Paradise lost? How garden suburbs can save Detroit

January 28, 2014: 9:00 AM ET

The architect Robert A.M. Stern's new 1,072-page opus hails an oft-forgotten kind of neighborhood he thinks could be key to the future of our cities.

By Leigh Gallagher, assistant managing editor

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Architect Robert A.M. Stern

FORTUNE -- It's humbling to write a book only to have a brand new tome on the same topic, one that dwarfs it in every possible way, land on your desk with a thud -- a very loud thud.

Last August, I published a book about the suburbs (author shill: The End of the Suburbs: Where the American Dream is Moving), for which I immersed myself in the study of, and attempted to become an expert in, the suburbs. So it was with great interest that I learned last fall that a copy of a new, ambitious book about the very same subject by renowned architect Robert A.M. Stern was on its way to me. I was pleased that such a notable name had been drawn to the same topic.

But I wasn't prepared for the moment Paradise Planned: The Garden Suburb and the Modern City (The Monacelli Press, December 2013) arrived on my desk. When it did, I was struck by two things: the book's heft -- at 1,072 pages and weighing 12.5 pounds, it is, simply speaking, gargantuan (see photo). It is the Taj Mahal of books. And then I was struck by its ambition: While there are thousands of photos and images, this is a vast, sweeping, extensive, meticulously researched, informative written work on an oft-overlooked topic.

Paradise Planned dwarfs The End of the Suburbs.

Paradise Planned dwarfs The End of the Suburbs.

But no question, the first thing anyone notices about it is its monstrous size. It became a conversation piece when I hauled it with me in a tote bag to a friend's book reading. People sitting near me started asking questions about the cartoonishly large book in my bag. Someone asked if it was a coffee table book; another person asked if it was actually a coffee table. There were Seinfeld jokes (if that confuses you, see here). You can't not notice this book.

And that was precisely Stern's point. Paradise Planned focuses narrowly, exclusively, and exhaustively on a single strain of suburb Stern believes has been widely and unfairly overlooked: the garden suburb. Originating in England in the late 18th century and adopted in the U.S. and northern Europe and ultimately elsewhere, the garden suburb had a short-lived history in the U.S., where it was nudged aside by the automobile in favor of today's cul-de-sac plus strip-mall-plus-highway-interchange model of conventional suburban sprawl that covers most of our landscape.

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According to Stern, the founding partner of Robert A.M. Stern Architects, dean of the School of Architecture at Yale University and architect behind such notable buildings as Manhattan's 15 Central Park West, garden suburbs have not only been overlooked in the history of our suburbs but have been dismissed or even denigrated by the planning, architectural, and development communities. These "intellectuals," in Stern's view, either see them as a minor distraction in the history of our suburbs or unfairly lump them in with "the only kind of suburb the intelligentsia knows and loves to denigrate: that of placeless sprawl." (I'm pretty sure he's including me in there.) But, he argues, garden suburbs were in fact a "remarkable urbanistic achievement" deserving not only an entire study of their own, but a closer look by planners and officials as a model for the future of our cities.

Strictly speaking, a garden suburb is a planned, self-contained village or enclave located outside a major city (and sometimes within it) that includes a mixture of homes, often of similar architectural style, designed around a public center or square, usually with distinctive details like signage on the streets, sidewalks and lightposts -- and always with ample green space and strategically placed parks of varying sizes. (They were an outgrowth of the Garden City movement pioneered by Sir Ebenezer Howard in England; they also have traits in common with the newer developments of the New Urbanist movement.) Some of the most iconic U.S. suburbs are garden suburbs: Think Shaker Heights, Ohio, Chestnut Hill, Pa., Highland Parks in both Dallas and outside Chicago. What Stern argues is so special about these meticulously planned communities is their ability to serve as the perfect hybrid -- that is, they contain ample amounts of curving streets and bucolic greenery yet in an urban setting.

In 1,072 pages, though, this is not just a book about garden suburbs. It is an encyclopedia of them, or perhaps more appropriately, a zoologist's field guide to them. Stern and his co-authors, David Fishman and Jacob Tilove, have ambitiously identified, labeled, and categorized genus, family, order, phylum, classification, and distribution of more than 800 garden suburbs. (Stern doesn't do many things small; a previous book project, also with Fishman and Tilove, was a five-volume history of New York City's architecture.) "I'm sure we missed a few," he quipped to Fortune during a recent phone interview.

This classification comes in handy, because as is true with most suburbs, it's hard to paint garden suburbs with a single brush. The authors break them into many different categories: conventional garden suburbs, garden "enclaves," garden "villages," urban suburbs, "resort" garden suburbs (places like Tuxedo Park, N.Y., if you're wondering), and more. Then there's Florida, a "national winter suburb." (The book is hardly limited to the U.S.; it covers garden suburbs around the globe.)

These indeed are beautiful places; you realize skimming through that there's a reason why some of the highest priced real estate outside big cities is often in garden suburbs (Beverly Hills, Calif., Chestnut Hill, Pa., Highland Park, Il.); though as the authors take care to point out, they were also commonly built for working-class communities. But from the first full-page picture in the book, an inviting image of a Tudor home on a leafy, gently curving street next to a sidewalk and a streetlamp in Forest Hills Gardens, Queens to images of grand, leafy neighborhoods with majestic oaks and wide, green-space boulevards, it's further proof that we did something right before suburban sprawl ate everything up. Stern and I are in agreement here: Suburban sprawl is bad, but not everyone wants to live in a skyscraper in Manhattan; vast amounts of people want an option that's more of an in-between. Garden suburbs are one kind of in-between. Because they predate our years of rampant expansion, most are located within close distances to their cities; many of them are within city limits. Some of Stern's favorites, in fact, are in Queens: Forest Hills Gardens, Jackson Heights, and Sunnyside Gardens, which offer a sort of working, middle, and upper-middle class hat trick of garden burbs.

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Garden suburbs may very well be at their finest within cities, in fact, and this is where Stern thinks they stand to have the most impact. The inner city is coming back in many places, but as he says, "nobody knows what to do with it." In Detroit and in what he calls "middle cities" elsewhere -- uninhabited or downtrodden areas within our cities -- there is great potential for planned garden villages. "People would welcome the chance to live near downtown Detroit in a suburban-scale neighborhood with a community quality," he says. He cites a series of garden suburbs in Bridgeport, Conn., which has had ongoing fiscal issues, that are thriving --"a paradise," as he calls it.

Die-hard urbanists might take issue with the notion of the garden 'burbs as the be-all, end-all, or what Stern and his coauthors describe as the need to "satisfy the very many who wish to be Hamiltonian by day and Jeffersonian by night." Others might have trouble wrapping their arms around a simple definition of a garden suburb: Between the many genera and species of the kingdom, non-planners might find themselves needing a field guide to the field guide. But no one will say anything got left out. In addition to the cataloguing, there are entertaining narratives, mini-profiles of important characters throughout the movement, and relentless detail and color on each community.

And indeed, Stern and his coauthors are speaking as much to laypeople as to planners, architects, and developers who have a hand in creating the places we live. In the end, Stern says the book is really just trying to "thrill people" with the idea of and appeal of the garden suburb. "I want to get them to think about it and be more appreciative about what they have, or what might be three blocks away," he says. He also hopes it will encourage people to encourage their elected officials to examine this model and rewrite legislation. The natural capitalist system, he points out, doesn't easily turn over land for parks; it has to come from the planning process.

But planners and developers should, and will, take note too. Paradise Planned is an important study of an oft overlooked, important chapter in our residential and sociocultural history -- what the authors call a "tragically interrupted 150-year-old tradition" -- and it is a model we should draw from when thinking about how our communities can better meet the needs of the changing American Dream.

Besides, at $59 on Amazon.com, it's hard not to agree with Stern, who points out you do get your money's worth. "Pound for pound, you cannot find a better book," he says.

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About This Author
Leigh Gallagher
Leigh Gallagher

Leigh Gallagher is an assistant managing editor at Fortune, author of The End of the Suburbs: Where the American Dream is Moving, and writes about cities, suburbs and how we live. Follow her on Twitter at @leighgallagher.

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