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Reshaping the American Suburb
By Philip Langdon
The University of Massachusetts Press, 1994, 270 pages

"It is no coincidence," writes Philip Langdon in A Better Place to Live, "that at the moment when the United States has become a predominantly suburban nation, the country has suffered a bitter harvest of individual trauma, family distress, and civic decay." Paradoxically, while many Americans are leaving the city and moving to the suburb, it is becoming increasingly plain that the typical suburban "community" fosters social isolation, dependence on the car, long commutes, segregation of land use, and the breakdown of public life.

The chief problem, Langdon says, is not the high mobility of American society so much as the way that suburbs are designed. Most suburban neighborhoods today are separated from services, shops, and places of work, and they have no public transportation. Many of today's residential estates are designed as much for cars as for people. They are often laid out in a "pod" pattern of cul-de-sacs and curvilinear streets that lead into main access routes, a system which ultimately produces traffic congestion, the very thing it was designed to avoid. It also promotes isolation and atomization among residents who rarely walk anywhere, interact with neighbors, or share the same public facilities. Furthermore, it separates people by race, income, profession, and age.

There is growing attention to the problems of traditional suburbs across the country today. In a chapter called "The Rediscovery of the Town," Langdon offers an extensive summary of the neo-traditional community planning of Andres Duany and Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk, Peter Calthorpe, and other planners and designers. Their approach to planning, sometimes dubbed "the New Urbanism," stresses the importance of physical as well as social and institutional connections in fostering community.

Langdon argues that a return to more traditional features of neighborhoods is essential in order to restore the community spirit that is lacking in so many suburbs today. His proposals for restructuring the suburb include organizing communities around well-defined public spaces; creating generous networks of streets and sidewalks that encourage residents to explore their neighborhoods; designing houses so that they are more likely to facilitate involvement in the community; mixing up houses of various sizes, types, and prices; and revising current zoning laws in order to integrate the various functions of a community — its schools, stores, services, work places and residences.