I have included some excerpts below. Take note of his comments about how opponents of sprawl are turning off people with their snobbery and elitist ideas, the need for choices and flexibility, realistic ideas about city planning, and why land is so expensive.
TAE: You've pointed out that sprawl is and always has been inherent in urbanization, and has occurred everywhere throughout history. Should it concern us today?Technorati Tags: wal-mart walmart
RYBCZYNSKI: Sprawl has got good and bad sides, but it's what we've chosen as a people. It suits us, I think. If youÍre going to have an entrepreneurial, free enterprise society, you've got to leave a lot of room for all that enterprise to take place. And you're probably not going to put the decisionmaking in one planner's hands; that's illogical in a society like ours. So you're going to have this very diffused kind of urbanization, where there's a lot of room for individual initiative. Different cities from the past come out of a different social order.
TAE: Is sprawl a trend beyond the U.S.?
RYBCZYNSKI: Suburbanization of the modern sort is in fact a British invention, not American. And sprawl is a fact of life all over the globe. With very few exceptions, people everywhere like the idea of having a house, having a garden, having a little space, some privacy. Those things turn out to be almost universal.
My early architectural work took me to Africa and Latin America. In Africa you find that the cities are made up of agglomerations of single-family houses just like an American city. There's a business center, but people live in homes, and of course they tend to have animals and grow their own food, so their lots are bigger. It's a very low-density, spread out city. And the traditional Chinese city was also a city of houses--the courtyard house. Likewise in Latin America. So the idea that a city has to be taller buildings, a sort of Paris or Berlin, is a choice that certain people have made. But the majority of humans have tended to choose the individual house as the building block of the urban area.
TAE: What do you say to the suburbanite who finds his or her life excoriated in the media as unecological and socially dysfunctional?
RYBCZYNSKI: It's like my friends who criticize Wal-Mart; on the one side is their criticism of Wal-Mart, on the other side is the company's many billions of dollars in sales. It's the largest employer in the United States. Researchers have estimated that Wal-Mart has raised the living standard of the middle class anywhere from 8 to 10 percent. Those are powerful things to put against the criticism, and those are what people see. So in a sense the criticism is almost beside the point. WeÍve made those decisions.
TAE: Must efficient retailers like Wal-Mart offer cheap architecture and urban design, or are aesthetic improvements possible?
RYBCZYNSKI: If you think about the layout of a Big Box store, the big box is on the end, then there's a parking lot, and there has to be a great deal of visibility so that you can see that the store is there and also see where you can park. You can't clutter up the parking lot with trees, because that'll block the stores. So you end up with a pretty ugly environment. You're also trying to keep money in the consumer's pocket, so no-frills architecture is used. It's not only functionally necessary, it may even be a good thing because it sends the message to the consumer that they're not wasting money on marble and chrome or those things that you see in a shopping mall.
Having said that, I wonder if it's either/or, because the other kind of shopping environment that's become popular are centers, particularly in the south, where you have a kind of main street with shops on the ground level and apartments above, lots of public spaces, open air--not enclosed like a shopping mall. Those places are based on quality, offering street life with arcades and fountains. People go there for an outing rather than for the convenience or the price of shopping. It seems to me there's no reason we can't have both, in different places.
TAE: What is your view of the New Urbanist movement and its effort to restore the traditional pedestrian scale of historic communities in new suburban and urban development?
RYBCZYNSKI: Well, first of all one has to say they're the only game in town. Most architects have essentially abandoned any attempt to shape a broader environment--they're creating very exciting buildings, and architecture's probably more in the public eye today than 25 years ago, but it's very much about signature designers and individual flamboyance. New Urbanists are the only group of architects who have looked at the broader physical environment. I think they deserve enormous credit for that. And I'm certainly sympathetic to their focus on pedestrians versus automobiles, on studying older cities and trying to understand why they're successful, and how these things can be adapted to contemporary life.
I think they're sometimes too doctrinaire, almost religious in their inflexible dogma. Some of that I think has to do with having a movement. You have to be very strong in the way you express yourself, and if you start compromising all over the place, pretty soon you don't have a movement any more. They at least have an idea of what the city should be, and most city planners don't.
TAE: The New Urbanists are waxing indignant over sprawl, and we hear a good deal of gloating over fat people, McMansions, energy hogs, plastic, and so forth.
RYBCZYNSKI: This may be interfering with their ability to connect with mainstream America, although two of the most successful movements in the last century have been the environmental movement and the historic preservation movement, and New Urbanists have tried to form links with both. I don't think they're easy links. The environmental movement has been essentially anti-development, and the New Urbanists, whatever else they are, are about development, and building more stuff. So there's a real contradiction between the criticism of sprawl and wanting to build. There's a lot of New Urbanism that is part of sprawl. Celebration, Florida, is a nice place, but it's also part of the general sprawl around Orlando. Kentlands in Montgomery County, Maryland is part of the spread of the city farther out. These places first require using automobiles, and only then are about creating attractive places to walk. In any case, New Urbanist developments are not having a huge impact on how much sprawl there is.
TAE: Do you see denser living becoming a national trend?
RYBCZYNSKI: It's happening. It's happening because development has become more difficult, particularly in the Northeast and California. When development is difficult and land becomes increasingly expensive, naturally your lots get smaller and smaller, because people just can't afford more.
TAE: Statistics show that only a small percentage of our national territory has been developed, yet land is becoming expensive. How is that?
RYBCZYNSKI: I've been studying this in Pennsylvania, where it takes about four years to get permits for a project. In Texas it takes about four months. And that's roughly the comparison. Because it's so difficult (if possible at all) to get building permits in places like New Jersey or southeast Pennsylvania, while population and demand are growing, the result is that the few things which are permitted become extremely valuable. So when we say the land is more expensive, it's not because of some sort of physical reason. It's simply that less land is being made available for building, and so what there is costs more. And that's what pushes up the price of housing. It's not the cost of construction; it's not primarily about demand, it's mainly about supply.
TAE: Might a hybrid suburban environment be the way of the future? Denser subdivisions combined with entertainment centers that offer some of the function of traditional main streets?
RYBCZYNSKI: Certainly right now it seems like that. The model which most Americans find very attractive is that of the small town. It's part of American culture; it's in movies, it's in books. But beyond the houses themselves, that turns out to be very, very difficult to actually create. Because of the way we shop and work now, we don't have little pharmacies and stores except on Garrison Keillor's radio show. It's almost impossible to deliver on that promise of an integrated traditional town. The economic environment and so on really militates against it.