Review: The Next American Metropolis by Peter Calthorpe

Cover courtesy of Princeton Architectural Press

I’ve been on a bit of an urbanism kick recently, and of the books I’ve read this one seems like the best introduction for anyone just getting into the topic. The Next American Metropolis opens with a long essay about the failures of planning (or rather, the failures of no planning, or piecemeal planning) in America, how this has negatively impacted the American city and the American citizen, and the solution: transit-oriented development. Next comes a set of guidelines and definitions for the various components of transit-oriented development and how to plan it, from the regional scale all the way down to regulations for individual lots. The final section is a kind of portfolio of projects that Calthorpe and his firm designed, with full-page color diagrams and maps, and accompanying text explaining how these plans embody different aspects of the preceding sections. So although you can read it straight through, and it is organized for you to do that, the book also functions as a reference book, or even an art book where you can flip to any page in the latter half and find some wonderfully rendered architectural sketches or zoning plans.

As I said, the book is a great introduction to urbanism, and particularly New Urbanism—though Calthorpe doesn’t really use that phrase, instead focusing on “transit-oriented development.” The two are part and parcel. The idea is to build things to a human scale, not (just) a car scale. The idea is that single-use zoning (e.g. vast blocks of homogenous residential, downtowns composed of just office towers) are poison to the life of a city, as is any automobile-oriented development. The freedom to get anywhere in a car isn’t freedom at all, it’s dependence. It means anyone without a car in these residential suburbs is stranded. It means the people getting around in cars live their lives entirely in closed-off, private spaces—their home, their office, the supermarket, their car—and never mingle with their neighbors and fellow citizens on the streets or in public parks and plazas. It means that pedestrians are unsafe and uncomfortable, forced to walk down long blocks with a low-density of street connections, or cross enormous unshaded parking lots when shopping for necessities.

There’s a lot more to New Urbanism, but that’s the basic idea—we’ve built for the car and thus created inefficient, pollutant, and unpleasant cities; the solution is to build for pedestrians. You may be familiar with New Urbanism in some form already: if you’ve heard about neighborhoods or cities being “walkable,” well, that’s a principal of New Urbanism. This book was written in 1993, but the ideas are super relevant today because it has taken so long for cities to actually put them into practice. So if you’ve been wondering what exactly “walkable” means, or if this brief summary has piqued your interest, read this book! In the opening essay, Calthorpe provides great statistics about the growth of car-dependence, lengthening commutes, and some of the factors that drove mass suburbanization. He does just as good a job laying out the ideas and ideals of transit-oriented development, which are essentially timeless. The thing about New Urbanism is, it isn’t really new. It’s sort of how things were done in the era of streetcars, just before the mass proliferation of personal cars in America. This type of design works, and we’ve known it works for decades, and this 30-year-old book may as well have been published yesterday.

For those who have some general familiarity with New Urbanism, as I did, this is still a great read. Calthorpe takes the principals and applies them at every scale of development, from entire regions to new neighborhoods to commercial centers to individual streets. Particularly in the Guidelines section, he demonstrates that these aren’t just platitudes—there are concrete, sometimes simple, ways to build neighborhoods that are safer, more pleasant to walk around, more connected, and more beneficial to the city as a whole. And once you start putting these different scales of development guidelines together, they work as one in intuitive harmony.

It is so easy to take our environment for granted, but Calthorpe shows how everything around us is a choice—and how we can choose better. Houses don’t have to be set back twenty feet. Stores don’t have to be oriented with their parking lots facing the street, and the storefronts swung back. We can choose mixed-use development, appealing building façades, riverside parks and densely connected street layouts. Even as someone with an interest in urbanism already, reading this book made me notice new things about the neighborhood I live in, and reflect on why I experienced the neighborhood I grew up in the way I did.

One thing that sets this book apart from the other urbanism books I’ve read, indeed many of the major texts in the field, is the abundance of diagrams. There are small black and white sketches throughout, and the final section of the book, the project plans section, is full of full-page maps and architectural drawings. Although good urban design requires shifts in funding, social programs, and regulations/deregulations in planning codes, a lot of it still boils down to geometry. If something in the text isn’t making sense, the maps can help the reader tremendously. The one problem with them is that the color-coding for zoning is a bit off—there’s only a color legend on one page, and the colors in it don’t totally match up to the maps. It’s not a major issue though—any ambiguity in the zone colors can be quickly resolved by reading the adjoining captions. Once again, the projects range from the regional-scale down to small urban infill and redesigns of just a couple blocks.

A plan from the “Towns and New Towns” section

It’s interesting to look at these projects and compare them to current satellite maps of the areas in question. Most of them, sadly, were never built. The ones that were built (the biggest example being Laguna West, a suburb south of Sacramento) invariably fail to incorporate the pedestrian friendly commercial center, the “main street,” that is meant to be the lively core of these developments. At best they have a commercial core with parking lots fronting the streets, or stores that are only accessible via the major arterial roads/highways which border the development. So the projects section is an admirable effort to show that this is not just airy fairy theory, this kind of development really is possible—while, at the same time, demonstrating how compromised these visions will likely be. That is, to some extent, the history of the planning profession.

What else is there to say? If you’re interested in cities, if you keep hearing “walkability” and “mixed-use” and wonder what that means, if you want to gain new insight on the roads and buildings that surround you every day, read this book. It is an excellent, tactile introduction to New Urbanism—the problems it addresses, and the many forms the solution can take. Even if you’re already well-versed in urbanism, the guidelines and project plans in this book are a terrific way to deepen your knowledge and gain some visual exemplars of what better American neighborhoods could look like.

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