Kentlands, the Washington area’s first community shaped by New Urbanism, turns 25

June 27

This year marks the 25th birthday of “Kentlands,” the Washington region’s first new suburban community shaped by “New Urbanism” principles.

Two questions come to mind. Has Kentlands achieved its New Urbanist aspirations? And to what extent has Kentlands influenced and affected planning and development elsewhere in metropolitan Washington?

Part of the city of Gaithersburg, Kentlands lies a few miles west of Interstate 270 via Route 28 (Darnestown Road), or Route 119, (Great Seneca Highway). Although a bit far from downtown D.C., Kentlands is close to Rockville and even closer to many upper Montgomery County commercial, business and campus destinations — and the jobs they create.

Kentlands was conceived in the 1980s by Joseph Alfandre & Co. Inc. Alfandre hired architects Andres Duany and Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk, outspoken critics of America’s car-dominated, inefficiently sprawling, cookie-cutter suburbs. Duany and Plater-Zyberk advocated neotraditional planning — a precursor to New Urbanism — based on functionally and aesthetically viable physical patterns derived from 18th- and 19th-century European and American urban settlements such as Savannah, Charleston, Alexandria and Georgetown.

New Urbanism principles include composing legible patterns of blocks and interconnected, walkable streets while minimizing the use of cul-de-sacs; introducing memorable, well-shaped civic spaces at strategically appropriate places within the street-block framework; creating streetscapes lined by street-fronting buildings designed for pedestrians and bikers as well as cars; and preserving fragile or historic landscapes and structures.


(Roger K. Lewis)

In June 1988, with Alfandre’s sponsorship, Duany and Plater-Zyberk orchestrated an intense, week-long work session — a “charrette” — during which public officials, local citizens, designers and home builders interactively participated. The charrette enabled stakeholders to try to craft a definitive Kentlands master plan guiding development. Although that plan, like all plans, was amended in later years due to changing economic circumstances, much of the original concept was maintained.

Kentlands looks decidedly neotraditional, and not just because of its historicist architecture. On many traditionally-configured Kentlands streets, for example, you won’t see garage doors, driveways or curb cuts. Garages are located behind homes and accessed via a “mews,” a vehicular service alley. This planning tactic allows houses to be placed closer to the street, yielding a more intimately proportioned streetscape, shorter utility connections between street and house, and deeper rear yards.

Today, on 352 acres of transformed farmland, Kentlands is a mixed-use, walkable community diversely populated by several thousand residents occupying a wide variety of housing types: single-family detached homes, modestly sized “urban cottages,” townhouses, rental and condominium apartments, and live/work buildings with apartments atop street-level shops and studios.

Three commercial districts within Kentlands encompass retail shopping, restaurants and office space. Residents can access extensive indoor and outdoor recreational and cultural facilities — public parks and gardens, artificial lakes, a community arts center and the Rachel Carson Elementary School. Streets, parks and civic spaces are periodically animated, thanks to activities, programs and holiday celebrations sponsored frequently by local clubs and civic groups that loyal Kentlands residents support.

Kentlands has had a positive effect in metropolitan Washington, but not because Kentlands per se has been replicated. It demonstrated that an inclusive planning process involving multiple stakeholders offers important benefits: better public understanding of a multi-faceted master plan and quicker, more widespread plan acceptance and approval. As it matured after construction began in 1989, Kentlands helped illustrate and validate the aesthetic appeal and market potential of New Urbanist planning.

Consequently, over the past quarter century, New Urbanism principles have been embraced to varying degrees by designers, planning agency professionals and planning commissioners throughout the region. Likewise, many political leaders and developers understand and support such principles. Conventional zoning regulations, often impediments to achieving New Urbanism goals, are at last being amended to make such goals achievable in appropriate locations.

Where can New Urbanism’s influence, spawned by Kentlands, be observed? Visit King Farm in Rockville; Potomac Yard and Carlyle in Alexandria; Reston Town Center; and National Harbor in Prince George’s County. New Urbanist design principles are evident in recently approved, ambitious makeover master plans for downtown Columbia; White Flint in North Bethesda; and Tysons Corner.

A few years ago, Virginia’s legislature empowered the Virginia Department of Transportation to require narrower, environmentally sustainable, interconnected streets within and between new subdivisions.

By limiting the use of cul-de-sacs, not-so-progressive Virginia has delivered the clearest — and least expected — evidence that New Urbanism is durably mainstream and not just a fad.

Roger K. Lewis is a practicing architect and a professor emeritus of architecture at the University of Maryland. His cartoon for this column may be seen at www.washingtonpost.com/realestate .

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