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.

Once a consistent style has been established so that a place feels like it has a coherent identity, would ecclecticism within that be okay?

EPZ: Yes. You can make a specific contrast to the prevailing style for specific reasons: a special public building, for instance.

What kind of implications for community life do you think the current craze for ordering everything from groceries to furniture over the Internet will have?

JS: If you believe like we do that society evolves as a function of casual encounters in the street—people actually seeing each other and bumping into each other—then it's a scary prospect. However, if you read contemporary philosophers like Paul Nesbit or Alvin Toffler, they talk about a concept called "high-tech, high-touch"—that the more disassociated we are from each other in our work and in our means of communication, the more we seek out an environment that fosters physical interactions.

EPZ: I think the implications we look forward to are the fact that a sense of community and a sense of place are becoming more important. People can make choices about where they work and how they live more than ever before. Maybe centers like Kinkos—where you can buy paper or use a certain kind of machine or communications device that you don't have at home—could become a new focus for community-making: a combination of workplace and community.

Throughout his campaign, Al Gore has emphasized his committment to fight sprawl. How well do you think the proposals he's outlined mesh with your own?

JS: From our perspective, Gore, Christine Todd Whitman of New Jersey, and the Sierra Club are all halfway there. They're all focusing on preserving land. We're certainly all for open-space preservation, but that argument never wins for more than a political generation. They might stop growth temporarily and then someone else gets elected and it starts again in the worst possible form. The quality of community life isn't going to improve unless new communities that are built have centers and edges and offer the ability to enjoy life as a pedestrian. We're not saying "stop growth" -- we're saying "shape growth in a beneficial form."

Do you have any sense of what the election of George W. Bush in 2000 might mean in terms of addressing sprawl?

JS: We heard a rumor last week that Bush's advisors are investigating Andres's political affiliation. Which makes us wonder if there's some potential contact and education that might go on. A superficial reading of our principles sometimes gives people the idea that we're anti-business. We find that very surprising, given our client base and the money we've made for them. We actually see the TND [Traditional Neighborhood Developments] as the salvation of the American homebuilding industry. Imagine the power of this message: it's not growth vs. no-growth; it's good growth vs. bad growth. The message we're trying to put out there—listen up George W.!— is that we can end the sprawl mess and build all the new homes we want.

EPZ: As New Urbanists, we feel that this should be a nonpartisan issue because more-sustainable communities should be everybody's agenda. So whether it's Gore or Bush is not the issue as much as that it's being discussed as part of the electoral picture. Gore has taken the lead on this, but both parties will be laying claim to it because it's such an important issue for our time. I think it's becoming more and more everybody's issue.

In your guidelines for successful city development, you write that "a proactive municipal government ... must determine the type, scale, and quality of new growth and then act as the lead booster for that growth." Are there any cities that you think are currently doing an especially successful job of developing in that way?

EPZ: There are a number of cities that have managed well for a long time. Charleston, South Carolina, is one of the models that we admire the most. Mayor Joseph Riley, who's been in office for about eighteen years, is one of the main reasons for it. There's a whole government that's behind the effort, but he's the leader. Riley was one of the founders of the National Endowment for the Arts Mayors' Institute, which sponsors workshops that help mayors around the country deal with design and development issues in their cities. The Institute is really one of the chief proponents in this country of the idea that the quality of a city's built environment affects its economic future.

We've been engaged with several different cities that have been making very focused efforts on their physical environments. Providence, Rhode Island, under the initiative of an elder-statesman architect named William Warner, took the highway off its river and has restored urban streets with granite bridges and balustrades.

West Palm Beach, under the leadership of Mayor Nancy Graham and now Mayor Joel Davies, is doing a major redevelopment effort. There are a lot of buildings there that are being restored and reused. And there's a lot of open land where buildings were taken down in the seventies, which is now being developed in accordance with the traditional urbanism that was originally planned for the city.

You can point to cities and small towns all over the country. Another city very close to home is Miami Beach, where the design of the city is such an important part of the political agenda that many of the activists who were initially preservationists trying to save buildings are now on the city commission.

What's your take on Boston's "Big Dig" project, which is rerouting Interstate Highway 93 so that instead of cutting through the middle of the city, it will tunnel underneath?

EPZ: I don't know that much about it. I know it's big; I know there are cost overruns. But I think actually, generally speaking, the U.S. needs to be investing in infrastructure in a big way. If you go to a city like Brussels, which is not the largest city in Europe, it has a myriad of tunnels underneath it to get traffic out of it. These are investments in the future of an urban area. We could just leave those areas behind. We've been doing that for decades—the "disposable city" syndrome. Where if something doesn't work you just leave it and go find something new. That's what causes urban sprawl.

We want to use our public money wisely. I suspect that when the Big Dig is done and the city has grown back together again, people will be saying "How did we ever live without this?"

JS: My first thought has to do with what happened in New York when the West Side Highway was taken down in 1973 and in San Francisco when the Embarcadero Freeway was destroyed by an earthquake and taken down. In both cases, the car trips pretty much disappeared. Those cities have demonstrated that if you remove highways people actually find other ways to get around. But as a native Bostonian, it's hard to imagine that the removal of that highway could fail to create a complete meltdown. We'll never know.

Secondly, I'm extremely troubled by what appears to be a reneging on the promise of a transit line that was supposed to be a part of the tunnel. I'm not completely up on this, but I remember that there was going to be a line between North and South Stations so that commuters from New York could go all the way to Maine. The transit line was the major justification made to the greens for the passage of the funding. From what I hear, that line has either been cut or is in question. It's the typical bait-and-switch by the road-building lobby. You end up with the zillion-dollar automotive infrastructure and, as usual, transit falls by the wayside.

Finally, I'm concerned that one seam is being replaced by another. The idea was to reunite the city. The latest plan as I understand it is that everyone's just calling for open space. My question is, How does a huge green swath -- particularly a cheaply-built huge green swath—reunite the city? If it's done as well as Olmsted did it with the Emerald Necklace and Commonwealth Avenue, that's one thing. But I don't think the budget is there to design it and to plant it in that quality. We don't need a seam of green—we need parks and buildings and boulevards. With the appropriate plan and code in place it could be a wonderful combination of parks and urbanism that's worthy of Boston.

As the three of you worked together on this book, did you discover any areas of significant disagreement in your thinking about sprawl or planning?

EPZ: It wasn't the subject matter as much as the tone of the book. Andres's lectures have been quite caustic and sometimes snide. He's used a combination of anger and humor to get a lot of people's attention. It works a lot better in speech, in my opinion, than it does in writing. So we were having discussions about just how badly we should tread on people's toes and how many people's toes we should tread on.

JS: Andres and Lizz taught me practically everything I know about urbanism. And I've seen them proved right again and again. So I had very little to disagree with them about. But we had different visions as to who our audience was. I was pushing to go entirely for a popular audience. And Lizz was more interested in clarifying our arguments for a professional and academic audience. Andres was somewhere in between. But I think the book is much stronger as a result of those discussions. The book took five years to write. It was not by any means a walk in the park. But we can all claim all of it as our own.

Did you know from the very outset of your careers that you were interested in community planning? Or did you start out with a focus on architecture or something else?

EPZ: We all have architectural education. Andres and I coincided at school together. It was in the early-to-mid 1970s, when people were just beginning to be aware of ecology and green building. And there was a burgeoning interest in cities. The preservation movement really was just beginning. There were some wonderful urban courses. I don't think we ever dreamt that we would be designing whole communities or working with whole sectors of cities, but we certainly had a good grounding for it in the education that we had.

With membership in the Congress for New Ubanism growing, and with so many people making efforts to learn the New Urbanist principles, are you feeling optimistic about your ideas starting to catch on?

JS: Herbert Muschamp, the New York Times architecture critic, who's generally quite critical of our work, described the New Urbanism as the most important collective effort of architects in the second half of the twentieth century. If he says that, then we figure we're well on our way.

So there's hope for turning the tide against sprawl?

JS: Every little bit helps. Fifty years from now we'll look back and we'll either say, "Well, we did it—we stopped sprawl." Or we'll say, "Well, so much for that idea." But even if it's the latter we'll have the satisfaction of a whole bunch of great projects that at least made a difference individually—even if, as whole, they weren't enough to change the world.