Real-estate legend Sam Zell said recently that the “End of Suburbia” might be happening. Right here and now.
Of course, all the suburban dreck that was built in the last six decades isn’t going to vaporize. But, in terms of new construction — in other words, the real estate development business — reproducing the postwar, automobile-dependent Suburbia pattern is a money-losing proposition.
“You’re drawing all the young people in America to these 24/7 cities,” said Zell last October. “The last thing they want to do is live in the suburbs.”
Of course, as people get a little older, compromises ensue. But, that doesn’t mean they like it. “Why would anyone live in the suburbs, except to provide schools for their kids?” Zell asked.
The first criticisms of the American automobile suburb began about the same time as the suburbs themselves appeared in the 1920s and expanded in the postwar period. “There’s no there there,” lamented Gertrude Stein about Oakland, California, in 1937. She would know — she grew up there.
But, if we aren’t going to build suburbs, what should we build?
I propose that we build what I call the Traditional City — the normal form of human urban living for the last five thousand years. The Traditional City is the basic form of historic cities in Europe, Asia, the Middle East and North Africa, and both pre-Columbian and post-Columbian Americas.
It is the form of ancient Rome, of the Aztecs’ capital city Tenochtitlan, of ancient Cuzco and Machu Picchu, of Alexandria in Egypt, and medieval Kyoto. It is also the basic form of most of modern Tokyo (built after 1950), central Paris, and Kathmandu, Nepal.
Hundreds of millions of people — perhaps billions — are living in Traditional City environments today, throughout Europe and Asia. You could hardly think of anything that has a longer track record of proven success.
The world’s most beloved urban places — central Paris, Venice, Florence, Santorini, Greece, the best parts of Kyoto, Hanoi, Bangkok and Quebec City — are inevitably in the Traditional City form. Obviously, it is popular.
Americans spend thousands of dollars and travel for days to escape their Suburban neighborhoods, and enjoy a week in Barcelona, Amsterdam, or Innsbruck.
Alas, here in the United States, we hardly have any examples of the Traditional City form. We have what I call 19th Century Hypertrophism, the form of all U.S. cities and towns built after 1780 or so. This later morphed into two new forms in the 20th century — automobile Suburbia and the high-rise 20th Century Hypertrophism popularized by French architect Le Corbusier in the 1920s and exemplified today by places like Dubai, New York’s Stuyvesant Town, and much recent highrise construction in places like Shanghai.
Think of the best parts of Europe’s best cities — places like Rome, Lyon, Lisbon or Madrid. Is there anything like that in the U.S.? Obviously not.
If 19th Century Hypertrophism worked, then we would today be celebrating the beauty of places like Chicago, Cleveland, Minneapolis, Buffalo and the Bronx. Despite some pleasing elements, our 170-year experiment in 19th Century Hypertrophism (1780-1950) was a failure. Alas, even the confused “New Urbanists” in the U.S. don’t really grasp this, and attempt to reproduce this failed experiment, with predictably mediocre results.
After literally decades of real-world experience, we can conclude today that 19th Century Hypertrophism and 20th Century Hypertrophism are failures.
Besides creating better living spaces for people (as demonstrated by thousands of existing successes worldwide) — which also happen to be inherently cheaper to build and live in — the Traditional City, in its modern form today in places like Osaka with a fully-developed train system, is also vastly less consumptive of resources. It is the path not only to a more pleasant lifestyle, but also a much more environmentally-friendly one.