John Wasik's The Cul de Sac Syndrome: Give it to your lay friends

John Wasik’s book The Cul-de-Sac Syndrome, published this year by Bloomberg Press, reads a bit like a college intro class about the crisis of the American home. Like your usual 101, the range of topics covered is wide, pertinent current events are mixed into the curriculum (such as the housing crisis), and the instructor obviously has his own specialty that’s given a little more attention than the other areas (in this case, personal finance). And this isn’t a bad thing. In an age full of books that manage to expend hundreds of pages on one narrow idea Wasik provides us with a concise work that links America’s backwards land use policies with their disastrous effects on our society, environment, infractucture, and health. For those with a casual curiosity about the housing crisis or sustainable building, this book is must-read eye opener.

But New Urbanists, of course, are already well aware of these connections, and unfortunately, The Cul-de-Sac Syndrome has less to offer them. The first part of the book, an investigation of sprawling suburbs—“spurbs,” in his lingo—and their contribution to the housing crisis, probably contains the most new and pertinent material for this population. A personal finance reporter for Bloomberg News, Wasik expertly links the environmental and social issues New Urbanists are often most concerned about with the financial troubles and tax burdens of prime importance to American voters. Out of these chapters comes a call to reduce dependence on property taxes in order to prevent the best schools from being concentrated in suburban boomtowns at the expense of built-up urban areas.

The second part treads largely familiar turf, discussing green building techniques, the importance of urban and inner-ring suburban communities, New Urbanism, pressures on infrastructure, and the prospects of a high-cost energy future. Urbanists may find the chapters on green building to be useful depending on their familiarity with the field. Wasik is a proponent of affordable prefabricated green homes, and his investigation of this currently small market is thorough for such a small book. The other topics are nothing New Urbanists won’t already be familiar with, and can be given a pass unless you feel the strong desire to either nitpick or give yourself a hearty pat on the back for being one of the “good guys.”

But The Cul-de-Sac Syndrome isn’t meant for people like us, who are already intimately familiar with the problem. But by using the economic crisis as a launching point, Wasik is able to bring forth the underlying dysfunction of American land use and make the issue pertinent to the average person. It’s not an easy task but like that cool professor that all the students like, he pulls it off in a way that is both literate and accessible for the general population. Just make sure you don’t end up as the graduate student dozing away in this freshman-oriented course.

Photo: From John Wasik's website.



It's the first time I've heard that term and I like it, particularly because it helps reinforce the distinction between pre-1950s walkable urban suburbs (like streetcar burbs or many garden suburbs) and the automobile-oriented sprawl suburbs that have prevailed since then. That distinction is something right-leaning critics of urbanism and smart growth such as Robert Bruegemann always fail to make. The idea that urbanists are anti-suburb is pretty laughable and falls apart under any kind of inspection. Anti-spurb? Well, we extend a helping hand to the folks who want to retrofit their sprawling suburbs to be walkable, livable, energy efficient and better at retaining their value long-term.

Now return that Wasik book to me so I can read it.

a bit thin?

I skimmed this is a bookshop in June; it pretty understandably read like an expanded article, conjecturing from a business-section article. He obviously understands what's going on, and nicely ties in the current financial panic, but it seemed a bit thin.

I liked that it was accessible, but maybe these ideas would get better traction if they were more often in the business pages and not in bookshops?

Steve, I like plain ol' "sprawl," which has the classic Supreme-Court-obscenity definition of "we know it when we see it." "Suburbs" should be avoided because of definitional problems; the City of Phoenix includes lots of sprawl, whereas half of Boston's suburban towns are walkable.


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