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.

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