Joe Urban | Sam Newberg, Urbanist

David Brooks, Denver and the American Dream

Dateline: 4:05 pm February 17, 2009 Filed under:

David Brooks had a column in the New York Times today entitled I Dream of Denver. I found it interesting because he was citing the results of a recent Pew Research Center survey that seems to reinforce our desire for suburban living, and that it is still a strong part of the American Dream. He also infers that all planners love Amsterdam and think American cities should become just like that.

Let me just say this first. The center of Amsterdam (to which Mr. Brooks is really referring) is a unique place. And the definition of unique like no other. We can’t replicate it anywhere. It is beautiful and wonderful and it isn’t just planners that like it. But even the Dutch sometimes want a little more space.

I’ve spent some time in the Dutch cities and suburbs. I’ve done it on foot, by car, by train, but it is best seen by bike. I even wrote about it for Urban Land in an article entitled Suburban Snapshots. What I found comparing American and Dutch master planned communities was many similarities that Brooks espouses – open space, pedestrian meeting places, the choice to live in a single family home with a yard, some toys, and perhaps even a boat in the back yard. People here and there like that stuff. It is an American Dream and a Dutch Dream.

The differences are some core values like transportation and affordable housing. Our suburbs have recreational bike trails. The Dutch have bike lanes that take you places you need in your everyday life. Transit is often an afterthought here. The Dutch take transit seriously. When they build new suburbs, few homes or places of work are more than 400 meters (the standard five minute walk) from a bus or rail station. New suburbs also include town centers with a major rail station. 30% of all new housing is affordable. Across the board. Sure it is top down planning, but it is right and largely represents the values of the population. We don’t do that here.

If you look at the built environment, in many ways the Dutch are providing the American Dream better than America is. In the built environment at least.

If you believe Chris Leinberger’s research, which you can find in his insightful new book “The Option of Urbanism,” then you understand that demand for large lot suburban homes has largely been met for the foreseeable future, whereas demand for in-town housing with walkability and transit service has not. Our supply and demand is off. My advice to planners and developers – look inwards! And if you look out, build it more like the Dutch.

What we are not yet addressing adequately in this country, in both cities and suburbs, is the need to build complete, compact communities that offer a variety of housing and transportation options. Doug Farr gets at that in his book Sustainable Urbanism, and that is basically what LEED-ND is all about.

And that is something Americans also want – green communities. They are starting to understand that a hybrid alone won’t reduce your vehicle miles traveled. When given the option, they are voting with their feet.

David Brooks and the Pew research need not be exclusive of Leinberger, Farr, new urbanists, tree huggers and the railvolution. In fact, the very title of Mr. Brooks’s piece includes the name Denver, a place to me that is on the forefront of building a proper transit system to support compact and complete communities. They are providing the new American Dream of walkable urbanism with lots of outdoor amenities nearby. I’d reckon the reason is they have so many transplants there that understand good dense cities (New York, San Francisco, etc.) and want that with some mountains.

We can have our American dream, but it can and must me a little Dutch. We can have our single family homes and our amenities, but not everybody wants, much less needs that. And we just have to do it all on a bit smaller footprint.

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