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


What Makes A Neighborhood Viable?

a roundtable debate – Alex Marshall and Andres Duany
May, 1995

Our article in May about the redevelopment of East Ocean View in Norfolk, Virginia (“When the New Urbanism Meets an Old Neighborhood”), has sparked discussion – verbal, written, and electronic – about similarities writer Alex Marshall sees between urban renewal programs of the 1950s and 1960s and Andres Duany and Elizabeth Plater – Zyberk’s plans for the Norfolk neighborhood. At the heart of the debate is a facet of New Urbanism that is disturbing to some critics and could impede the movement in the future: The majority of projects suggest an unwillingness to accommodate existing building stock into its new neighborhoods. New Urbanists call their movement the “architecture of community” – a questionable label when architects appear willing to remove existing communities to build new ones. But for now, the issue is whether this part of East Ocean View is viable enough to save.

Teaching New Urbanism


Every July for the past few years, architect Andres Duany had taught a three-day workshop at Harvard on New Urbanism, the urban design philosophy he helped mold and promote. A group of architects, developers and other professionals were given the basics of neo-traditional design, while Duany and the New Urban movement got the imprint of Harvard’s esteemed name.

No longer. Before this summer, (1997) Duany fired off a letter saying he could “no longer associate his name with a school that is not fertile ground for urbanism,” said Alex Krieger, an architect and director of the urban designprogram at Harvard’s Graduate School of Design.

Seaside At Twenty


The tip of Florida’s panhandle hangs out over the waters of the Gulf of Mexico like ripe fruit on a low-hanging branch, easy pickings. This skinny, 100-mile strip sits directly below Alabama, almost walling it off from the sea. Located in a different time zone, an hour behind the rest of the state, the panhandle has long been popular with vacationers. Nestled in the bosom of the old Confederacy, families from Alabama, Georgia and Louisiana have flocked to the small beach towns here, giving the coast the moniker of “The Redneck Riviera.” With its aqua-green waters and pure white sand, it probably rivals the real Riviera in natural beauty, if not in movie stars.

Putting Some ‘City’ Back In the Suburbs

The Washington Post – 1996
Sunday, September 1, 1996; Page C01
By Alex Marshall

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. so 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.

Old Cities vs. New Urbanism: The Beat Goes On

AIA Architecture
May 1998
by Alex Marshal

When the faithful, the curious, and the skeptical gathered in Orlando, the debate over Celebration and the design philosophies of New Urbanism and Neotraditionalism twisted and turned for four days. Although there were dozens of speakers, the show stopper for many was the debate Friday night between Andres Duany, FAIA, New Urbanist leader and advocate, and Alex Krieger, FAIA, director of the Urban Design Program at Harvard’s Graduate School of Design. Held in the Disney Cinema on the grounds of the Disney Institute, Duany and Krieger sat on stage in straight-backed chairs and traded comments and retorts. John Kaliski, AIA, of Santa Monica, Calif., moderated. He had a tough job controlling his eager participants.

How Urban Should Your City Be?

What “urban” does not mean, to me, is tolerating crime, incivility or trash.

by Alex Marshall
The New York Observer
July – 2001

As the Mayor’s race begins to heat up, perhaps it’s a good time to prompt some discussion about not only crime, schools and jobs, but something both more conceptual and more concrete, such as what kind of city we want to be.

The words “urban” and “suburban” are irritatingly vague, and used as both pejorative and praise. To some, “urban” is still a code word for minorities and crime. To others, it means sophistication and a willingness to embrace rather than avoid, public rather than private, a street-based life. “Suburban” can mean narrow, isolating and sexless, or it can mean families, space and nature.

Columbia, Maryland

APRIL 7, 1997

Driving around Columbia reminds me of surfing the web. Everything is hidden, not visible except for an icon that says mall or village center, or hotel. But double-click one of these icons – that is, follow the small, waist-high sign that tastefully pokes up off the road – and a hidden reality opens up to you, be it a shopping mall, a housing subdivision, a park, or a school.

Like the web, one can pas quite a few pleasant hours in Columbia, navigating its maze of curvy, curvilinear streets, losing all sense of place and time. Each choice leads to a new set of choices. Destinations are down secondary roads, and in even there are concealed behind rows of trees and sculpted man-made hills.

Building New Urbanism: Less Filling, But Not So Tasty

This Article first appeared in Builder Magazine
NOV. 30, 1999

The old commercials for Lite beer by Miller which were once so popular gained their fame by having ex-jocks and other assorted celebrities stand at a bar, hold up a glass of amber-colored liquid, and repeat the slogan: “Tastes great, less filling.”

The advertising pitch worked for a while, but as any beer lover could tell you, all the “lite” beers were a pretty thin, tepid brew. The designer beers, which actually did taste great, but were also filling, shoved a lot of them out of the marketplace.