The Man Who Reinvented the City

>andres_duany.jpg This year marks the 30th anniversary of New Urbanism, the school of town planning and architectural design that highlights walkability, self-contained communities, and dense neighborhoods. Hailed as the antithesis of--and answer to--suburban sprawl, car culture, and the megamall, New Urbanism has proven both influential and contentious. (Its flagship development, Seaside, Florida, served as the too-quaint-to-be-real set for The Truman Show.) But its innovations and ideologies continue to shape the post-industrial streetscape, from the Rustbelt to the Sunbelt.

Andres Duany, the father of New Urbanism, left his job as a condominium developer in 1980 and founded the firm DPZ with his wife, Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk. He's spent those 30 years sketching up new developments (some as far away as Abu Dhabi), arguing with critics at academic conferences and town hall meetings, and dreaming up new ways to get Americans out of their cars and onto the street. Reflecting on the indelible fingerprints his work has left on our urban landscape, Duany talked to The Atlantic about today's environmentalism, the problem with suburban teenagers, and why democracy can't be trusted to build smart cities.

New Urbanism is now 30 years old. What was its original mission, and what has it become today?

Basically it is making communities that are mixed-use and mixed-income and complete, to the extent that they allow you to live without a car. And that has all sorts of implications. For the 50 percent of Americans who do not drive, they have a kind of freedom of movement.

That which used to be the raison d'etre of the original New Urbanism has been expanded and embedded into the environmental movement, because driving, of course, causes carbon loading of the atmosphere. So what began as an aesthetic movement has now become central; the way we see it, we're being pulled apart by people who are taking New Urbanism's genetic material and making it part of their agenda. It's the same artifact being presented several different ways, for different agendas.

How has the country--the national zeitgeist--changed since your first New Urbanist projects?

When I first started practicing, there were no NIMBYs. I remember that developers were categorically admired--the people who brought us the housing and the offices and the shops that we needed. They brought us wealth. They brought us welcome neighborhoods. They pulled us away from a provincial poverty of all kinds. Everybody wanted to grow--growth had a really good name.

And of course, that's been reversed now, and people are suspicious of growth. What happened is that there was a betrayal of the vision of what suburbia was going to be like. And in fact it did not deliver the open space and the freedom to drive around and the nature that was promised. All of that was betrayed. The anger is extraordinary.

When did the ideals of New Urbanism really begin to coalesce in your mind?

That was 1980. I was designing condominiums in Miami--very successfully--and then Leon Krier, the great theoretician of urbanism, gave a lecture in Miami, and basically within 3 weeks the message had sunk in. We didn't turn on a dime, but within a month, I had said, "My god, this is so much more interesting, so much more important." And so my wife and I left the firm and formed our own.

We didn't know how to design urbanism, but we had the time to study it and we really did have something that was rare: an open mind. Everybody's ideological now--ideological modernists, traditionalists, environmentalists. But there was a decade in which the schools were actually open minded. And you'll find that most of the founding New Urbanists were educated in precisely that decade.

How does environmentalism play into all this? Back in the 1980s, no one was worried about designing "green" communities.

Environmentalism was very minor then. We stumbled across it because it was a more economical way to build. When the developers didn't have money to throw around, we would revert to very light infrastructure. So we've got examples of very light infrastructure that's 20 years old, and way ahead of its time.

Our take on environmentalism is what I call the "original green." Which is really about quite simple, economical things. One thing I don't like about the current environmental movement is that it's been captured by a very high tech ethos, which actually turns out to be more expensive. I think its absolutely absurd that people say that LEED-certified buildings might cost two, three, four, five times as much. And I say, "What are you talking about? How did you get there?" This thing about triple glazing and 8 inches of insulation and green roofs, my God it's so expensive. You can't say, "Yeah, I'll do it just to be popular." We have to go back to the original green--not the gold plated green.

Last week, Brookings Institution released a report on the state of metropolitan America. Have you had a chance to read it? Apparently more and more young people are fleeing suburbia these days.

Kevin Charles Redmon is a freelance journalist based in Washington, D.C.

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