At Kentlands, New Urbanism Has Unlocked a Sense of Community

By Katherine Salant
Saturday, November 3, 2007

Can a sense of community, that elusive quality that home buyers everywhere say they want, be created by the way a housing development is laid out?

Architects and land planners say yes.

If you rearrange the pieces of the suburban landscape, get people out of their cars by providing shopping and other destinations within walking distance, and create a network of links between houses, homeowners will be "connected," they say.

This approach is known as new urbanism, neotraditional design or traditional neighborhood design. The most famous practitioners are the Florida husband-and-wife architect team of Andres Duany and Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk. Such communities have been built across the United States in the past two decades. One of the best known is Kentlands, near Gaithersburg, conceived in 1988.

Such neighborhoods are radically different from a conventional subdivision.

For starters, they can be three to seven times as dense. The houses are close to each other and to the street. Most have a front porch or stoop, garages are accessed from a rear alley, and there are sidewalks everywhere. Individual lots and yards are small, leaving a generous portion of the total acreage for public spaces such as pocket parks, village greens, tot lots and jogging paths. House sizes vary, single-family houses and townhouses are intermingled, and condos and apartments can be part of the mix.

But does a traditional neighborhood design really create a strong sense of community? How can you tell? After all, this is not an obvious visual characteristic; it's a perception.

Kentlands is almost 20 years old. If the theory works, it would be evident by now there.

After extensive interviews with six Kentlands homeowners, I believe the answer to the community question is clearly "yes."

Of course, six people is a minuscule fraction of the Kentlands' several thousand residents. However, my conclusion echoes that of Joongsub Kim, an architecture professor at Lawrence Technical University in Southfield, Mich., who has lived in and studied the dynamics of Kentlands and a nearby conventional subdivision for 10 years. He has interviewed more than 425 households in both communities.

Clyde Horton, a resident since 1993, said the degree of socializing is obvious now, but in the early days, no one knew how it would work out. The only thing obvious to buyers then was that it was different from anyplace they had lived before.

Not all the residents are highly social by nature, said Larry Dildine, who has lived in the neighborhood for nine years. "For shy people, Kentlands is a very good place because you don't have to make a big effort to know people."

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