Interviews April 2000

Towards a New Urbanism

The authors of Suburban Nation tell Gore and Bush to listen up—the antidote to sprawl is good old-fashioned town planning

Once a consistent style has been established so that a place feels like it has a coherent identity, would ecclecticism within that be okay?

EPZ: Yes. You can make a specific contrast to the prevailing style for specific reasons: a special public building, for instance.

What kind of implications for community life do you think the current craze for ordering everything from groceries to furniture over the Internet will have?

JS: If you believe like we do that society evolves as a function of casual encounters in the street—people actually seeing each other and bumping into each other—then it's a scary prospect. However, if you read contemporary philosophers like Paul Nesbit or Alvin Toffler, they talk about a concept called "high-tech, high-touch"—that the more disassociated we are from each other in our work and in our means of communication, the more we seek out an environment that fosters physical interactions.

EPZ: I think the implications we look forward to are the fact that a sense of community and a sense of place are becoming more important. People can make choices about where they work and how they live more than ever before. Maybe centers like Kinkos—where you can buy paper or use a certain kind of machine or communications device that you don't have at home—could become a new focus for community-making: a combination of workplace and community.

Throughout his campaign, Al Gore has emphasized his committment to fight sprawl. How well do you think the proposals he's outlined mesh with your own?

JS: From our perspective, Gore, Christine Todd Whitman of New Jersey, and the Sierra Club are all halfway there. They're all focusing on preserving land. We're certainly all for open-space preservation, but that argument never wins for more than a political generation. They might stop growth temporarily and then someone else gets elected and it starts again in the worst possible form. The quality of community life isn't going to improve unless new communities that are built have centers and edges and offer the ability to enjoy life as a pedestrian. We're not saying "stop growth" -- we're saying "shape growth in a beneficial form."

Do you have any sense of what the election of George W. Bush in 2000 might mean in terms of addressing sprawl?

JS: We heard a rumor last week that Bush's advisors are investigating Andres's political affiliation. Which makes us wonder if there's some potential contact and education that might go on. A superficial reading of our principles sometimes gives people the idea that we're anti-business. We find that very surprising, given our client base and the money we've made for them. We actually see the TND [Traditional Neighborhood Developments] as the salvation of the American homebuilding industry. Imagine the power of this message: it's not growth vs. no-growth; it's good growth vs. bad growth. The message we're trying to put out there—listen up George W.!— is that we can end the sprawl mess and build all the new homes we want.

EPZ: As New Urbanists, we feel that this should be a nonpartisan issue because more-sustainable communities should be everybody's agenda. So whether it's Gore or Bush is not the issue as much as that it's being discussed as part of the electoral picture. Gore has taken the lead on this, but both parties will be laying claim to it because it's such an important issue for our time. I think it's becoming more and more everybody's issue.

In your guidelines for successful city development, you write that "a proactive municipal government ... must determine the type, scale, and quality of new growth and then act as the lead booster for that growth." Are there any cities that you think are currently doing an especially successful job of developing in that way?

EPZ: There are a number of cities that have managed well for a long time. Charleston, South Carolina, is one of the models that we admire the most. Mayor Joseph Riley, who's been in office for about eighteen years, is one of the main reasons for it. There's a whole government that's behind the effort, but he's the leader. Riley was one of the founders of the National Endowment for the Arts Mayors' Institute, which sponsors workshops that help mayors around the country deal with design and development issues in their cities. The Institute is really one of the chief proponents in this country of the idea that the quality of a city's built environment affects its economic future.

We've been engaged with several different cities that have been making very focused efforts on their physical environments. Providence, Rhode Island, under the initiative of an elder-statesman architect named William Warner, took the highway off its river and has restored urban streets with granite bridges and balustrades.

West Palm Beach, under the leadership of Mayor Nancy Graham and now Mayor Joel Davies, is doing a major redevelopment effort. There are a lot of buildings there that are being restored and reused. And there's a lot of open land where buildings were taken down in the seventies, which is now being developed in accordance with the traditional urbanism that was originally planned for the city.

You can point to cities and small towns all over the country. Another city very close to home is Miami Beach, where the design of the city is such an important part of the political agenda that many of the activists who were initially preservationists trying to save buildings are now on the city commission.

What's your take on Boston's "Big Dig" project, which is rerouting Interstate Highway 93 so that instead of cutting through the middle of the city, it will tunnel underneath?

EPZ: I don't know that much about it. I know it's big; I know there are cost overruns. But I think actually, generally speaking, the U.S. needs to be investing in infrastructure in a big way. If you go to a city like Brussels, which is not the largest city in Europe, it has a myriad of tunnels underneath it to get traffic out of it. These are investments in the future of an urban area. We could just leave those areas behind. We've been doing that for decades—the "disposable city" syndrome. Where if something doesn't work you just leave it and go find something new. That's what causes urban sprawl.

We want to use our public money wisely. I suspect that when the Big Dig is done and the city has grown back together again, people will be saying "How did we ever live without this?"

JS: My first thought has to do with what happened in New York when the West Side Highway was taken down in 1973 and in San Francisco when the Embarcadero Freeway was destroyed by an earthquake and taken down. In both cases, the car trips pretty much disappeared. Those cities have demonstrated that if you remove highways people actually find other ways to get around. But as a native Bostonian, it's hard to imagine that the removal of that highway could fail to create a complete meltdown. We'll never know.

Secondly, I'm extremely troubled by what appears to be a reneging on the promise of a transit line that was supposed to be a part of the tunnel. I'm not completely up on this, but I remember that there was going to be a line between North and South Stations so that commuters from New York could go all the way to Maine. The transit line was the major justification made to the greens for the passage of the funding. From what I hear, that line has either been cut or is in question. It's the typical bait-and-switch by the road-building lobby. You end up with the zillion-dollar automotive infrastructure and, as usual, transit falls by the wayside.

Finally, I'm concerned that one seam is being replaced by another. The idea was to reunite the city. The latest plan as I understand it is that everyone's just calling for open space. My question is, How does a huge green swath -- particularly a cheaply-built huge green swath—reunite the city? If it's done as well as Olmsted did it with the Emerald Necklace and Commonwealth Avenue, that's one thing. But I don't think the budget is there to design it and to plant it in that quality. We don't need a seam of green—we need parks and buildings and boulevards. With the appropriate plan and code in place it could be a wonderful combination of parks and urbanism that's worthy of Boston.

As the three of you worked together on this book, did you discover any areas of significant disagreement in your thinking about sprawl or planning?

EPZ: It wasn't the subject matter as much as the tone of the book. Andres's lectures have been quite caustic and sometimes snide. He's used a combination of anger and humor to get a lot of people's attention. It works a lot better in speech, in my opinion, than it does in writing. So we were having discussions about just how badly we should tread on people's toes and how many people's toes we should tread on.

JS: Andres and Lizz taught me practically everything I know about urbanism. And I've seen them proved right again and again. So I had very little to disagree with them about. But we had different visions as to who our audience was. I was pushing to go entirely for a popular audience. And Lizz was more interested in clarifying our arguments for a professional and academic audience. Andres was somewhere in between. But I think the book is much stronger as a result of those discussions. The book took five years to write. It was not by any means a walk in the park. But we can all claim all of it as our own.

Did you know from the very outset of your careers that you were interested in community planning? Or did you start out with a focus on architecture or something else?

EPZ: We all have architectural education. Andres and I coincided at school together. It was in the early-to-mid 1970s, when people were just beginning to be aware of ecology and green building. And there was a burgeoning interest in cities. The preservation movement really was just beginning. There were some wonderful urban courses. I don't think we ever dreamt that we would be designing whole communities or working with whole sectors of cities, but we certainly had a good grounding for it in the education that we had.

With membership in the Congress for New Ubanism growing, and with so many people making efforts to learn the New Urbanist principles, are you feeling optimistic about your ideas starting to catch on?

JS: Herbert Muschamp, the New York Times architecture critic, who's generally quite critical of our work, described the New Urbanism as the most important collective effort of architects in the second half of the twentieth century. If he says that, then we figure we're well on our way.

So there's hope for turning the tide against sprawl?

JS: Every little bit helps. Fifty years from now we'll look back and we'll either say, "Well, we did it—we stopped sprawl." Or we'll say, "Well, so much for that idea." But even if it's the latter we'll have the satisfaction of a whole bunch of great projects that at least made a difference individually—even if, as whole, they weren't enough to change the world.

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Sage Stossel is a contributing editor at The Atlantic and draws the cartoon feature "Sage, Ink." She is author/illustrator of the graphic novel Starling, and of the children's books  On the Loose in Boston and On the Loose in Washington, DC. More

On Election Day in 1996, TheAtlantic.com launched a weekly editorial cartoon feature drawn by Sage Stossel and named (aptly enough) "Sage, Ink." Since then, Stossel's whimsical work has been featured by the New York Times Week in Review, CNN Headline News, Cartoon Arts International/The New York Times Syndicate, The Boston Globe, Nieman Reports, Editorial Humor, The Provincetown Banner (for which she received a 2009 New England Press Association Award), and elsewhere. Her work has also been included in Best Editorial Cartoons of the Year, (2005, 2006, 2009, and 2010 editions) and Attack of the Political Cartoonists. Her children's book, On the Loose in Boston, was published in June 2009.

Sage Stossel grew up in a suburb of Boston and attended Harvard University, where she majored in English and American Literature and Languages and did a weekly cartoon strip about college life, called "Jody," for the Harvard Crimson. From 2004 to 2007, she served as Books Editor of the Radcliffe Quarterly

After college she took what was intended to be a temporary summer position securing electronic rights to articles from The Atlantic's archive for use online. Intrigued by The Atlantic's rich history and the creative possibilities in helping to launch a digital edition of the magazine on the Web, she soon joined The Atlantic full time. As the site's former executive editor, she was involved in everything from contributing reviews, author interviews, and illustrations, to hosting message boards and producing a digital edition of The Atlantic for the Web.

Stossel lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

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