Interviews April 2000

Towards a New Urbanism

The authors of Suburban Nation tell Gore and Bush to listen up—the antidote to sprawl is good old-fashioned town planning

Images of a dispiriting suburbia are so familiar as to be cliché: new homes sitting isolated on lonely cul-de-sacs, miles from any job or anyplace worth walking to; endless highways and strip malls; outsize garages, acres of parking, and roads that are dauntingly wide to pedestrians. With increasing frequency, newspapers and magazines are addressing the ugliness, congestion, and isolation spawned by sprawl. Citizens, with varying degrees of success, have tried to stop new development that threatens to impinge on their space. And some politicians, aware of the growing discontent, have incorporated anti-sprawl policies into their platforms.

Both citizens and politicians, it seems, tend to equate anti-sprawl with anti-growth, and therefore direct their efforts toward impeding development altogether: decades of growth-as-sprawl have convinced most people that any new construction at all is detrimental to the landscape. In Suburban Nation, however, Andres Duany, Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk, and Jeff Speck argue that although growth may be inexorable, sprawl, as their own experience attests, need not be.

Duany and Plater-Zyberk, a husband-and-wife team who are both architect-developers, have long been designing communities engineered to be vibrant and convivial—antidotes to sprawl. They believe that community planning as it was done in the old days of town greens and dense villages, with people of different income levels mingling in a landscape of pedestrian-oriented scale, makes for far more viable communities than do today's mainstream practices. The couple is perhaps most famous for Seaside —the resort town in Florida that awakened many to the idea that traditional town planning still works. With its emphasis on walkability, consistency of building design, and on appealing spaces for public gathering, Seaside has proved so popular that it costs more to buy or rent there than in adjacent communities where homes are larger and have more land.

In 1993 Duany and Plater-Zyberk helped found the Congress for the New Urbanism, which advocates public-policy changes that facilitate the kind of development they practice. Membership in the organization has swelled in recent years, and the principles of New Urbanism, though criticized by some as promoting an overly quaint aesthetic, have been embraced not just by fellow designers, but by many engineers, developers, and public servants as well. With Jeff Speck, their firm's director of town planning, Duany and Plater-Zyberk have continued to apply their planning principles to communities, both urban and suburban, around the country.

Suburban Nation, which contains much practical advice to help citizens effect desired change in their communities, is an outgrowth of their collective experience. The authors hope their book will serve as a catalyst in the effort to remake America as a community of places that people can care about.

Plater-Zyberk and Speck spoke recently with me by phone.

—Sage Stossel

Some say that sprawl represents not an unhealthy degeneration, but part of an inevitable evolution from higher-density living to the lower-density living that Americans seem to want. What gives you confidence that the tide of sprawl can (or should) be turned?

Jeff Speck: Saying sprawl was inevitable ignores the degree to which it was promoted by government policies. A 41,000-mile highway system, for example, was 90 percent funded by the federal government. And Federal Housing Administration and Veterans Affairs mortgage programs made it easier to build a new house than to pay rent for an apartment.

It was demonstrated long before we came along that sprawl is a fundamentally unhealthy way to grow by any measure—the amount of gasoline burned, the degree of pollution, global warming, deforestation, evisceration of farmland, time wasted in traffic, the rate of obesity as a function of driving everywhere, and 40,000 deaths a year in car accidents.

As for the question of high-density vs. low-density living, everyone on both sides of the argument seems to get our position wrong. Urban apologists accuse us of being "New Suburbanists" because we do projects with suburban densities. Meanwhile, the sprawl cartel accuses us of trying to force all of America into urban tenements. But we do suburban developments at five units per acre, and we also do developments at a hundred units per acre—the density of Greenwich Village. It's not about which density is right, it's about the organization of the neighborhood system—about ensuring that pedestrian life is possible.

Do you think that it's possible that some of the worst examples of sprawl could eventually get filled in with corner stores, town centers, etc.?

Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk: Yes, in fact it's already happening. There are a number of examples in which shopping centers, for instance, are being rebuilt as town centers. There's one on Cape Cod called Mashpee Commons that our firm designed. And there are many in California. I think the best one is Mountain View designed by Peter Calthorpe. There are even (still rare) cases of people getting together and deciding to sell out of a subdivision so it can be remade.

As more and more cities and towns go through the process of trying to implement New Urbanist principles, do you think that New Urbanist consulting will emerge as a kind of professional specialty?

JS: The number of consultants who would at least call themselves New Urbanist is quite large and is growing in response to the fact that a lot of municipalities are asking for them.

EPZ: There are architects, planners, engineers, and others, who serve as New Urbanist consultants. But I think the best consultant, in a sense, is an educated citizenry. There are principles that are universal, but in the end, how those principles are applied to each different community or region is highly individualistic. The decisions have to come from the communities themselves, so they're not imposed by some external force.

The ideal of the solitary homestead on a good-sized plot of land is deeply rooted in the American imagination. Have you found it important to look for and play up the existence of American historical antecedents to the kind of densely built, stylistically consistent developments you design?

EPZ: Over the years we've used the American small town as an example. Many of our illustrations come from historic towns which have a green in the center and mixed uses and different kinds of housing all around. Clearly that's part of America's tradition. It's also part of our tradition to be controlling about land use and boundaries and dimensions. Many New England towns had rules stating that you couldn't live more than a mile from the town green, in order to maintain some sense of community and control. Others controlled the way you could graze your animals on the land or how many animals you could own, in order not to deplete resources.

So there's a long tradition of control and design for public benefit—not just for the sake of restricting individuals, but to serve private interest as well.

You refer frequently in Suburban Nation to the Kentlands development in Maryland as exemplary of various principles of New Urbanism. Do you consider Kentlands to be the most effective of the projects you've designed?

EPZ: It's one of the first non-resort communities we designed, so we've been able to watch it develop over time. And it does have a range of uses, a range of incomes. It's not perfect—it went through some compromises between design and production—but it still exhibits the principles quite well. Also, it's a greenfield community (meaning one that was built from scratch), and it influenced the restoration and rebuilding of a pre-existing community nearby—downtown Gaithersburg.

JS: When I assess one of our projects I always ask two questions: first, What's wrong with it?, which generally produces a depressing answer, because there are always things wrong. But then I ask, In what ways does it differ from contemporary practice? What are the battles that were won? In that regard, almost every one of our projects is cause for elation. The battles at Kentlands included mixing the price points (having different houses of different prices near each other), designing it so that all the kids could walk to school and everyone could walk to shops, and basically creating an extremely pleasant, comfortable streetscape. The streets are much narrower and much more pedestrian-friendly than in the communities around it. I lived in Kentlands for a summer, and I watched as people would drive there, park their cars, and walk their dogs there. For me, that feels great.

Do you often stay on at a project after it's been built?

JS: There's a role called the Town Architect, where someone has to administer the code—actually ensure that the buildings that are constructed follow the code's rules. That can be a developer's representative, or a government official. Sometimes it's us. In the case of Kentlands it was us.

Do you have a favorite of the projects you've designed?

EPZ: Our projects are like a large family of many children. It's been very interesting to watch them all grow individually. Some, I suppose, we do wish could have done better, but most have turned out extremely well. At some point they become adolescents that are fully formed, and they start developing on their own based on their genetics as well as their context.

I think we can look back and be very pleased with how well many of these new -- and renewed — places have done.

What did you make of Seaside's portrayal in The Truman Show?

EPZ: Seaside was remade to a certain degree in order to play the role. They gave it makeup, just like you give an actor. Some of the more modern-style buildings were given overlays, with façades added and color changes and so on, so that they would better match the wooden houses.

JS: It's actually gotten us a lot of business. People say, "Oh, you're the people who designed The Truman Show," and they hire us. I'm not sure if that's good or bad.

Do they want something like what they saw in The Truman Show?

JS: Not once we've spoken to them. We convince them that they should know better.

There are two criticisms we usually get about Seaside. The first is that it's too cute and gingerbready, and the other is that the codes we wrote control it too much. But what the critics don't realize is that the codes that we wrote did not in any way suggest or demand gingerbread architecture. In fact the gingerbready architecture was a result of the market—of people building their own houses and popular taste. So the great irony is that the only way to have avoided the hated gingerbread architecture would have been to tighten the hated codes.

You suggest in Suburban Nation that you don't feel strongly about what architectural style your planning principles are clothed in. Are you hoping, though, to have the opportunity to design a more modern-style development than those you've done so far?

JS: I think it might be a half-hearted hope. I'd like it if we designed something modern, because I love modern architecture, and I'm getting a lot of pressure from my architecture school classmates to prove it! But I'm losing certainty over Andres's interest in ever building anything modern again. Every day he seems to become more convinced that classical architecture is superior.

Why do you think that is?

We keep coming across problematic evidence. Andres and I were just in Berlin a week ago, and we visited a new town by Rob Krier that's in Potsdam. It's exactly what we advocate. It's a traditional town plan, but it's with modern architecture. And it looked horrible. We asked ourselves how this could be made better. We decided that if the architecture had been traditional it might have been a fantastic project. The clashing of all the different isms and attitudes and pyrotechnics that modern architects do to get on the cover of the architectural fashion press was just too much for one town to handle. Also, a lot of it felt very cold. As an architect I appreciate it, but as a pedestrian, I'm made uncomfortable by it.

This also brings up an interesting point, which is that modernist architecture is itself now a historic, dated concept. The flat roofs and the big cantilevers and all that—that's seventy years old. So in fact, perhaps it's all historicism of one sort or another.

EPZ: We're living in a time in which the underlying urbanistic principles are so neglected that that's what we must stress. But as a designer I feel very strongly that the style is also important. It doesn't really matter which style it is (although I have my own preferences for styles that are vernacular to a place), as long as there's a harmony and continuity of style.

In our time, establishing identity is a real challenge because there are so many places and so many people. If you allow a pluralism of styles—if you say "A lot of styles can go here, or any style"—you lose the opportunity to establish identity.

Presented by

Sage Stossel is a contributing editor at The Atlantic and draws the cartoon feature "Sage, Ink." She is author/illustrator of the graphic novel Starling, and of the children's books  On the Loose in Boston and On the Loose in Washington, DC. More

On Election Day in 1996, launched a weekly editorial cartoon feature drawn by Sage Stossel and named (aptly enough) "Sage, Ink." Since then, Stossel's whimsical work has been featured by the New York Times Week in Review, CNN Headline News, Cartoon Arts International/The New York Times Syndicate, The Boston Globe, Nieman Reports, Editorial Humor, The Provincetown Banner (for which she received a 2009 New England Press Association Award), and elsewhere. Her work has also been included in Best Editorial Cartoons of the Year, (2005, 2006, 2009, and 2010 editions) and Attack of the Political Cartoonists. Her children's book, On the Loose in Boston, was published in June 2009.

Sage Stossel grew up in a suburb of Boston and attended Harvard University, where she majored in English and American Literature and Languages and did a weekly cartoon strip about college life, called "Jody," for the Harvard Crimson. From 2004 to 2007, she served as Books Editor of the Radcliffe Quarterly

After college she took what was intended to be a temporary summer position securing electronic rights to articles from The Atlantic's archive for use online. Intrigued by The Atlantic's rich history and the creative possibilities in helping to launch a digital edition of the magazine on the Web, she soon joined The Atlantic full time. As the site's former executive editor, she was involved in everything from contributing reviews, author interviews, and illustrations, to hosting message boards and producing a digital edition of The Atlantic for the Web.

Stossel lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

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