Suburbs In Disguise

The word “urban” can be either a pejorative or a compliment, depending on who is using it. In newspapers and magazines, being called urban is usually an insult-code for poor, crime-ridden, and deteriorated. In burgeoning suburbs, it’s common to hear talk about areas that are getting “more urban”-and this doesn’t mean the proliferation of quaint cafes or homes close to the street. Rather, the term is used to describe places where minorities are moving in, affluence is declining, or where crime is on the rise.To others, urban simply means “city-like,” that is, the place where things are happening. In an article I wrote for the newsletter “Edge City” (published by Joel Garreau, author of the 1991 book of the same name) on the suburbanization of Europe, the editor insisted I use the word urban to describe the shopping malls and cul-de-sac subdivisions surrounding Copenhagen. As he explained, one of the central tenets of the “edge city” philosophy is that places like Tysons Corner, outside Washington, D.C., are the new commercial, residential, and retail centers of the country. Therefore, they were urban. Garreau’s team was trying to grab the word and make off with it.To designers, architects, and fans of New Urbanism, “urban” means a way of building towns-or more accurately, subdivisions-that are still centered around walkable streets, which were the norm until the automobile pushed them into outmodedness. These are places where you can walk to a store or a restaurant, or between homes, without being dependent on the car-places that are at least somewhat reminiscent of nineteenth-century cities or suburbs.Maybe it’s the lack of an agreed-upon definition for “urban” that explains the slipperiness of New Urbanism. The word means whatever people want it to mean. A.M


A grand fraud is being perpetrated in America. Across the country, developers and planners are selling repackaged subdivisions as “new urban” communities. Billed as the modern equivalent of Charleston, Georgetown, and “Our Town” all rolled into one, these are supposed to be places where people of all backgrounds will be magically freed from their chaotic, car-dependent lifestyles to reunite in corner cafes along civic squares and lead healthy public lives.

Also known as neo-traditionalism, New Urbanism is the much-hyped theory that planners can create cohesive communities by building subdivisions-though that word is never used-that resemble traditional towns or big-city neighborhoods. To do that, streets are laid out in grids (some are modified) without cul-de-sacs, garages are tucked into alleys behind homes positioned close to the street and to each other, housing types and prices are varied, and street-level retail turns up in or near residential neighborhoods. At Kentlands, a planned community in the Maryland suburbs of Washington, D.C., this strategy is meant to create what the sales brochure calls “the old town charm of Georgetown and Annapolis… in western Gaithersburg.”

It sounds good. But while the virtues of the traditional city or town may be desirable, they cannot be replicated on empty land at the edge of town, where most of these developments are being built. This is not a matter of New Urbanism being right or wrong, but of understanding what is possible and what is not. Cities, even when drawn by a single hand-like Washington or Paris-take shape in the context of larger economic and social forces. Reproducing traditional cities, or saving the ones we have, would require re-creating the conditions that produced them. This may or may not be desirable; in any case, it is a sociological question with real economic consequences, a question that New Urbanism avoids.

New Urbanism is fast becoming the new standard for suburban development. Zoning boards and city councils around the country are demanding that new subdivisions conform to this idea, or at least to some of its superficial aspects. An avalanche of magazine and newspaper articles, books, and television shows preach that New Urbanism will save us from our suburban sins. But these new subdivisions cannot cure the ills of sprawl. They are sprawl.

Montgomery County, Maryland, is a clean, rich, and antiseptic domain similar to other suburban counties around Washington, D.C. Its boulevards are sweeping, and the newer ones are kept clean of commercial development. Strangely shaped office buildings tower over manicured lawns. A health club visible from Interstate 270 resembles a Las Vegas casino, with cantilevered floors and plenty of neon and spotlights.

Kentlands grows out of this familiar landscape, wedged between Route 28 and Route 124, former country roads that now bristle with subdivisions, shopping centers, and the like. The Darwinian world of hyper-development is visible along the main roads, where clusters of knee-high paper signs on wooden stakes bloom like wildflowers, entreating drivers to steer their cars into newly built subdivisions: “Fountain Hills,” “Quail Overlook,” “Timberbrook Condos,” “New Models!” “King’s View,” “Prices Starting in the low 200s!”

Kentlands itself takes up 350 acres and will eventually accommodate 1,500 families; close to three-quarters of that number are there now. Still in marketing mode, the development is festooned with builder billboards and small signs directing visitors to the “Upper Lake District.”

Kentlands was designed by Miami-area architects Andres Duany and Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk, who have been the central architects and missionaries of the New Urbanist movement. Begun in 1988, Kentlands was one of the first neo-traditionalist developments planned by their firm, known as DPZ, after the completion of the much-written-about Seaside in Florida.

Although the designers faced a distinct set of challenges and restraints here, Kentlands’ layout resembles DPZ’s usual style in the way the streets, homes, and community buildings are placed. Gently skewed residential streets are grouped on each side of a central avenue, Tschiffley Square Road. The streets form an “urban grid” only in a very loose sense; Kentlands turns out to be as confusing as any cul-de-sac subdivision. (A clerk at a gas station near Kentlands identified it as “the place with the confusing streets.”) The residential buildings-a mix of town houses, condominiums, and big, squarish homes-sit close to the street. The Rachel Carson Elementary School lies just inside the main gate. A shopping center, Kentlands Square, is on the other side of the development, while a group of lower priced condos, Beacon Square, occupies its own pocket near it.

Gabrielle Stevens, an environmental scientist, took me on a walk around Kentlands on a chilly spring day. She and her husband live in a much-photographed row of houses on a central square near the old Kentlands farmhouse, now a community center. Originally from Nob Hill in San Francisco, one of the best urban neighborhoods in the U.S., they moved here in 1992. They chose Kentlands rather than Washington’s Georgetown, Adams Morgan, or Dupont Circle, which might have offered an East Coast version of their former home, in order to be near their jobs and to avoid the threat of crime in Washington. And Stevens loved the idea of what Kentlands offered-an urban environment in a natural setting.

But that changed as the reality of Kentlands failed to live up to Stevens’ ideal. She was disappointed when she saw trees pulled down around “Inspiration Lake” at the center of Kentlands, and even more so when she learned that the 500-acre parcel of land adjacent to the development, originally owned by the National Geographic Society, had been sold to developers. (It is scheduled to become a subdivision called Lakelands, with construction beginning as soon as next year.) Stevens admits that sales agents never said her home would be the last built or that she wouldn’t have neighbors sharing her walls, but she complains that her narrow row house now seems dark and lacks privacy. The scale and the density of the place are greater than she imagined. From her back patio, she pointed to a line of fences stretching down the alley. “You see, this is getting into the ghetto-clothesline thing.” Stevens’ complaints are essentially suburban. Kentlands does not give her enough of the isolation, privacy, and illusion of being nestled in nature she left the city for. It is too urban for her.

The people who do love Kentlands feel that way because it is still fundamentally suburban, with just a taste of urban qualities. They like their neighborhood because it is protected from the outside world, sealed off from traffic. It is safe and walkable, the neighbors are nice, and the clubhouse pool is right down the street.

David and Sue Goldberg live a few streets over from Stevens, in a big square brick home on a small lot with little front and back yards. It’s about twice the size-and cost-of Stevens’ town house. The Goldbergs moved here two years ago from a six-bedroom home with a pool on 1.5 acres in a semirural subdivision. By comparison, Kentlands is very urban indeed. The Goldbergs find it safe, social, and pedestrian-friendly. “We made more friends here in two months than we did in the other place in 10 years,” David says. “People here want to be social. And it feels very safe. I walk my dog late at night and don’t give it a second thought.”

Sue Goldberg says she and her husband represent a category of homeowners who “have done the big yard thing and are tired of it.” Neither Stevens nor the Goldbergs sought an actual urban environment, nor did anyone else I met in Kentlands. They did not want outsiders in their neighborhood, nor commerce or traffic. The Goldbergs liked Kentlands’ “urbanism,” but only in comparison to living in a semi-wilderness.

Kentlands makes little sense without understanding suburban development in Montgomery County and elsewhere in the U.S. The essence of post-World War II development patterns is the old country road, from which sprout subdivisions and shopping centers. Tracts of housing, and eventually malls and office towers, are laid out as appendages to the main road, which quickly becomes congested and swells from two lanes to four and often eight lanes. This pattern of development did not emerge from the edicts of Le Corbusier or Frank Lloyd Wright; it happens because it suits a transportation system based around the car. Corbu, Wright, and the other anti-urbanists did not cause suburbia. They merely predicted it.

Kentlands does not really change this suburban pattern. Like many other subdivisions, it sits on an amoeba-shaped parcel of former farmland and has only one or two principal entrances. Its average density-a little over four homes to an acre-is only slightly higher than most suburbs. And Kentlands conforms to the suburban pattern of isolation; it holds itself apart from the commercial services along nearby Great Seneca Highway.

Neo-traditional planners claim that these developments are significantly more “environmental”-that they consume less land and have a lighter impact on their site-than conventional suburbs. In fact, Kentlands’ environmental track record is only marginally better than the suburbs that surround it, although its plan responds to the site’s features more than most. Common open space takes up some 50 acres, about a sixth of the site, and is laced with wetlands. Preservation of these areas helps to maintain natural drainage patterns and what remains of the site’s animal and plant species. But to assess the real impact, it helps to look at what was there before. Kentlands was built on what had been part of a wildlife refuge established by the subdivision’s namesake, Otis Beall Kent. (The refuge also extended into the former National Geographic property.)

When planners talk about how New Urbanism contributes to environmental sustainability, they are also referring to the reduced dependence on the car that the density of these developments supposedly makes possible. Just like residents of “real” urban neighborhoods, people in developments like Kentlands are theoretically able to walk to the store, to their friends’ homes, to the community center. Though studies about how much driving is actually taking place have not been conducted, DPZ architect Mike Watkins, who works on-site at Kentlands, offers his own informal example. “Kids walk to school here,” he says. “The state of Maryland spends $400 per year per student on busing; 100 kids walking to school here equals $40,000-which could hire two teachers.” He says high school kids without cars can work at the shopping center, but acknowledges they often need to drive to other activities in the Gaithersburg area. People might walk within their neighborhoods, but the common rhythms of suburbia-the cycle of extensive automobile use and miles of development on the fringe of town-are still in place.

Like many other residential developments, Kentlands maintains a homeowners’ association whose rules control the look of the place, and to some extent the behavior that takes place there. A new home buyer automatically becomes a dues-paying member of the association and agrees to abide by certain restrictions, to which only the association can grant exceptions. This classic tool of suburbia provides a level of control often unavailable to local governments. Kentlands’ group is called the Citizens Assembly, as if the private association were the equivalent of a New England town meeting.

Richard Arkin, chairman of the association and a former planning commission chairman in the neighboring town of Rockville, acknowledges that Kentlands represents “New Suburbanism” more than New Urbanism. It’s still a big improvement, he thinks. “It’s a much more efficient use of land than traditional development,” Arkin says. “But Kentlands has two gaps: It’s not in the city, and it does not have a commercial core at its heart. I think the jury is still out. It’s a work in progress.”

New Urbanism does have some subtlety and grace, mainly because it was conceived and promulgated by architects, not bureaucrats or developers lacking aesthetic vision. But architects have their own myopia. Their focus on building can let them forget, or not realize, the larger forces around their designs, such as the region’s transit system and economy.

Cities are primarily products of transportation systems, not the other way around. The older sections of European cities and places like New York and Boston were scaled to people getting around on horse and by foot. The classic nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century neighborhoods many people love were created by the extension of streetcar lines. Levittown was a product of cars and highways. And the mega-malls and subdivisions that surround Washington grew from the highway system that laces the region. New Urbanists propose building what are essentially streetcar suburbs, without the transportation systems that originally supported those kinds of neighborhoods. This is a fruitless exercise. The result, at best, is a place that looks like Georgetown but functions like any other subdivision built off the Beltway.

It’s easy to miss a simple fact about Kentlands: This place is very, very exclusive. New single-family homes start at $220,000, although most cost at least $100,000 more than that, and some run to $1 million. Even in high-cost Washington, this is upscale, and Kentlands has attracted the white upper-middle-class cream of the Washington metro crop. The residents I met were classic Washington professionals: lawyers, consultants, lobbyists, and government officials. While income diversity is a banner of New Urbanism, the reality falls short of the rhetoric. Kentlands mixes houses of varied prices in closer proximity than conventional subdivisions, but this tends to mean a company president living next to a lawyer, not a carpenter or teacher.

Scott and Wanda Elkind, both attorneys, live in a $175,000 third-floor condominium near some row houses and single-family homes. Homes in their half of Kentlands top out at $500,000, rather than the $1 million over on Stevens’ side. Out walking their dogs one afternoon, the Elkinds tell me what life is like at the low end of the market. “We’re on the wrong side of the tracks here, and we feel it,” Scott says. “There is a little bit of looking down the nose from the people in the big houses over there.”

“It was quite a shock at first,” Wanda adds. “People were cold. I wanted to leave. We’re from New York, with old neighborhoods where people visit and are nice to strangers. People here walk on the other side of the street, and when you say hello, they look at you like, ‘Why are you talking to me?’ ”

Still, Kentlands is successful if you use the most concrete indicator: People are willing to pay a premium to live here. At least for now, Kentlands is selling something people want.

“I think what’s different about this place is that we’re a bunch of yuppies who were fooled into paying top dollar,” says Mike Curan, a cardiologist with the Navy. “I paid $226,000 for my town house. In other suburbs around here, I could have gotten the same home for $175,000.” But Curan isn’t unhappy. “The kind of exclusiveness they have set up for the community, whether virtual or real, helps keep it desirable,” he says. “I know this is a $180,000 property. But I think it’s going to hold its value. This place might be the Chevy Chase or Potomac of the future,” he says, referring to two ritzy Washington suburbs. What higher praise is there?

I live in an urban neighborhood-at least according to how the term is commonly used among architects. Ghent is a streetcar suburb of Norfolk, Virginia, laid out and developed in the late nineteenth century. Although once considered suburban, it is “urban” now because it still has street-level retail and is oriented toward people on foot, rather than in cars. My home is a three-story town house, built at the turn of the century on a 17-foot-wide lot. On the same block is a Tara-like mansion with white columns, owned by a rich doctor, and a multistory apartment building inhabited by a mixture of students and twentysomethings.

At first glance, a block in Ghent is similar to one in Kentlands because of the housing styles and small setbacks. But my neighborhood is different. It is not an appendage to a major highway. Ghent is part of a larger urban fabric, a small section of a larger network of streets and avenues. Except where urban renewal projects cleared things away, there are no “collector streets” or “major arterials” near my home. More important, Ghent has 10,000 homes on 600 acres, according to the 1990 census, or almost 17 homes to an acre. This is roughly four times the ratio at Kentlands. (And Ghent is far less dense than New York’s Greenwich Village or North Boston, which have some 100 homes to an acre.) The large number of people who live here makes the neighborhood work; without them, Colley Avenue, the shopping street a few blocks away, would not have enough walk-in traffic. But they also generate the energy that makes living in an urban neighborhood both a pleasure and a pain.

The failure of developments like Kentlands to stimulate commerce within their boundaries is where the inherent flaws of New Urbanism surface. The Kentlands Shopping Center, which is built in one corner of the development, is anchored by a Kmart, a supermarket, a discount home and hardware store, and a Crown Books superstore. This is a typical strip mall; the only difference is that the stores have been dressed up with brick facades and white Jeffersonian columns.

This is another example of the deceptive marketing spin surrounding New Urbanism. Dressing up a Kmart with white columns is on a par with pushing brick suburban houses up to the street’s edge and pretending it’s Georgetown, or calling a homeowners’ association a Citizens Assembly. It’s also akin to naming Kentlands’ elementary school after Rachel Carson (whose 1962 book, Silent Spring, helped kindle the American environmental movement) when the development has supplanted farmland, contributing to pollution of the rivers and the outward spiral of destructive sprawl.

The shopping center lies just off Great Seneca Highway, which funnels customers right into its parking lots. This major road, and the interstate highway system it drains, created Kentlands’ retail hub, just as a streetcar line created the shopping street in my nineteenth-century neighborhood. And the highway system made possible the consolidation of many-layered distribution systems into single-point warehouse stores-Circuit City, Kmart, Sam’s Club.

Commerce is an integral part of urban neighborhoods; in that sense, to be truly urban, Kentlands would have had to have been built around Route 28, as my neighborhood was around Colley Avenue. Even there, street-level retail is just barely hanging on. The trendy restaurants, boutiques, and art-house movie theater have survived by carving out markets somewhat safe from the tentacles of the larger suburban economy. I can eat a meal, see a movie, or buy an expensive coffeepot on Colley Avenue. But I can’t buy underwear or a television set there. To do that, I have to drive 10 miles to the mall and the warehouse stores in the middle of the metropolitan sprawl.

“Midtown,” the Main Street-like shopping area that residents could walk to in Kentlands’ original plan, has thus far failed to materialize. No developers bought into the original plan, and several revised projects have been suggested, including a Wal-Mart and a retail-and-movie complex. A charrette conducted by DPZ in March yielded a new plan for a street filled with low-rise buildings featuring ground-floor retail space and housing upstairs. Large parking lots would be tucked in back, so that the stores would essentially face two directions. In concept, it is similar to Mizner Park in Boca Raton, or the Reston Town Center near Washington-quasi-downtowns for suburban developments built in the last 10 years. If Midtown gets off the ground, it may be a good example of how to blend commerce into low-density development. The persistent dilemma is how to make such a shopping center accessible to neighborhood walkers, while also capturing the car traffic from surrounding highways that’s necessary for the businesses to survive.

New Urbanism is diverting society from dealing with pressing problems. The issues of whether and how to limit new building on farmland, how to expand mass transit to significantly cut down on car use, and how to work towards cleaner air, purer water, and energy savings in cities and the suburbs are concealed by this pretense that American society can build its way out of the problems of suburban sprawl. This is partly a problem of language. New Urbanists like to call themselves town planners, referring to developments like Kentlands as towns or villages. But a subdivision sitting off Route 28 is neither a town nor a village.

Truly promoting urbanism would require banning development on farmland, halting construction of highways and interstates, and creating mass transit lines. Peter Calthorpe, the New Urbanist mentioned most frequently after Duany and Plater-Zyberk, addresses these tough choices in his book The Next American Metropolis (Princeton Architectural Press, 1993). Calthorpe calls his strategy “transit oriented development,” because it stipulates that new and infill developments be designed within walking distance of public transportation, which would lead to compact developments throughout the region, arranged along the transit network. But if New Urbanist developments were really transit oriented places like Kentlands would not be built.

There are signs that the emphasis on transit is growing. In Oregon, the state transportation agency recently approved a regional mass-transit line, with planned development around it, as an alternative to a proposed freeway bypass. This took an enormous amount of work by a Portland citizens’ group, and involved tough political work on virtually every level, from federal to local. But it should produce real urbanism, not an ersatz alternative.

New Urbanism means more than houses. That’s what makes the subject so beguiling, confusing, and emotional. Whether homes have front porches has come to be an argument about how best to obtain friendship, love, community, and an end to the fragmentation that characterizes so much of American life. The decay of our cities and the continuing sprawl into the hinterlands has become a metaphor for America’s general trend toward more and shallower, rather than fewer and deeper. In a recent issue of Harper’s, Jonathan Franzen lamented the decline of the novel’s relevance: “The institution of writing and reading serious novels is like a grand old Middle American city gutted and drained by superhighways. Ringing the depressed inner city of serious work are prosperous clonal suburbs of mass entertainments: techno and legal thrillers, novels of sex and vampires, of murder and mysticism.” To me, Kentlands is a “clonal suburb” of Georgetown.

Kentlands is an improvement over conventional suburbia. But its proponents pretend it is something else altogether. As a model of urbanism, it is deceptive. Kentlands is not “Bye-Bye, Suburban Dream,” as Newsweek hailed New Urbanism; it’s a culmination of that dream. What’s unclear is whether New Urbanism is just this decade’s fashion in suburban design, or a step in the important process of beginning to understand how to achieve some sort of real urbanism.

ALEX MARSHALL is a regular contributor to Metropolis. He is a staff writer on urban affairs for the Norfolk Virginian-Pilot.

To find discussion about Kentlands and other new urbanism topics, go to the Congress of New Urbanism Newsgroup: CNU@LSV.UKY.EDU


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