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Putting Some 'City' Back In the Suburbs

By Alex Marshall

Sunday, September 1, 1996; Page C01

THEY ARE proliferating in former farm fields and distant suburbs all around Washington, these clusters of brick row houses that look as though they were airlifted out of Georgetown. Some are imposing, New England style Victorians with wrap-around front porches. Others are affixed with steeply angled stoops that suggest kids playing stick ball and neighbors swapping tales.

Also known as neo-traditionalism, New Urbanism is the architectural and town-planning movement that proposes to cure the ills of contemporary suburban life -- from sterile communities to cookie-cutter architecture to disaffected politics -- by refashioning subdivisions to resemble traditional small towns or big-city neighborhoods.

In these communities, or so the spiel goes, life will once again resemble the close-knit neighborhoods where some of our grandparents were raised. Families will live close together in homes and apartments that front on streets; they will walk down sidewalks to corner grocery stores and cafes. Young people will once again live next to old, rich next to poor.

It's an idyllic picture, and one that is immediately appealing to anyone who has spent hours running errands along a crowded, chain store-lined suburban boulevard or lives on a suburban cul-de-sac. It is a concept that has caught the imagination of social thinkers nationwide, moving from the pages of planning journals to the cover of Newsweek, the pages of the Wall Street Journal and to dozens of other mainstream publications.

There's only one problem: New Urbanism doesn't work. It's proponents are selling something they can't deliver without charging a far higher price, and without making changes far more fundamental than redesigning a few homes. To understand why, it's necessary to look more carefully at what we today call the suburbs and how they took form.

Cities are products of something. They represent the effect, principally, of transportation systems. The classic 19th and early 20th century neighborhoods that many people love, and which New Urbanism apes, were created by the extension of streetcar lines. Levittown was a product of a new car culture. The mega malls and grab bag of subdivisions that surround Washington are products of the Beltway and the rest of the superhighway system that laces the region.

New Urbanist developments are supposed to reduce the influence of the car. The idea is that people will live in small neighborhoods with houses clustered within walking distance of a town center. They will have narrower streets to encourage more walking and less driving. Kentlands, a much-touted subdivision outside Gaithersburg, was one of the earliest example of this genre. Haymount has been proposed in Virginia's Caroline County, on the Rappahannock River just outside Fredericksburg. Other less-heralded renditions are sprouting in other areas of Maryland and Virginia, and indeed around major cities all over the country.

The problem is that, while these developments mimic the old 19th century streetcar neighborhoods, they keep the same transportation system that produces conventional suburbs. In other words, current New Urban developments follow the standard pattern for subdivision development. They sit right off a main highway. They often have but a single entrance. They have winding roads that are just slightly less confusing than cul-de-sacs.

They are, in effect, subdivisions masquerading as small towns, except with the homes pushed up to the street and a few front porches thrown on. So what you get, at best, is a neighborhood that looks like a Georgetown, but functions like any other subdivision built off the Beltway.

As a result, it should not surprise us that such places are not changing how people live. A resident will still drive to a Wal-Mart for a toaster or a McDonald's for a hamburger. Because a subdivision is essentially isolated, these places do not have the diversity of people, the interplay of new neighbors and familiar faces that characterize both a small town or a big city. By and large, they draw a homogenous group of residents because their homes are targeted mostly at upper middle income buyers; diversity remains an illusive goal. And because people don't actually work within these new towns, they tend not to shop there. As a result, the car remains the same dominant force that it is in traditional suburbs.

Indeed, the Achilles' heel of New Urbanist developments has been their inability to change the way people shop, and the way retailers locate their stores. A case in point is Kentlands, where residents had initially hoped to have main street-style shopping rather than a traditional suburban strip mall. But at the developers' insistence, the center was built on the edge of the subdivision with parking lots facing the highway -- just like most other suburbs.

Even when developers have gone along with the vision of the New Traditionalists, their creations have not worked commercially. A corner store on a sidewalk, more dependent on walk-in traffic, cannot make a go of it without more of a Manhattan-like density of people around it, or at least much higher than anything New Urbanists are proposing. To be viable, such a store would also have to be one component in a network of traditional streets, not highways and Wal-marts.

To truly change the standard suburban style of living, with its dependence on the car and the heartbeat of the Beltway, you have to make more fundamental changes, and more politically difficult ones, than altering a few front porches or setback rules. You have to mention distasteful words like growth controls, parking restrictions and more investment in mass transit.

Of all these, metropolitan area growth controls are the most important. If Washington somehow managed a coordinated effort to limit development on new land, a task that would require the region to face its political fragmentation, existing communities would begin to revive, both in Washington proper and in surrounding subdivisions. As the density increased, so would ridership on the Metro. Freeways would make less sense. Commercial development would start to aim more at the center than at the fringes. The many scraps of vacant land left over in the last 30 years of development would begin to fill in.

But all this would come at a cost. If you limit new neighborhood construction in undeveloped, open spaces, you will have to raise home prices because the developers are right: It is cheaper to build on undeveloped land in more distant locales. If growth controls were strict enough, you would start changing the economy of cheap goods and cheap prices that is the American hallmark.

As it is, our habit of building huge freeways with relatively unbridled development has allowed for a greater and greater concentration of selling goods in super-sized stores. It's getting so that stationery, tools, breakfast cereal, computers, stereos and more are bought at huge warehouse stores with rock-bottom prices that sit near a freeway interchange. But the clerk at the Circuit City who sells you a washing machine, not surprisingly, will not know your name. It is a tradeoff. For the most efficient distribution systems in the modern world, for the elimination of all middlemen, we get a life almost devoid of intimate contact between the home and the market.

We can't have it all. We can't have cheap homes, cheap goods -- a more socially cohesive world comes with a more tightly controlled pattern of growth. New Urbanists have a chance of generating a realistic debate on how we build better, more livable communities. But they have to get their priorities straight. They have to give up the dollars generated by alliances with home builders intent on moving development ever outward. New Urbanism's contribution to city planning will remain almost purely stylistic, unless it makes more effort to change the basic pattern of suburban development.

Cities of every era have had their drawbacks. Unless we start to rethink what we're creating, our era will be known for cities that were dynamic, market-oriented and abundant, but which were also lonely, fragmented and disposable.

Alex Marshall is a staff writer for the Virginia Pilot in Norfolk and a regular contributor to Metropolis magazine in New York.

© Copyright 1996 The Washington Post Company

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