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By Peter Calthorpe
Princeton Architectural Press, 1993, 175 pages

In The Next American Metropolis, Peter Calthorpe — an innovative San Francisco-based architect, urban designer, land use planner and one of the leading proponents of what is being called the "New Urbanism" — sets forth the principles of building good neighborhoods and communities. Calthorpe describes the book as "part polemic, part tool, part proof by assertion, part manifesto, but mostly, I hope, common sense." It is divided into three sections that move from the general to the specific. The first outlines Calthorpe's guiding philosophy; the second offers detailed design guidelines; and the third presents a number of specific projects — some implemented, some planned, and some turned down — from various cities and communities across the United States.

Calthorpe maintains that American cities have lost much of their soul in the postwar development of the suburbs. "The old suburban dream is increasingly out of sync with today's culture," he writes. "Our household makeup has changed dramatically, the work place and work force have been transformed, average family wealth is shrinking, and serious environmental concerns have surfaced." Even so, developers continue to build post-World War II suburbs on the assumption that families are large and have only one breadwinner, that jobs are all downtown, that there are no limits to land and energy, and that traffic congestion can be solved by building more roads.

These anachronistic development patterns have led to fractured communities and a loss of public spirit in communities across the nation, according to Calthorpe. Typically, they segregate people by age, income, ethnicity, as well as by family type. "Increasingly they isolate people and activities in an inefficient network of congestion and pollution — rather than joining them in diverse and human scaled communities." Furthermore, the commons — public spaces that provide communities with convivial gathering and meeting places — have become increasingly displaced by an exaggerated private domain: shopping malls, private clubs, and gated communities. Even the street, our most basic public space, is given over to the car and its accommodation, while our private world becomes more and more isolated behind garage doors and walled compounds.

If we are to reinvest in America, Calthorpe insists, we must develop a new "aesthetic of place" that involves not merely a change of design philosophy but a host of very practical considerations — from social impacts and economic sustainability to political implications and environmental limits. It also means adopting a more unified and long-range approach to planning policy that addresses causes as well as symptoms; we must get beyond treating such issues as open space preservation, affordable housing, highway congestion, air quality, and infrastructure costs independently, as if there are no linkages between them, he says.

Related interview: The City of Tomorrow

Scott London talks with Peter Calthorpe about the New Urbanism

Copyright 2008 by Scott London. All rights reserved.