Monday, 24 September 2007

Henry James on Suburban Sprawl

Picture this: Art Townsend and his new wife are moving into a new house.

“It’s only for three or four years," he says. "At the end of three or four years we’ll move. That’s the way to live in New York—to move every three or four years. Then you always get the last thing. It’s because the city’s growing so quick—you’ve got to keep up with it... So you see we’ll always have a new house; it’s a great advantage to have a new house; you get all the latest improvements. They invent everything all over again about every five years, and it’s a great thing to keep up with the new things.”

Sound familiar, doesn't it? Could be one of those guys who's been making a bundle flipping real estate or in defence contracts and is now on the trail of the perfect trophy house. But it isn't. Art--who probably would have preferred to be called Arthur--is a creation of Henry James in his novel Washington Square. The book was published in 1880 and takes place in the 1850s, when New York was moving north along Fifth Avenue from Washington Square. Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose, n'est-ce pas?

Of course, Washington Square a hundred years later became the neighborhood park for Jane Jacobs's kids, and her first battle ground for the delights of urban diversity. Check out the video of her son Ned talking about how she and her friends saved the Square and the neighborhood from Robert Moses and his freeways.


Tim Webster said...

Suburban Sprawl is a symptom of the inability to redevelop urban land. Requiring the continuous grabbing of new land to replace the land that cannot be redeveloped.

The inability to redevelop suburban land into urban land with embedded green space is costing us all dearly. Asian including Singapore, Hong Kong, Japan uses less than half the energy person than America. America needs to build transit hubs in its suburbs not only to improve our energy efficiency, but social efficiency

Tim Webster said...

Currently America is the largest energy consumer. That could vastly change through redevelopment. New Yorkers burn gasoline at the rate the U.S. did in the 1920s, because of the 80% usage of public transit. This usage level is common in Asian. Their far more efficient economy is killing America. America learned from Japan in the 80s, but can we learn from Asia today?

Mary Soderstrom said...

Very good comments. You're right.

Singapore is an excellent case in point. It's one of the cities I discuss in Green City: People, Nature and Urban Place, as an example of how to have a quite green urban setting while maintaining high urban density. See also my post on

Best wishes