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Should we go backward to go forward?

Robert A.M Stern–who is a fairly traditional architect (stylistically) and Dean of the Yale School of Architecture–recently coauthored a book called “Paradise Planned: The Garden Suburb and the Modern City.” It’s over 1,000 pages. I haven’t read it yet and I likely won’t, but I did just read this op-ed piece in the New York Times by Allison Arieff and I wanted to comment.

In the book, the authors argue that the solution to our suburban problems is to return to a “tragically interrupted, 150-year-old tradition” known within urban planning and architectural circles as the Garden City movement. Here’s how Arieff describes it:

The garden suburb is — because it still exists in many places — a planned, self-contained village located usually outside a major city. Ideally, it features a variety of housing types, though by variety, we’re talking single-family homes and a few low-rise multifamily buildings.

In contrast to the suburbs we’ve come to be most familiar with, these featured homes are situated in a comfortably dense, highly walkable environment designed around a public center or square.

But in addition to being more dense and walkable, the big difference for me is that the garden city (to use the original terminology) was initially intended to be self sufficient economically–rather than just serve as a bedroom community for the central city.

It was all incredibly rational. As one garden city reached its population and employment projections, the next garden city node would be created and connected to the network via road and rail. And by using land relatively intensely, it meant that more of the countryside could be preserved as undeveloped land.

But while I would agree that the suburbs aren’t going to go away (I’ve said this before) and that we should be making them more dense and walkable, the book (well, the article) got me wondering to what extent the Garden City model applies from an economic standpoint. Should we be trying to create poly-centric cities with tidy little self-sufficient pockets of employment? Or should everything primarily feed a central city?

The irony of the decentralized information economy is that it appears to be encouraging centralization across and within cities. But even before the rise of the internet and other technologies, there have always been real economic benefits to firms clustering in cities. Known as agglomeration economies, it’s one of the reasons cities even exist in the first place.

Certainly, there’s a lot we can learn from the way we used to build and plan our cities and towns (they were designed around people as opposed to cars). But something doesn’t sit right with me in terms of the way the Garden City movement thinks about cities, economically. It seems idealistic.

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