Some 18 months ago I was asked by one of the editors at Landscape Architecture Magazine to write a review of The Smart Growth Manual; Andres Duany, Jeff Speck, Mike Lydon. When I was asked about the assignment I had not even heard of the title, which surprised me, considering Duany's justified renown.
The review was never published by LAM — there's a fascinating backstory and I will post it another day — so I am offering the review here.
One very personal note: when I received (from the LAM editor) my copy of The SGM and saw its style, I was absolutely delighted that Duany and company had adopted the format of my book City Comforts. (Which format, of course, I had been inspired by or even copied from A Pattern Language.) No doubt Andres had forgotten my little book when The SMG was created. But when he first read City Comforts in 1995 it he focussed on its layout and told me that it was a "great delivery system." So my immediate response to seeing the Smart Growth Manual was a sense of "I've-come-home-familiarity," friendliness, enthusiasm and total bias in the book's favor. Unfortunately my enthusiasm did not last a thorough reading.
My review below, unedited from first writing in August 2010:
The Smart Growth Manual
It may be an odd way to start a book review by saying that “I look forward to future editions of The Smart Growth Manual (The SMG)” before I even review it, but in its first edition the book cannot be considered a “manual,” a “handbook,” a work of settled professional practices.
The SMG is 148 directives grouped by scale, with the “The Region,”
then “The Neighborhood,” “The Street,” and finally “The Building.” The SMG is 5.5“ by 8.25” by about 1/2 “ thick. Its corners are rounded, like a Moleskin or the field notebook of a surveyor and suggests its physical form is meant to be used. The authors attempt to frame Smart Growth as a "unified field theory of planning " — their term — from the scale of an entire region down to the front porch of a detached home. It is not a coffee table book but a “delivery system” for ideas.
And that’s the problem. Many, even most, of the books directives are commonsense, not particularly new but brought together for convenience in an attractive format. But The SMG is also full of a conventional new orthodoxy — trends du jour —which is contentious and hardly any standard. This book is not for beginners. If The SMG were a ski trail it would be a double black diamond: EXPERTS ONLY, for spotting issues, discussion and dreaming, such as:
Peak oil bends to everything and suggests, for instance, that “...metropolitan regions will need to be more self-sufficient, not least in terms of food production.” Locavorism in particular and self-sufficiency in general is complex, contentious and not easy to sort out and it’s reckless to suggest that it is a slam dunk.
Regionalism claims that “regional planning is essential, for it alone operates at the true scale of people’s lives.” Yet the authors also say that “neighborhood structure is the very heart of smart growth.” Which is it? Moreover, we already have many great neighborhoods under nonexistent regional plans.
Rails-to-trails should be prevented for future value in post-petroleum economy. Perhaps worthy of discussion but it ignores the role in bike- commuting nor suggests solutions except prohibition.
Civic Buildings “should physically embody the aspirations of the people...” Several pages conflate public, private and civic. A typical museum is private and its board is elected by no one except itself. a “civic building” and is to be judged by different rules, often producing a precious object of starchitecture. Such broad definition of “civic” devours the exception — hospitals, schools, museums, police stations, government office buildings, jails, solid waste disposal transfer stations, swimming pools, and so on all deserve special treatment. Sports stadiums and arenas would meet the standard.
“...authentic community social networks depend on the presence of diversity of ages and incomes.”
“authentic community?” Bosh. Who says?
“...the more rural the locale, the more rustic they should be.”
Such aesthetic preferences make no sense aesthetically and less politically.
“Transformers, lift stations, utility meters, cable RTV boxes and other such machinery should not be located in the frontage streetscape.”
That’s just prissy. Making such utilitarian things interesting can be done and more likely than banishment.
Transferable Development Rights is there too and blithely puts aside the huge political issues of receiving sites, which are not going to be in the undesirable areas but the very best ones.
Congestion Pricing is here of course.
“Among these are drive-throughs, gas stations, blank walls, and car lots, all of which should be located in districts beyond the neighborhood edge.” Where is a “no one’s neighborhood?” People too poor to be able to can’t organize and mount a defense? Puzzling. Seems like the correct solution is to civilize such usually nasty uses, not just put them in someone else’s neighborhood..
As I was reviewing The SMG I was also reading (Hughes’ The Shock of the New) about “utopia” where the ideal city of Sforzinda, (named after the 15th century Milanese Duke Sforza) is “A place for every job and rank in society, and every rank and job in its place.” I could not help but think of The SMG. It too tries to create a complete system and a vision of order and tidiness — from social diversity to street light fixtures.
And that connection prompted me to ask if Smart Growth (per The SMG, anyway) is actually about cities? I used to assume so but I wonder. Does it offer Jane Jacobs’ ‘messy vitality?’ Urban hustle-bustle, competition and contention and heaven help us, even tacky and poor taste? Then I also remembered Duany’s praise of Singapore characterized as
top-down government...almost completely enlightened, putting education first and so forth, and you have this city that is extremely livable. While democracy does most things well, I think we need to confront the fact that it does not make the best cities.
Indeed my impression on first reading The SMG was “Great book for enlightened dictators.” Whether intended, The SMG’s brook-no-disagreement tone, while
it offers speculative ideas, could only be implemented by an enlightened dictator. For the rest of us, if in future editions the authors insist on keeping their speculations, please mark them with a little check mark as “For Discussion.”
The SGM deserves careful reading and it justifies future editions (perhaps ongoing) — the authors just need to earmark the speculative as opposed to the settled opinions.
I had great fun reading The SGM and was sorely disappointed to have to review it as I did. I really got into it and wrote some 3500 words before I had to pare it down ruthlessly.
One thing I had to cut was my passing speculation on why Christopher Alexander (author of A Pattern Language and one of the great thinkers and writers on the built environment) does not appear to be a visible luminary in the Congress for the New Urbanism (CNU). One would think that he would be a natural fit and part of CNU's pantheon, which he does not appear to be. But on reading The SGM, it became quite clear why. Now that may be an "inside baseball" matter of gossip but I think that the political framework which Duany et al seems to favor is an important factor and relevant to anyone concerned about how things get done. Or at least as I speculate.
One other point. An online friend read this post and told me that I was "one tough reviewer."
My response is that it would be an insult to Duany to do anything but offer a tough — though I think fair — review. If I didn't respect Duany I would have been easy, in fact I might not have bothered reading it if the lead writer was very young and inexperienced or clearly poorly informed. Neither Duany and his associates, nor "new urbanism" (small caps) nor "smart growth" gain from holding back on criticism. Like human muscles, intellectual, social and political movements gain strength from precise resistance.
Review of "The Smart Growth Manual" by David M. Sucher is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.