Walk of the Town: The New Urbanist Mystique

By Lonnae O'Neal Parker
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, August 22, 2005

I am running, running, running.

I am running just for fun.

Through the grass and through the gravel

Running faster

See me travel

Past the people

Staring, staring.

They are thinking something's wrong.

I'm not looking.

I'm not caring.

I'm just running

Hard and long . . .

My 11-year old-daughter memorized the poem "Running Song" by Marci Ridlon this past school year. But it seems like I live it every day. I too am running, running, running. I am running not for fun, someone's pulling, someone's tearing at my time and I am swearing .

I have a recurring fantasy.

It's most keen on mornings like a recent Friday when I had to take my daughters to swim camp -- and my 7-year-old forgot her lunch. Usually, it's a 35-minute drive to camp and 35 minutes back. I had calculated there was just enough time to stop by the dry cleaners and grocery store before going to work. Now I had to spend an extra hour and change in transit, retrieving the lunch. The price: I didn't drop off my clothes or pick up food for dinner. I barely gobbled lunch. I got a little reporting done, and four hours later, I drove the 35 minutes there and 35 minutes back once again to pick up the girls from swim camp.

And my recurring fantasy is that it doesn't have to be this way.

I dream of closer spaces and more considered amenities; a place where my margins are not so razor thin that a forgotten lunch wrecks the balance of my day. It's a fantasy of community, where everything I need to power my life as a wife and mother and working professional is within walking distance of my house. A place that changes my proportions of time and space, that shortens the distances between piano lessons and playmates.

There's a neighborhood school and dry cleaners and park in my fantasy. A grocery store and pool and good friends who spread out for three city blocks in every direction. It's a place where sidewalks forge connections and, because we're all so close and neighborly, why, the mom across the street is happy to run my daughter's lunch to swim camp -- only two minutes away. Or maybe my 7-year-old could even walk back home and pick it up herself.

There's a term for my fantasy and a neighborhood for it, as well. For the past year or so, I've driven through the Kentlands in Gaithersburg and allowed it to steep in my imagination. In the late 1980s, when construction began, it was hailed as a seminal "New Urbanism" development. The first of its kind. A subdivision that looked like a whole town, that reminded us of places we used to live.

Now, more than 15 years later, the Baltimore-Washington region has about 20 of them, either planned or started. In Prince George's County, where I live, three large developments are under consideration. Others have New Urbanist elements. On those days when I'm running so fast, I comfort myself with thoughts of moving to a new community with an old soul.

What would it be like? How would my fantasies square with reality? Would I really have more time?

Last week, I decided to see. I headed to a family happy hour in the Kentlands. (Friday nights in summer, you just look to see who's flying the lemonade banner.) I found a woman who's living my life -- has three kids, like me; lives in the suburbs and works in the District, like me; has a husband who travels out of town a lot, like me. And I shadowed her, to see if sidewalks and a neighborhood Whole Foods really could give a mom more minutes in the day, more time with everybody, including herself. Or if my fantasies were just another marketing gimmick, just one more brick-front facade.

It's the Little Things

It's about 6:50 on a Wednesday morning and Liz Waetzig, a 40-year-old mother of three, is rushing, barefoot, to the door of her large Colonial-style home. She welcomes her nanny, Doris Ulloa, and they immediately talk pacifiers and puffy eyes and the sleep schedule for 8-month-old Julia, who is smiling broadly and dribbling down her chin. Grace, 9, and Erin, 7, are still sleeping upstairs as Waetzig downs the rest of her oatmeal and berries. The girls can go to the pool if they're good, she tells Doris. By 7:05 she kisses the baby and she's out the door. A couple of quick turns and she's heading down Interstate 270.

Waetzig, a lawyer, teaches conflict resolution at the Georgetown Center for Child and Human Development. She first moved to the Kentlands in 1994, to a townhouse. She had her oldest daughters and moved to a single-family home. Later, she and her husband divorced. She remarried and in 2003 moved to her third Kentlands house.

Like me, she works four days a week (except when she works five) and has a woman who comes in to help with the house and kids. She likes to sing; I love to dance. We are both privileged enough to have choices and have both chosen ambitiously busy lives. Except Waetzig has also chosen to live my New Urbanism fantasy, which is why I'm in her car.

"I'm glad you're here," she says happily. "Because that means I get to ride in the HOV lane."

For all alike, it seems mornings turn on modern fortunes of traffic lanes and parking spaces. She stops to pick up a couple of colleagues in Bethesda before driving to Annapolis for a seminar on mediation.

Typically, when Waetzig heads into Washington around 10, her commute is only 35 minutes or so, but if she leaves between 8 and 9, it can stretch to an hour or more. Gaithersburg is not close in, and all the neighborhood amenities in the world can't take a single mile off the highway. "But they give me more options," Waetzig explains.

For a working mom, "it's those little things that take you over the edge -- not getting the dry cleaning. I went to Costco and I realized I didn't have 10 minutes to get what I needed and wait in those stupid long lines, so we may not have formula for tomorrow."

But on the way home, "let's say I don't have dinner ready. I can slide into Whole Foods and get something reasonably nutritious. . . . I don't know that I could do that if we didn't have it in our neighborhood. Sometimes, I can't afford to leave 30 minutes early, but I can leave 10 minutes early."

With a schedule in a life that can turn on the tiniest increments of time, it's the kind of thing that can make you coo at your kids instead of snapping at them.

"If my daughter forgot her lunch, I could just ask the babysitter to walk it to the pool, two blocks away," she says. And it all sounds so good.

Perhaps too good. Is the whole concept of New Urbanism too forced, too contrived, too much like "The Truman Show"? Is the "community" that it engenders artificial and non-organic?

Waetzig loves her neighbors -- one even introduced her to her husband.

What Creates a Community?

"There are conditions that create community and conditions that don't," says David Hudson, executive vice president for the Congress for the New Urbanism, a Chicago-based nonprofit that teaches New Urbanism principles to architects and planners. "And if you live in a community where you only see your neighbors through the windshield of your car, you drive in your garage, close your garage door and spend the rest of your evening at home, that doesn't engender much community."

The conditions that allow neighbors to interact include destinations to walk to, sidewalks, parks, schools that children can walk to, and close-by cafes and restaurants. Yes, "there is planning involved. Civilizations have always built communities that way. You have only to go back and visit Colonial Boston or European communities created 500 or 1,000 years ago. They mix uses. They're very dense."

This strikes one of my New Urbanist chords. I love my own home and the woods in my back yard enchant me daily. I, too, know many of my neighbors; last year we held a block party, and we went Christmas caroling in December. It's not that we don't take family bike rides or that the kids don't have plenty of neighborhood friends, it's just there's no destination for us to bike or hike to, no common area to sit and say hi. I grew up on the South Side of Chicago, my husband grew up in Pittsburgh, and while both our memories are vivid, it's not just the place, it's the blocks walked to get ice cream and play ball; it's all the things we did in the places where we lived.

Still, even with all her amenities, Waetzig has other concerns. A lack of diversity -- socioeconomic (Kentlands houses sell from $650,000 to $1.5 million) as well as racial and cultural -- troubles her. "I want these kids to understand that there is a world beyond this neighborhood and they exist in it and have a responsibility to it," she says. So this year, she says, they're going to volunteer at a shelter.

Which will introduce them to one kind of diversity, anyway, but of course it also will put them in a car, and add time to a weekday that might already be crowded with piano lessons or Girl Scouts or soccer practice.

Making the Most of It

Waetzig's seminar lets out about 3:30 p.m., 90 minutes earlier than the past two days, and she and her colleagues are delighted by the prospect of getting home before 6. She heads back up I-270 after dropping them off in Bethesda. She turns into the Kentlands and stops by Whole Foods before deciding on leftovers for dinner.

Ulloa hands over Julia, who seems delighted and remains planted on her mama's hip for the rest of the night.

So it must be great to be able to walk to the school and swimming pool and over to your friend's house, I say to 9-year-old Grace over a dinner of pasta and black beans and rice.

"Yey, but sometimes it's a pain," she says. "But I get a lot of exercise. . . . Sometimes it's nice to get in the car and drive to where you want to go, but I know that pollutes the air."

I just smile at her wistfulness and the New Urbanist idea of a car ride as whimsy.

The phone rings. Waetzig's husband's flight has been delayed.

For Waetzig, the rest of the night is spent making sure the girls shower, bathing Julia and getting her to bed, then time for a glass of wine with a book before her husband gets home late. Ideally, she would have worked out today at the gym that's not quite close enough to walk to, or the community pool, but not today. She forgot to put her workout clothes in the car; once you're at home, there's always something else to do.

Twelve hours after I arrive, I leave Liz Waetzig to her lovely daughters and beautiful home and ambitiously busy life. Driving home, I revisit my own new-urbanism fantasy. Waetzig does less shuttling her kids back and forth, but the running, running, running of her life feels much the same as my own, even if the spaces are closer and the neighbors get together more often.

New Urbanism reminds me of something old and familiar, but perhaps what I long for most is something that simply no longer exists in my life. A time and place when all of my proportions were smaller. A time and place where no sidewalk in the world will ever take me again: the unhurried days of childhood, and all that time to wonder.

I still fantasize about moving, I still want that corner store and neighborhood pool and all the amenities in Liz Waetzig's life, even though I understand much of the work of real community is done neighbor by neighbor, whatever you have, wherever you are. As for the parts that are missing, and those that are long gone, I can throw a happy hour in any neighborhood and simply fly my lemonade banner at half-staff.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company