American ideas about how to build communities have changed drastically over time, and they're most prevalent in suburban neighborhoods says former CityLab writer Emily Badger. For decades families wanted to live in dense urban areas, but then turned their eyes toward homes outside the city with more indoor and outdoor space that made them feel like they had finally attained the American Dream of home ownership.
But two professors at University of Connecticut, Norman Garrick and Wesley Marshall, are making the argument that urban sprawl was all wrong, and that we've been designing our communities to make us drive more, make us less safe, keep us disconnected from one another, and that may even make us less healthy.
Most of the oldest cities in America – not to mention the oldest capitals in Europe, or in the Roman Empire, for that matter – were laid out in neat, densely interconnected grids that enabled people to get around before cars came along. Manhattan looks like this. So does Savannah, New Haven and Washington, D.C. Americans lost sight of that tightly knit model when we got into cars and began to envision something else: the Garden City. In the early 20th century, modernists decried overcrowded cities that were synonymous with pollution, slums, and poverty. They wanted to do away with unnecessary streets and give each factory worker and company man his own slice of the country. what we were really doing was building communities for cars, not people. Earlier neighborhoods were literally built on a scale for the human body, with architectural embellishments at eye level and blocks and sidewalks designed for foot travel.