that has shifted "away from distance and toward proximity," she writes. The more urban the 'burb, the better. As one Washington, DC, transit official puts it, "We're moving from location, location, location in terms of the most important factor to access, access, access." The change is not a mere trend but a transformation.
In this inversion, people value their time more and commuting less. Clear losers in the shift are the younger, distant suburbs, many of which, Gallagher says, were "poorly designed to begin with" — spreading people too thinly and too far from their jobs. These towns' financial health was always questionable because their far-flung layouts required more infrastructure than they could afford with a sparse tax base.
Not only do these municipalities struggle to meet budgets but increasingly their residents do, too. Gallagher cites a Brookings Institution study that found a record 15.3 million residents in metropolitan suburban areas living below the poverty line as of 2010; these figures were up 11 percent from 2009, and 53 percent from 2000. The trend portends poorly for the middle class, Gallagher maintains. And it illustrates her key point: that the suburbs can no longer be counted on to promote the interests of the very group they were originally designed to serve.
Gallagher is at her best when describing how unusual — in fact, downright artificial — the American postwar suburbs were in the first place. She outlines how these developments were not a product of the free market at all but of massive government subsidies and support. Without the government-backed home loans, the home mortgage interest deductions, the subsidized national highway construction projects, and the creation of single-use residential zoning (in a landmark 1926 Supreme Court case), as well as consistent maintenance of gas prices at lower levels than other countries, our suburbs could never have sprung up to become today's sprawling landscapes.
"The government in the past created one American dream at the expense of almost all others," Gallagher concludes. "But there is no single American Dream anymore; there are multiple American Dreams, and multiple American Dreamers."
What Gallagher does not say is that in the new paradigm, however it plays out, we can expect far less federal support. In our partisan age, there is little talk of retrofitting the distant suburbs to stem their decline, such as funding mass-transit improvements to increase access.
Perhaps what has ended is not only our idea of the suburban idyll but also our view of what government is for and whose interests it should champion.
Ann Sussman AIA is an architect and the ArtScape coordinator at Bradford Mill, a studio art and business center in Concord, Massachusetts.
There are fewer than 2,000 African-Americans among the 100,000 registered architects in the United States. These numbers have risen only incrementally over the past decade, even as enrollments of diverse students in design programs have increased. Probably the best-known architect of color in the United States today is an Englishman, David Adjaye, designer of the Smithsonian's National Museum of African American History and Culture (though his co-designer, Philip Freelon, is also gaining deserved recognition). Apart from midcentury California architect Paul R. Williams, monographs on black American architects are rare, and African-American architects remain essentially invisible.
Ellen Weiss' Robert R. Taylor and Tuskegee underlines the challenge faced by a distinguished black architect at the dawn of the American architecture profession. Thomas Jefferson and others declared themselves to be architects early in America's history, but the profession we know today largely came into being after the Civil War, as apprenticeships and the Grand Tour yielded to university-based professional programs.
Robert R. Taylor (1868–1942) was the North Carolinian son of two mixed-race parents: his mother, Emily, was a mulatto foundling raised by a black family; his father, Henry, was a former slave, merchant, carpenter, and builder. Carpentry was a common occupation for free blacks in North Carolina; in the late 1850s, a freeman, Thomas Day, owned the largest cabinet-making business in North Carolina, which used both slaves and white apprentices to produce Day's distinctive furniture.
Taylor attended a Massachusetts- funded missionary "normal school" in Wilmington, North Carolina, where he met faculty who encouraged him to apply to the architecture program at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the first in the nation. Taylor performed well and became, in 1892, the first acknowledged African-American graduate of that program. During his final year at MIT, Taylor was approached by Tuskegee University founder and president, Booker T. Washington, who invited the young architect to join the faculty. The mission: tying together academics and industrial education with the goal of "improving the race" by linking intellect and pragmatic hard work. Taylor declined other offers and became Tuskegee's chief architect and a leading teacher from 1902 into the mid-1930s.
Taylor's work shaped the Tuskegee campus, as he designed the administration building, library, science buildings, dining facility, dormitories, trades buildings, and lecture halls. He directed the largest department; designed, executed, and maintained the buildings and infrastructure; and managed academic affairs behind the scenes as director of industries. While the Ku Klux Klan ranged through Alabama intimidating and lynching "uppity" blacks, Taylor served as a mentor and role model for aspiring black professionals, standing, at one point, on his veranda to face down a Klan parade past the campus. Few American architects have had as much influence in forming a campus community as Taylor did at Tuskegee.
Weiss, a retired professor of architecture at Tulane University in New Orleans, places Taylor's work in the broader context of architectural trends of the period and provides a thorough inventory of his campus work. His designs were hardly radical, following the widely accepted practice of producing dark brick neoclassical buildings that gave Tuskegee a traditional "old campus" look and feel. In light of Tuskegee's largely working- class African-American student body, such a campus setting would have been seen as formal and inspirational, appropriate for the gravity with which the University approached higher education. Even today, as budget cuts have led to much-deferred maintenance, the campus imparts a solemnity that underlines the importance Booker T. Washington and Robert Taylor placed on higher education as a pathway to economic success. This well-researched and extensively illustrated work is must reading for those seeking insights into the emergence of African-American professionals at the beginning of the 20th century.
Ted Landsmark Assoc. AIA is president of the Boston Architectural College and past president of the National Architectural Accrediting Board.
Increasing the density of American neighborhoods can be a hard sell. Yet architecture and planning literature that tackles the issue remains strangely rare. In her previous book titled Visualizing Density, Julie Campoli worked with aerial photographer Alex MacLean to show that dense neighborhoods are not all bad or, for that matter, all alike. Made for Walking takes the next step, not only describing density as highly variable but also as the most responsible environ-mental choice.
The book is organized around 12 case studies of dense neighborhoods, covering a wide geographic and typological range, from well-known examples such as Greenpoint, Brooklyn, to more obscure places like Short North in Columbus, Ohio. The case studies are well documented through comparative planning diagrams and — in a departure from her previous partnership with MacLean — pedestrian-level elevations attempting to simulate the experience of walking along a street in each neighborhood. The reading and graphics are straightforward. Although many professionals might find the book's planning principles reductionist, the reality is that the case for density faces a fierce political headwind. The ability to state the case for density as simply and clearly as Campoli does is a necessary first step toward remaking our metro areas.
Yet Campoli herself presents us with statistics suggesting that we may no longer need to make the intellectual argument. Recent surveys show a distinct preference for lots comprising fewer than 7,000 square feet; retiring baby boomers are looking to trade their large suburban homes for smaller dwellings; and three-quarters of Millennials are living (or plan to live) in urban cores. Economics and demographics imply an inevitable move toward increasing density in existing neighborhoods.
All of which suggests that the most important current question for dense urban neighborhoods is not why but how — a question not answered by Campoli's book. As many of the case studies in the book demonstrate, boosting neighborhood population is easier when brownfields are available for development. Increasing density in existing neighborhoods with an established identity and architectural grain is much more difficult. Integrating density using a contemporary architectural language is harder still. Though Campoli describes this happening in Toronto's Little Portugal or Miami's Flamingo Park, she doesn't make the case for it with her images, as the photos mostly capture the quaintness of the historic buildings in these communities. (The case study that shows an integration of old and new buildings on the same blocks is Kitsilano in Vancouver, British Columbia, where new buildings aren't large enough to meet demand and the neighborhood has trouble creating housing for a range of incomes.)
Campoli's book would be more useful had it documented contemporary developments that set inspiring examples of either community process or architectural design. Stories of how projects successfully navigated the typically contentious community process to make neighborhoods denser would have been welcome. Furthermore, the contemporary buildings shown in Made for Walking tend to be uninspired. University Park in Cambridge is one of the better-looking examples of new construction featured in the book (compare it to, say, Eisenhower East in Alexandria, Virginia); however, it receives little love from the local community. Admittedly, this is partly the result of the large lot sizes that arise from repurposing old industrial districts; however, several projects overseas, such as Borneo Sporenburg in Amsterdam, have done an exciting job of breaking down the scale of large contemporary developments. Describing the genesis of several such examples could go a long way toward making our increasingly (and, apparently, inevitably) dense neighborhoods both environmentally responsible and well loved. Campoli's writing and awareness of the subject matter is clear; the next step is showing that we can build architecture worthy of our renewed love affair with urbanity.
Justin Crane AIA is an associate at Cambridge Seven Associates.