Between Burb and Burg

The father of New Urbanism, Andres Duany, is reshaping suburbia—and the practice of architecture

It was 9:30 P.M. on a November evening when the nation's premier critic of suburbia decided to cross the road. Town planner Andres Duany had just started a weeklong design session in Huntersville, N.C., and we went out for dinner. The first place we tried was closed, so we left the car and set out in search of another. What were we thinking? Sidestepping Texaco pumps, pushing through a hedge, scampering down an embankment, hopping over mud puddles and dashing across four lanes, we made it to an isolated stretch of sidewalk by a drive-through bank teller. "Sometimes I forget where I am," Duany told me the next day. "They all look the same."

Duany came to this suburb of Charlotte, one of the fastest-growing cities in the U.S., to help it map a way out of the sprawl. Across the country he and his wife, Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk, are forging amalgams of burb and burg: pedestrian-friendly neighborhoods rather than more subdivisions, more mini-malls, more parking lots and more traffic. Talk of "smart growth" owes much to their insights. But are they also achieving their broader goals of social engineering? Duany argues that modern architecture shouldn't be a game of one-upmanship, as it often becomes, but a means to strengthen communities: "Success is not just to say, 'My house is in better taste,' but, 'My daughter has more friends than before.'" By those standards, however, their success is uncertain.

Born in New York City in 1949, Duany grew up in Cuba in a family of property developers, leaving at age 10 during the revolution. He met Plater-Zyberk at Princeton University, and together they went to graduate school at Yale University in the early 1970s, studying under the famous architectural his-

torian Vincent J. Scully. From 1976 to 1980 they designed high-rise condos at a high-powered architecture firm in Miami. Then came the epiphany, which Duany attributes to a series of talks by Léon Krier, an urban theorist from Luxembourg. With Robert S. Davis, an idealistic local developer, the couple drove around the hamlets of the South in a Pontiac convertible, collecting ideas for a small town of their own. The result

YOU CAN'T BUY MILK in most suburbs without taking the car, says pedestrian-friendly planner Andres Duany.

was Seaside, a gingerbread-and-picket-fence resort near Panama City, Fla., that quickly became a mecca for architects and planners (and later the set for The Truman Show). Thus began the New Urbanist movement. Today there are 124 neotraditional developments, 31 of which the couple's firm designed. Plater-Zyberk is now dean of the University of Miami's school of architecture.

"There are people who love suburban sprawl," Duany explains. Suburbia does, after all, provide a standard of living unavailable in cities except to the wealthy. "The problem is that those who do not love it are not being provided for." For them, the New Urbanists have resuscitated the principles that governed pre-1945 town planning—in particular, the integration of the houses, shops, offices and civic buildings that postwar zoning keeps strictly separated. In New Urbanist developments, no house is more than a five-minute walk from a neighborhood center with a convenience store, coffee shop, bus stop and other amenities. Neighborhoods also mix different housing types—apartments, town houses, detached houses—and therefore different income levels and age groups. The segregated layout of conventional suburbia, Duany argues, is the origin of its complaints, such as loss of open space and slavery to the steering wheel.

He and Plater-Zyberk are also renowned for their attention to the little things: garages and parking lots are tucked away behind buildings, sharp street corners discourage speeding, sight lines end with important buildings or interesting views. Conscientious design compensates for the higher housing density. In conventional suburbia, Du-any says, people make the opposite trade-off: buildings, front lawns and streets are out of proportion, cheap detailing passes for craft.

I have come to Huntersville to see the lesser-known side of New Urbanism, how it builds consensus as well as streets. Along with half a dozen of the idealistic twentysomething architects that his firm attracts, Duany transforms the town council chamber for a week into a design studio, replete with black lamps, white posterboard and the whiz-grind of pencil sharpeners. Every day utilities engineers, parks officials or fire marshals come to meet. Every evening Duany presents the latest plans at a public meeting. The effort—known as a charette, a French idiom that connotes an intense project—is more than the usual boring town meeting. It is a chance for a community to take stock of its future and to see whether Duany's practices really do nurture openness and communal problem solving.

In Huntersville the task is easier than elsewhere. The town, having seen its population swell from 3,000 to 26,000 in a decade, scrapped its traditional zoning ordinances and adopted a New Urbanist code in 1996. Now the town, working with private developers, wants to renovate an abandoned century-old textile mill and its 32-acre site, located near the remnants of the downtown and on a rail line slated for eventual passenger service.

Still, Duany gives the pitches demanded of him in less sympathetic places. To developers and bankers, wary of deviating from established formulas, he talks about the profits his projects have earned and about the desire in a growing number of communities to stop development altogether. "The New Ur-banists are what's going to save the development industry in this country," he says. To residents and small-business owners, cynical about change and anything political, he talks about ensuring that growth will improve rather than diminish the community (not to mention their property values). "The choice isn't whether people come or not," he says. "It's how much land they'll consume."

To elected officials he talks about how the project, one of the few to incorporate public transit from the outset, will be a model for the nation: "There's an open-mindedness in North Carolina. I've always found it easier to work here." Never does Duany downplay the challenges; to the contrary, he seeks to make everybody his co-conspirator: "The great gamble here is that this project gives density a good name, so Charlotte doesn't become like Atlanta, where all anyone talks about is the traffic."

Duany naturally dominates whatever group he is with. If he stops walking, everyone stops; if he starts talking, others hang in midsentence. His perfect posture makes you conscious of slouching. At times, however, he starts to overplay his charisma and celebrity. On the second day of the charette, a representative of Norfolk Southern Railway disputed Duany's description of the planned train line as a light-rail link among neighborhoods. Rather, he said, it would provide rapid commuter service into downtown Charlotte. The dispute was not merely semantic. The railman wanted a wide right-of-way, which could isolate the project and leave Huntersville without a coherent town center.

Duany raised his voice; the Norfolk Southern representative crossed his arms. Off to the side, I shifted in my seat. Duany was doing just what he told me he tries not to: enter into direct debate on a local issue and potentially set himself up as the bad guy. But suddenly he stood up, went over to one of his staffers and brought back a piece of tracing paper with two parallel lines an inch apart. It was a scale drawing of the right-of-way that the railman wanted. The two of them hunched over the plan and maneuvered the tracing paper until the tracks fit in. In little negotiations like this, New Urbanism adapts to local conditions and gains experience for future projects.

After one evening presentation, Du-any and I go to see American Beauty, praised by critics for its take on suburban alienation. "At the beginning of the movie," he tells me afterward, "I said, 'I can't take suburbia anymore, I've got to get out of this business.'" Successful though his cajoling and compromising usually are, he insists he's getting tired of it all. He plans to spend more time on teaching and writing (including his first book for the general public, Suburban Nation: The Rise of Sprawl and the Decline of the American Dream). Yet if his energy is waning, it doesn't show in his vehement responses to his critics, tapped out on a Psion handheld computer in the interstices of the charette.

Environmentalist skeptics want New Urbanists to reclaim cities and older suburbs, rather than collude with developers to devour more land. But Duany insists he's only being pragmatic. Although New Urbanist insights are also needed in urban areas, they generally materialize in green fields because that's where the new development is. Other critics mock the Georgian or Craftsman architecture found in most New Urbanist projects, which they see as sappy nostalgia rather than the stuff of real towns. But they overlook the designs, such as one for Jersey City, N.J., that incorporate contemporary architecture. "I don't care about style but about harmony of style," Duany explains. He views his plans and codes as modern versions of those that guided the development of the world's most vibrant and livable cities, from Siena to Savannah.

One criticism is not so easily dismissed. The very popularity of New Urbanist developments drives up their prices and undercuts one of Duany's stated goals: diversity. The cheapest house now on sale in Seaside is a 1,000-square-foot cottage for $510,000. His own staffers told me they cannot afford to live in the places they design. It is an issue that Duany says he still struggles with. Underdesigning homes—making the closets smaller, say-holds down their value. "To make it affordable, you have to make it less pleasant," Duany says. The absolute price level, however, is set by scarcity. According to Robert L. Chapman of the TND Fund, a Durham, N.C.-based investment group, neotraditional development has doubled since 1998 but still accounts for only $1 in $460 of new housing.

Before leaving the cinema, Duany and I eavesdrop on teenagers hanging out in a nook of the lobby. "I need to understand teenagers better," he confides. Which is interesting, because nearly everything he does already seems directed at them. Conventional suburbia is almost custom-made to frustrate young people. How will they respond to the New Urbanism? Will the children of Huntersville want to settle in their hometown or be able to afford to? A generation will pass before we know whether New Urbanism really does make a lasting difference in how people live and interact. It takes a child to raise a village. —George Musser in Huntersville, N.C.

SUBURBAN LANDSCAPE often consists of subdivisions of malls, corporate parks and housing (left), whereas New Urbanism mixes shops, offices and homes (right).


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