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Culture and Arts

Culture Watch


In this issue:


A Julia Sneden review of the book, Suburban Nation, that describes the evils of sprawl far beyond its obvious aesthetic lacks, or even the ecological damage.

Laura Haywood reviews Anne Perry's The Whitechapel Conspiracy during which murder investigations bump into each other and tie into the infamous Jack the Ripper killings.

And Consider This

The Juggernaut Theatre website provides a look at five women who were professional playwrights in the 16th and 17th century. Hannah Cowley's plays were censored, Joannna Baillie raised questions about marriage, Susanna Centlivre dabbled in the stockmarket, Alphra Aphra was an international spy and Elizabeth Inchbald ran away from home to act and write plays.


Suburban Nation
The Rise of Sprawl and the Decline of the American Dream
By Andres Duany, Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk, Jeff Speck
North Point Press paperback

I wish this book had been available back when I wrote a column entitled Dante in the City. Suburban Nation says everything I was trying to say, only at greater length, in more depth, and with greater authority. Two of the authors own a firm that has designed more than two hundred new neighborhoods and community revitalization plans, most notably Seaside, Florida. They have given long thought to the nature of our civic problems.

Their description of the evils of sprawl goes far beyond its obvious aesthetic lacks, or even the ecological damage. They make a good case for sprawl's profound effects on the human spirit, citing, for example, isolation; the damage that living in a homogeneous environment does to adults and children alike; the lack of stimulation afforded by single-use neighborhoods; and the long commutes at the end of a tiring workday.

This book builds a convincing case for their conclusion that the only proven answer to urban sprawl is the traditional neighborhood found in earlier days and in much of the rest of the world to this day. Those neighborhoods consist of mixed-use areas with shops, residences, workplaces, green spaces, and civic buildings all within easy distance of each other.

One of their most interesting points is that design affects behavior. By "design" they do not refer to architecture, but to the design (or lack thereof) of our community spaces. The authors note that it is the quality of the community surrounding our homes that is important to all of us. They cite a study that shows that Americans prefer a good community to a good house by a margin of 3 to 1.

The authors identify the 80 million Americans who are too young, too old, or too poor to drive as the most obvious victims of sprawl. But sprawl also hurts every one of us. Their section called "Cul De Sac Kids" points out that children in affluent suburbs suffer from a complete lack of autonomy. They must depend on some adult to drive them wherever they want to go, since shops and movie theatres and libraries and places to meet their friends are rarely located close enough for a walk. They are even unable to run to the corner store to pick up an item for their mothers, or to buy comic books or a candy bar.

Our suburban teenagers are suffering from a huge rise in the suicide rate. Isolation and boredom and a sense of disconnection are just some of the effects of a homogeneous and understimulating environment. They may well lead thrill-seeking teenagers to seek an alternate reality, be it video or computer games, or psychosis, or drugs.

The authors also point out that children growing up in the homogeneous environments created by sprawl (i.e. where the dwellings in your neighborhood are of like economic value, be that affluent or poverty stricken) are less likely to develop a sense of empathy for people from other walks of life. They are ill-prepared to live in a diverse society.

The writers of this book do not sugarcoat their opinions. They state flat-out that our streets are absolutely anti-people, and are designed for the sole purpose of moving vehicles through a city as quickly as possible. The lack of pedestrian amenities such as safe distances between sidewalk and traffic lanes; places to sit; easy crossovers, etc. all contribute to the unsafe feeling many of us have when we're on foot in the city. For too many years, the answer to the problems of moving vehicles has been simply to build more roads. Atlanta has built more miles of highway per capita than any city but Kansas City. The result? Atlantans now drive an average of 35 miles per day, more than the citizens of any other US city. And the traffic tie-ups are still horrible.

It is a positive relief to reach the final chapters of this insightful book. Titled "How to Make a Town," and "What Is To Be Done," they offer both philosophical and practical advice. There is no way to stop the growth of our towns and cities, but if we can find designers who will make sure that whatever is built on the edges of our communities is environmentally sound, economically efficient, and socially proactive, we can create living spaces that will go a long way to healing our problems of sprawl.

We need, the authors tell us, to think globally, act locally, but plan regionally. What works for one area might not work for another, and nearly every region has a special feature or two that should be considered.

This reviewer was loaned a copy of Suburban Nation by a neighbor who is on our town Planning Commission. If you read it and like it, I hope you will pass it on to the Planning Commission in your own town.

Julia Sneden

Page 2, Culture Watch continues>>The White Chapel Conspiracy and Juggernaut


©2003 Julia Sneden for SeniorWomenWeb
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