Analysis and Response to “Building Suburbia, Building Suburbia: Green Fields and Urban Growth, 1820-2000” by Dolores Hayden (it’s super cheap, used, on Amazon)
An example of where one teacher can change everything could be the day I found the book “Building Suburbia” by Dolores Hayden. I hadn’t considered the planning field prior to that occasion, and I’m not quite sure what my motivation was in picking up “Building Suburbia,” but I was quickly consumed by the material. Upon reading, I became familiar with much of the jargon associated with the planning field i.e. Greenfields, infill, etc. It is this initial presentation that made me consider planning as a career avenue, while consuming my head with the idea of “what was this/what will this be” when confronted with any space. In the book, Hayden describes the types of government-subsidized private developments in order, starting in 1820 America, and continuing to the present. She classifies the development eras in separate chapters, which begins with “borderlands” (beginning circa 1820’s), “picturesque enclaves” (1850’s), “streetcar buildouts” (1870’s), “mail order and self built suburbs” (1900’s), “sitcom suburbs” (1940’s), “edge nodes” (1960’s), and “rural fringes” (1980’s-present). It is the subject of “edge nodes” that resonated most with me. The fact that there was still land and open space in America prior to that point made me think about the areas of open space I’ve seen developed in my life time; as well as realize that land is finite resource.
Dolores Hayden’s presentation of edge nodes focuses on what once was “a dusty, narrow road in Fairfax County, Virginia,” Tyson’s Corner. No longer the “mom and pop gas station,” the surrounding area now contains “more commercial space than downtown Miami.” Hayden traces the history of Tyson’s Corner and explains that the growth of the area started with a shopping mall, led by a lawyer turned developer, Til Hazel. Hazel made a career of handling the lawsuits concerning beltway entrance and exit ramps. He then used that knowledge to his advantage to create what Hayden describes as “a knot of freeways and arterials…unrelated high-rise and low rise buildings, a vast assemblage of houses, apartments, garages, shopping malls, fast-food franchises, and corporate headquarters.” The language she uses could be applied to hundreds if not thousands of cases similar to Tyson’s Corner. She points out that much like other cities, class associated retail—“upscale and downmarket”—are located side by side. Much of this is chain retail, void of local character and seemingly out of place. Hayden muses at how, in this amalgamation, could “Gucci’s and McDonalds coexist?” The answer lies in the automobile, which brings the city that “has more jobs than bedroom” its workers and shoppers.
Tyson’s Corner was once a just thru point on the beltway, only accessible by automobile and void of any substantial native population. The placement of freeway entrances and exits precipitated a need to justify the expense. This wasn’t so much about the individuals desire to locate to Tyson’s Corner, Hayden believes. Contrary, the new and improved Tyson’s Corner is what the individual was given, as “the activities of automobile manufacturers, commercial real estate developers, and the federal government have been far more important in determining patterns of transportation than consumer choice.” No doubt, many likely pined for the walkable, neighborhood street, as opposed to the wild nature of the eight lane major road and strip development that was haphazardly planned out for them. Instead, when we conduct ourselves within this framework, its flaws are noticeable through observation. Hayden brings up one dangerous intersection, which she “decided to negotiate…(by) car rather than on foot,” calling it “drive to lunch syndrome.” Why would anyone test their body to the demanding Leeburg Pike carrying “six to eight lanes of fast-moving traffic” and a shopping mall which lacked “an obvious pedestrian entrance?” I have and it’s dangerous. I’m sure many would chose to navigate this by automobile as well. This dangerous environment, Hayden says, is “typical of edge nodes where nothing is planned in advance and all the development takes place in isolated ‘pods’.”
The boom to create spaces such as Tyson’s Corner began in the early Fifties, according to Hayden, when new legislation allowed “owners to depreciate or write off the value of a building in…a short time. This created a “gigantic hidden subsidy for the developers of cheap new commercial buildings located on strips.” These new developments were mostly “greenfield,” in their placement; built on what was once open space. Some housing followed, and “by the mid-1950’s real estate promoters of the commercial strip were attaching it to the center-less residential suburb.” These practices were enabled further by federal subsidies, “but since these subsidies were indirect, it was hard for many citizens or local officials to know what was happening.” And the wave took off “in the wake of the tax bonanzas for new commercial projects.” Many of these roadside strips “boomed” after new tax write-offs were implemented federally, with “over 98 percent of malls made money for their investors.”
When jobs and commerce began moving to edge nodes, “few people wanted to live in them,” charges Hayden. Her reasoning is that residential lots in edge node areas like Tyson’s Corner are “often the result of spot builders filling in leftover sites with ‘affordable’ housing units.” Although convenient (debatable) the freeway which gave life to the node also impinges on its desirability. To make the place more attractive and address the lack of planned center—which would account for public space and public facilities—“private developers responded…by building malls, office parks, and industrial parks as well as fast-food restaurants and motels.” Assuredly this is done with the individual’s happiness at heart, rather than the profit motive. Unfortunately, their intentions became “ugly environments” built on “cheap gas and subsidized freeways.” A commute became forced, if one was to take a job in Tyson’s Corner, and almost immediately, in my mind, it makes me consider “commute from where?” Hayden suggests that the location is likely another edge node.
Upon reading about Tyson’s Corner, it made me wonder: Do we need all of this? It startled me that “by 2000, Americans had built almost twice as much retail space per citizen as any other country in the world.” The fact that “most of it was in malls,” is also of concern, considering that the 1954 Internal Revenue Code changed to permit “accelerated depreciation of greenfield income-producing property.” Not only is the developments necessity suspect, but “by enabling accelerated depreciation, (government) encouraged poor construction…and discouraged maintenance.” The disinvestment in these structures created an issue of abandonment, which I have seen readily in my travels across this country. Quoting Robert Davis, of the Congress for the New Urbanism, from the 2002 Charter, Hayden notes that “‘Shopping centers built only in the 1960s are already being abandoned. Their abandonment brings down the values of nearby neighborhoods. Wal-Marts built five years ago are already being abandoned for superstores.” Prior to reading this book, I wouldn’t have believed it, even having seen it with my own eyes. Very demonstrative of our throw-away cultural mentality, she continues to quote Davis who finishes by stating “’we have built a world of junk, a degraded environment. It may be profitable for a short-term, but its long-term economic prognosis is bleak.’” I concur.
This environment that was forced upon us with little public input, and with certainly none from the era’s progeny, is indeed ugly and callous, if not sinister, to the pedestrian and those who conduct themselves in that sphere. Tyson’s Corner is not immune to the abandonment outcome, as new developments continue to break ground daily—it is almost destined to be replaced. Citing a Bank of America report on sprawl in California, Hayden quotes “‘urban job centers have decentralized to the suburbs…New housing tracts have moved even deeper into agriculturally and environmentally sensitive areas….Private auto use continues to rise.” One consequence is foretold, when reading Til Hazel’s response of “So what?” when informed that twenty-eight acres a day were disappearing because of new construction. Such a response is disappointing but predictable, and probably similar to the land ethic of other developers of the time. To him, “The land is a resource for the people to use and the issue is whether you use it well… Is the goal to save green space so the other guy can look at it?” I charge that it is there for ALL of us to look at—and if everyone had that attitude, there wouldn’t be any land! There are consequences to the development of places like Tyson’s Corner, and continuing with the Bank of America report… “acceleration of sprawl has surfaced enormous social, environmental, and economic costs, which until now have been hidden, ignored, or quietly borne by society.” Those costs are coming to light more and more.