Toward a New Archipelago

Clusters of self-sustaining suburban villages can be the way we grow—without sprawling.

In the next 45 years America will need to house about one hundred million additional people. This will be without question the most pressing issue facing planners, developers, architects, and land-use policy-makers of the new generation. To meet that challenge successfully—in social, economic, and environmental terms—we need a new model for future growth.

Unfortunately the current paradigms follow two orthodoxies; both, we believe, are doomed to fail. The prevailing one of course is the status quo, which isn’t so much an approach to growth but a blind faith in long-standing market forces. In other words, sprawl, with all of its attendant ills: long commutes, excessive fuel consumption, pollution, and the proliferation of formless, soulless communities.

But the other paradigm—which supports increased densities in our urban centers—is driven more by wishful thinking than practical realities. And in the end it will prove equally futile. The idea of enforcing density, a notion espoused by “smart growth” advocates and some New Urbanists, suffers from a fatal flaw. It runs counter to the desires of most Americans, who in recent surveys overwhelmingly favor single-family houses in suburban or rural areas. In fact upward of 80 percent in one survey expressed a preference for single-family homes over apartments or condos. Yes, urban life is appealing to certain groups—single, young, educated professionals, for example—but the number of people who actually want to live in the city stands at somewhere between 10 and 15 percent.

Economic trends—especially job growth—­follow a similarly dispersive pattern. This makes the logic of re-creating the dense transit-dependent “streetcar suburbs” of the late nineteenth century fundamentally quixotic. Light rail, for example, works best with fixed traditional employment centers (i.e., downtowns). But it makes little sense in an economy where employment is moving out of urban centers and toward what professor and author Robert Lang calls “edgeless cities.”

This accelerating pattern of dispersion—demographer Wendell Cox describes it as “sprawl ­­beyond sprawl”—shows no signs of abating. In this decade alone, according to Cox, more than five million people are expected to leave the largest urban areas for less populated places. The nation’s fastest job growth is taking place either in the farthest reaches of metropolitan areas or in smaller “micropolitan” regions located in the countryside. Most urban populations, if they’re growing at all, are doing so much more slowly than their surrounding suburbs and far less than the hinterlands.

Despite their unrelenting march to the peripheries, Americans remain deeply uneasy about its social and environmental impacts. The New Urbanists are correct in one important aspect: many suburbanites express a real yearning for the type of social cohesion created by authentic places.

Clearly we need a planning model that embraces both the need for community and our continuing desire for privacy, space, and autonomy. We call our model the Suburban Village. Individually these villages would be self-sustaining communities—vibrant hubs—offering a variety of economic, cultural, and social benefits. Nationally we see the potential for a network of such communities—an archipelago of villages—that if smartly designed and fully wired would eliminate the need for unnecessary commutes, provide a better quality of life for residents, and create opportunities for the preservation of open space.

In many ways this postindustrial model represents a return not to the streetcar suburbs of the industrial revolution but to the older tradition of scattered self-sufficient, self-governing townships and villages. For much of our history most Americans lived with such a network of communities. On his visit to America in the early 1830s, Alexis de Tocqueville was struck by the decentralized nature of the country. “The intelligence and the power of the people are disseminated through all the parts of this vast country,” he wrote, “and instead of radiating from a common point, they cross each other in every direction.”

Historically the dispersed village’s great weakness was its social and cultural isolation, what Karl Marx described as “the idiocy of rural life.” But today’s digital technology renders this notion obsolete. People can now live in a “village” or township far from the city and still have access to the same information as those in metropolitan centers. The impact of this technology is already profoundly affecting the workplace. Between 1990 and 2000 the number of Americans working full-time at home increased by 23 percent to more than four million. Over the next decade home-based workers will constitute one of the fastest-growing parts of the labor force. According to the Hudson Institute, telecommuting is growing at about the rate of 15 percent a year, most of it among the self-employed.

The implications of this shift extend well beyond economics. Drawing work closer to the home, or into the home, undermines the very foundation of the traditional bedroom suburb. Most important, the postindustrial village promises to restore the balance between work and family originally shattered by the industrial revolution. “The biggest jolt the industrial revolution administered to the Western family,” suggests historian Peter Stearns, “was the progressive removal of work from the home.”

The good news is that we may be witnessing the revival of such villages in contemporary America. Three successful communities—Reston, Virginia; Valencia, north of Los Angeles; and the Woodlands, outside Houston—show us new ways for accommodating growth. These developments, which began in the 1960s and house more than 50,000 residents, are more than simply extensions of their metropolitan areas. They have become places in their own right. These communities blend the low- and mid-density patterns of suburbia with some basic urban amenities. Each has a thriving town center, diverse housing types, and growing cultural and religious institutions.

What makes them unique is their economic and social vibrancy. The Woodlands is home to Anadarko Petroleum (a Fortune 500 firm) and numerous other large employers, who were attracted to the area in part by its workforce. The city is also heavily wired for a growing cadre of home-based businesses. More impressive still is the sense of social cohesion. Early residents of the Woodlands created, at the request of the original developer, an elaborate, largely volunteer-led social welfare system to deal with community needs such as recreation, health, and poverty.

Valencia has evolved along similar lines and, like the Woodlands, has more people working there than commuting out. It is as much a cultural and commercial center as a suburb. One in two workers both lives and works in Valencia; almost one in ten of those operates from home. According to focus groups, residents express a powerful sense of identification with the place. Some older ones have already welcomed their children’s families back “home” as second-generation residents.

A promising new development is currently taking shape in Clovis, California, located outside of Fresno. According to John Wright, director of Planning and Development Services, Clovis intends to “provide people a small-town rural development and yet accommodate growth” by creating a series of largely self-contained villages that will all share access to a common town center. Schools are placed at the center of community life, and also serve as recreational and cultural centers. The villages are literally built around them.

Over time these communities could extend over a large part of the country. Contrary to the widespread views of many who write from our most congested coastal cities, the United States is a vast nation with an almost unfathomable amount of available land. Intelligently planned communities spread out into the landscape—in areas like California’s Central Valley or depopulating places like the Great Plains—would leave more than sufficient expanses for wilderness, public open space, and agriculture. By constructing this new archipelago, we can realistically accommodate future growth while enhancing the quality of community life for millions of Americans.

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