Momentary summer escapes to New England towns -- a couple of June days in Woodstock, Vt., and two weeks during August in Bar Harbor, Maine -- validate the use of neotraditional town planning principles to shape future suburban development.
Advocated mostly in theory during the 1970s and 1980s, neotraditional urban design for new suburbias of the 1990s increasingly is being put into practice.
Supported by receptive developers and enlightened local governments, designers are rejecting cookie-cutter subdivision layouts leading to more sprawl. In planning developments, many are choosing instead to emulate "townscape" characteristics of historic communities such as Woodstock, whose physical organization, streets and public spaces, building form and usage and landscaping seem so compelling.
To some, the charm and coherence of New England towns is attributable mostly to their architecture, to particular regional styles, craftsmanship and decorative motifs. While these contribute indispensably to a community's image, they are less significant than patterns of space, dimension, proportion and human activity -- patterns that are independent of architectural styling or building technology.
An early morning walk around Woodstock produced a mental catalogue of timeless design conventions that seemed undeniable and universal in their applicability.
Dominant center. Woodstock, like most small towns, has a geographic center defined by the crossing of two main streets lined by shops, stores, offices and residences. Linked to this commercial crossroads is the requisite New England "green" or "common" surrounded by public streets and sidewalks that front churches, inns, a library, shops and houses.
Here is a well-bounded public place in which to meet fellow citizens, to shop and conduct business, to witness parades, to mail letters, and to remember as a landmark space, one of the town's primary identifying characteristics.
Edges. The periphery of the town, the transition from rural to urban land use, is also perceivable. At certain points, such as river crossings, there is a strong sense of arrival in the town, reinforced by passage through a covered wooden bridge. Residential density, along with commercial and civic building density, increases noticeably as you move from edge to center.
Streets. Streets are shared equally by automobiles and pedestrians. Curbside parking, much appreciated by merchants and shoppers, is usually available adjacent to sidewalks on both sides of the street. Generally there are no large parking lots between sidewalks and buildings.
The town plan is a typical grid pattern of streets and blocks, but the grid deforms and shifts, appears and disappears, to accommodate topographic and other natural conditions or to reflect historic patterns of travel, land ownership and use.
Streets are not all the same size. The principal streets are several lanes wide, but quieter, narrower residential streets are still wide enough to accommodate on-street parking.
Trees. Every street is lined along its sidewalks by deciduous trees, sometimes irregularly spaced. The town green likewise is replete with trees, both deciduous and evergreen. Trees often dominate architecture as they form colonnades and canopies enveloping the streetscape and partially screen the volumes and facades of the town's two- to four-story buildings.
In-between. The space between sidewalks and buildings is critical in forming the image of a community. In Woodstock, that strip of space, the front-yard setback, is generally narrow, varying in depth from zero to only a few feet along streets near the town's center. In less dense residential neighborhoods, front yards range from a few feet to several dozen feet.
But it is the development, along with the dimension, of the strip of landscape between sidewalks and buildings that matters. Many shallow yards are intimate but publicly visible gardens, enclosed by low walls or picket fences and filled with flowering annuals and perennials, evergreen shrubs and ornamental trees.
A symbiotic relationship exists between street, sidewalk, front yard and buildings, all of which seem inexorably woven together to create a picturesque, orderly public-private realm.
Sometimes a tiny front garden abuts an 18th century facade with a modest, classically inspired entrance door and no porch. Or a 19th century or early 20th century building with a generous front porch abuts the garden. Some houses with grand porches have relatively large, tree-front lawns, rather than intensely planted gardens, linking them to the street.
What you don't see is continuous, undifferentiated strips of treeless, grass-covered, unnecessarily deep lawns dominated by garage doors, driveways and parked cars.
Movement. Automobiles are as indispensable in Woodstock as they are in most cities and suburbs, but for different reasons. In suburbia, one needs a car to do anything and everything, any time and anywhere. In Woodstock, one need a vehicle only for certain trips: to leave town, to cross town quickly, to transport goods. Otherwise, walking is a feasible travel option, especially for socializing and shopping.
You can walk through and around much of Woodstock in an hour. If you drive to the center of town, you can park your car and walk to a majority of the destinations that usually are spread out over dozens of square miles in suburbia.
Ample sidewalks, other pedestrians, sheltering trees, flowering vegetation, interesting facade details and inviting storefronts make walking a pleasant experience, even if you forget to bring your credit card.
Off-street parking. No real mystery here -- parking lots exist, but they are normally behind or alongside buildings, tucked away within blocks. Residential garages also exist, but they too are usually located in rear yards. A notable exception is the supermarket's wide, out-of-scale parking lot in front.
Size. Woodstock's year-round population is about 1,200, not counting those residing on farmland outside the town limits. This is equivalent to the population of a conventional subdivision of 400 homes, not an overwhelming scale of development.
The town proper -- the intensely developed center and surrounding neighborhoods -- occupies much less than 100 acres, likewise not an overwhelming amount of land. Clearly Woodstock's size and scale contribute to its charm, encourage travel by foot, and render its overall plan more intelligible.
Woodstock's characteristics conjure up an alternative model for American suburbs. Instead of living in placeless, often indistinguishable "subdivisions" stitched together by congested arterials passing by shopping strips and an occasional shopping mall, we could live instead in constellations of small "towns."
Each town could have its own identity and services, yet be accessible to nearby places of employment and commerce. A continuous network of roads could interconnect towns.
And not too far away, accessible by highway and public transportation, would be the big city with its museums, galleries, theaters, concert halls, department stores, sports stadiums, parks, zoos and transportation terminals.
To some extent, this is how functions indeed have been distributed in American cities and suburbs. But distributing functions rationally does not automatically create appealing environments and charming townscapes.
Rediscovering the essentially urbane, visual, spatial and social assets of traditional towns -- not only in New England, but also in Maryland and Virginia -- will help to humanize suburbia, making it more than just functional.
Roger K. Lewis is a practicing architect and a professor of architecture at the University of Maryland.