Living in the Sprawl: Ideas for a suburbia that gets better with age (2012) by Gracen Johnson (link)

Over half of Canadians and Americans live in the suburbs, yet a perfect storm of economic, ecological, and social trends threatens to undermine the quality and livability of these communities. - Gracen Johnson, Living in the Sprawl

Yesterday my email chime went off and I quickly checked my inbox, it was a notification that Gracen Johnson’s short ebook, Living in the Sprawl: Ideas for a suburbia that gets better with age just published. Not only am I a sucker for anything urban panning related but I’m always interested to read and share resources that make the topic a little easier to understand and digest. Given that Gracen grew up in London, Ontario and the book was only a couple of dollars I quickly jumped at the chance to download it.

Last night I sat down with this book and decided to give it a read and It did not disappoint. While not a long read by any means (I finished it in under 90mins)1 I found it to be a good primer for those wanting to learn more and understand how suburban neighbourhoods formed, how they transition and how they can move forward.

... so, much of our dialogue surrounding the future of suburbs is not inclusive or empowering to suburbanites who are at once most vulnerable to neighbourhood decline and the greatest hope we have to make things better. There is a depth of amazing research, writing, investment, and design that can inform and inspire us to make changes in our own communities. This short, introductory volume is an attempt to make that accessible and meaningful to the average suburbanite without any planning expertise. - Gracen Johnson, Living in the Sprawl

The main content of the book is broken down into six main sections that walk you through the many facets that make up the traditional North American suburbia.

Johnson looks at what makes the suburbs so interesting including the notion that more often than not the people that show opposition to them are the ones that reside in them. She touches on the cycle that is subdivision development and how what we are facing today is nothing new.

We’re given a brief overview how the subdivision came to be and the important roles that transportation and infrastructure have played in their creation. This section is complete with hand drawn illustrations that ad some comic relief.

Johnson provides a snapshot of how we got here, why all this sprawl, congestion and ugliness we see on a daily basis. She outlines a number of the causes that have collectively brought us to today but she is optimistic that if we’re creative, innovative and determined we can “retrofit suburbs into thriving, friendly communities we dream about”.

Presenting the reader with some major names in urban planning and design theory Johnson looks at the potential for redesigning future suburbs as well as what we can do with the ones we already have. Once piece of advice she does offer that I think many people need to pay attention to is that “problems cannot be solved by the same level of thinking that created them”. She indeed borrowed that thought from Albert Einstein

She looks at the idea of Transition Towns (which she includes London as an example) and the need for the people of suburbs to transform life in them. Johnson notes that engagement among citizens and by citizens is possibly more important then the design of places, although proper design can’t hurt.

And to my surprise Johnson wraps up the book by looking at the role that local food plays in building stronger communities. That if we use local food (which we grow in our backyards or that we buy at the local market) as a conduit for other things we can strengthen suburbs, connect people, raise spirits and build places people can call communities. I wasn’t expecting this but welcomed it in the end.

Although it is short, this book is focused with a purpose. Living in the Sprawl: Ideas for a suburbia that gets better with age isn’t going to teach you everything you need to know about the suburbs and it certainly won’t make you an urban planner but it is a good primer, a starting point, for anyone who wants to gain a better perspective on suburbs and their place in cities.

We all have our preconceived notions and misconceptions about the suburbs, I know I do and I’ve spent most of my life in one, but if there ever is an opportunity to change that and learn more it is now. I suggest Gracen Johnson’s short ebook, Living in the Sprawl: Ideas for a suburbia that gets better with age as a good starting point.

  1. Regarding its length. The ebook is short, Gracen warns of this, but it is full of value. While the main content makes up slightly more than 50% of book the remainder is an extensive notes section that not only points the reader to more traditional sources of information (read: academic text books) but includes reference to TED talk videos, online journals/articles, films and other resources. While I haven’t yet gone through the notes section extensively I can tell you that this is where some of the great value in this read lies. ↩︎