In an online comment regarding a letter to the editor of the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner, I suggested that the suburban living so common in Fairbanks was a contributor to traffic problems. In response, another reader asked, “Fairbanks has suburbs?”
The question is not whether we have distinct suburbs, as Renton is to Seattle, or Aurora to Chicago. It’s whether — and how much — we have suburban sprawl. And what would we have instead?
I’ve just finished re-reading Suburban Nation by Andres Duany and others. The authors define suburbia in a section called “The five components of sprawl”, which I’d like to quote liberally here. (If the authors or publisher believe that this falls outside of fair use, they should contact me.)
Housing subdivisions, also called clusters and pods. These places consist only of residences. They are sometimes called villages, towns, and neighborhoods by their developers, which is misleading, since those terms denote places which are not exclusively residential and which provide an experiential richness not available in a housing tract….
Shopping centers, also called strip centers, shopping malls, and big-box retail. These are places exclusively for shopping. They come in every size, from the Quick Mart on the corner to the Mall of America, but they are all places to which one is unlikely to walk…
Office parks and business parks. These are places only for work. Derived from the modernist architectural vision of the building standing free in the park, the contemporary office park is usually made of boxes in parking lots….
Civic institutions. The fourth component of suburbia is public buildings: the town halls, churches, schools, and other places where people gather for communication and culture. In traditional neighborhoods, these buildings often serve as neighborhood focal points, but in suburbia they take an altered form: large and infrequent, generally unadorned owing to limited funding, surrounded by parking, and located nowhere in particular….
Roadways. The fifth component of sprawl consists of the miles of pavement that are necessary to connect the other four disassociated components. Since each piece of suburbia serves only one type of activity, and since daily life involves a wide variety of activities, the residents of suburbia spend an unprecedented amount of time and money moving from one place to the next. Since most of this motion takes place in singly occupied automobiles, even a sparsely populated area can generate the traffic of a much larger traditional town.
This definition of suburban sprawl is in my mind today because an article in today’s News-Miner announced that “Borough officials are bringing in consultants to help them overhaul laws governing the design and construction of residential subdivisions.”
I appreciate that these laws are probably written to protect future residents from the danger of building on wetlands and thawing permafrost. But haven’t we already lost the battle when we’ve stopped talking about the development of neighborhoods?. When we’re framing our questions in the language of design policies that isolate people from most of their daily needs, drive up the costs of infrastructure, and erode civic life?