Courtesy Wikimedia Commons

The suburb is not inherently bad. I have been arguing this for a while, but now I have some solid footing. It is, in fact, a thousand page-long historical survey on the history of the “garden suburb.” Penned by a team of researchers and writers assembled by Robert A.M. Stern, Paradise Planned: The Garden Suburb and the Modern City joins the serried ranks of his multi-volume paean to New York (New York 1880, 1900, 1930, 1960, and 2000), as well as the many monographs on his work, in commanding a place for the importance of knowing your history if you are going to understand architecture and urbanism today.

Stern’s team argues that the planned suburb is good. By implication, what is not good is unplanned sprawl, though I would say the real problem is the mindless and cheapened elaboration of the principles the writers show—developing from the first planned exurban settlements in England in the 18th century, through Ebenezer Howard’s garden city theories and the Tuxedo Parks Stern loves so well. The book ends with what the authors see as the true and rightful heir to the right kind of planning: the Celebration suburb Stern's firm designed for Disney outside of Orlando. They do not show the cancerous growths of McMansions and row houses in luxury lagers surrounding that suburb.

Celebration, Florida
Courtesy Robert A.M. Stern Celebration, Florida

By the book’s definition, almost every suburb is in some form or the other a “paradise planned,” as the book’s title would have it. Whether they be company towns meant to house (and control) workers, new towns decreed by dictators such as Mussolini for the swamps south of Rome, middle class havens fingering out into the countryside around cities in America or England, or mass-produced blocks stomping up hillsides in Northern Europe, they are all garden suburbs giving their inhabitants a slice of the good life.

It is hard to imagine that the team has missed any of them as they march through an average of about two to three examples per page, though I managed to find one: my favorite planned garden suburb, Bandung in Indonesia. However, as a whole. I can think of no other historical survey this comprehensive.

And yet we still don’t seem to be able to get the suburb right. Celebration is a bit too much like The Truman Show (the movie was actually filmed in in Florida, Seaside, another New Urbanist community). The Dutch, in their VINEX program, have come up with some wonderful communities, but they depend on government subsidies and mandated social mixing. Now and then, a semi-utopian attempt, such as Skolkovo in Russia, crops up, but the ideals seem to always drown in a reality of cars, parking garages, security concerns, and social isolation.

Given the beauty of many of the suburbs Stern and his co-writers show us, I do not think we should give up on the type or types. We can break down urban structures in such a way that we can have a looser relationship both to each other and to nature. The idea that nature itself can inspire urban form and the very prospect of making smaller communities connected—now not radially, as in the original garden city model, but into multiple networks—seem to me to be worth pursuing. Perhaps somebody will absorb all of Paradise Planned and figure out how to get the planned suburb right. They should then build a monument to Stern's team in the town square of their new community.

Aaron Betsky is a regularly featured columnist whose stories appear on this website each week. His views and conclusions are not necessarily those of ARCHITECT magazine nor of the American Institute of Architects.