A Better Place to Live: Reshaping the American Suburb (Paperback) by Philip Langdon

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This book is a cogent critique of suburban forms which isolate land uses in pods, separate places by a hierarchy of feeder roads, and trap people in automobiles for time that could be used for work or for family. The author suggests an approach in which historically-proven successful urban forms are used as guidelines for present needs, with a strong focus on human-scale architecture, mixed land-use policies, and multi-modal transit options.

Covering some of the same ground as a book published just the year previous, The Geography of Nowhere, Langdon's tone is one of patient argument based on observation and history. Langdon shows how isolating land uses on feeder roads restricts traffic (chapter 2). His proof is the experience of the people who has chug along commercial strips trying to get from one big-box enclave to another or to a subdivision along a time-consuming route. In chapter 3, Langdon observes that the anti-pedestrian forms and massive, energy-intensive housing of the suburbs is a result of clever marketing that motivates homebuyers to insist on ostentatious (and energy-consuming) architectural displays and streets that look "clean" (literally, bare of pedestrians) in order to preserve and enhance resale value of the house.

Langdon observes that networks of streets that connect housing to jobs and stores as well as human-scale architecture and public space creates towns that hold their value very well over a long time. He points to a regional approach (pp. 209-218) to best uses the assets of an entire region and to create land uses that respond to local needs and thus build a seamless connection from blocks to neighborhoods to towns to the region (p. 218).

This book's title seems odd, as Langdon's suggestions seem to be about instilling urbanism in the suburbs. He skips over ideas about rebuilding cities. Could it be that at this book's first publication (hardcover) date, 1994, cities were seen as still precarious, and perhaps beyond repair?

This book sets out ideas that would be expanded on in later books by other authors (Suburban Nation, The Wealth of Cities, How Cities Work, Global City Blues, and others), yet I find it amazing that so little has changed since 1994. Indeed, the suburbs by 2007 stretch even further with even bigger houses and bigger cars going to further-flung places on still more roads. Moreover, some writers (e.g., Joel Kotkin) today look askance at any suggestion that dwellers of automobile-centered suburbia should know any alternatives. Nonetheless, Langdon's book is a cogent appeal for building better places to live that still holds up today, because, unfortunately, suburbia's intertia slouches on.

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