Andres Duany. Photo from Wikimedia. 

Andres Duany. Photo from Wikimedia

During the recent Understanding Growth series, I was asked by multiple people to give a list of my influences and books/articles I would recommend reading. I'm going to do that in drips over the coming weeks. Last week was Jared Diamond. This week I'm going to talk about Andres Duany.

Now, to give this the full effect, I need to give you a touch of my own personal background. I grew up on a farm outside a small town. I did not spend any appreciable time in cities growing up. On family vacations, we avoided them and my main experience -- outside of my small town -- was driving to a mall somewhere. So I grew up without experiencing a real city. Never a downtown.

I did, however, experience the suburbs. As an engineer, I designed and built suburbia, initially with full confidence that I was building the best kind of development known to man. America, freedom, growth, jobs, etc... It took me a few years to start to question things, and a graduate degree in planning with another few years working professionally to really have doubts. It was then that I found Duany.

Many people tell me that I am able to put to words what they have been feeling for a long time when it comes to why our cities are struggling financially. I really appreciate that feedback because I know the feeling; that was Andres Duany for me. I'm going to share something that I've told only a few people, but reading the book Suburban Nation for the first time brought me to tears. Repeatedly. Obviously it is a non-fiction book and so it's not written to evoke emotion, but it cleared so much fog from my brain that I found it overwhelming. My life has not been the same since.

I have watched and listened to this series of nine grainy YouTube lectures at least fifty times. I'm watching it again for the first time in years and I can still recite portions of it. I literally watched it over and over until I stopped learning new things, which, as I said, was dozens of iterations.

I've been fortunate enough to get to know Duany personally, at least to a small degree. I know he has a reputation of being -- as one of my professional colleagues once said to me -- a bit of a strutting peacock. Whatever. I've found him to be one of the most thoughtful, personable and generous people I've ever met.

I will acknowledge, however, that he does not graciously suffer fools. We share that trait, but while I loath it in myself, I deeply admire it in him. He is a perpetual motion machine of thoughts and ideas, the intellectual leader of a movement that -- without exaggeration -- has changed the way the world is built. To say that I have aspired to be like Andres Duany is to, in many ways, state the obvious.

So it goes without saying that one of the highlights of my professional life was to be placed on stage with Andres as if we somehow had equally valuable insights to share. No matter how successful I become or how influential the Strong Towns movement grows, I'll always feel an intellectual pauper compared to Andres Duany. 

If you've not read Suburban Nation, you might not need to today. The ideas in the book -- revolutionary when they were written -- have become such a part of how we talk about cities now that we can almost forget how important it was. If you've not read it, I definitely would and -- more importantly -- buy it and share it with a friend who is struggling to make sense of why auto-oriented development is a losing proposition.

And if you'd like to hear Duany in person -- along with a whole bunch of people who are also incredibly talented -- you'll want to be at this year's CNU in Detroit. I'll be there getting my annual mental spa on and I invite you all to do likewise. There might even be a fun debate and a dance party thrown in.