Brave old world - At a recent conference, advocates of walkable cities and quaint small-town architecture plot to take over America

By Anthony Flint<
Boston Globe

, 6/29/2003

GAITHERSBURG, MD.-While earnest young architects led a tour through the Kentlands development deep in Montgomery County earlier this month on the occasion of its 15-year anniversary, the real action was back in Washington, D.C.'s Adams Morgan neighborhood, where the leaders of the Congress for the New Urbanism were holed up at the Omni Shoreham hotel, trying to figure out where to go from here.

Kentlands, after all, was yesterday's success story for the architectural and planning movement known as New Urbanism, which promotes compact, walkable neighborhoods and neotraditional, turn-of-the-century architecture as an alternative to sprawl. And while still a handsome and well-functioning place-equal parts Beacon Hill and Mayberry, with trimmed lawns and white picket fences and front porches all within walking distance of the dry cleaner's-Kentlands has never been able to shake the troubling fact that it's most easily reached by car. Surrounded by big-box stores and tract homes some 25 miles northwest of Washington, it's 350 acres of packed-in settlement in a sea of sprawl.

What the faithful needed was something new to rally around, something more than a gesture and a symbol. Not that the New Urbanism movement hasn't been remarkably successful since its founding over a decade ago. It has basically taken over planning in the United States, and a sizeable segment of the real estate development industry. But the 3,000 architects, planners, and developers who gathered for the movement's 11th annual congress were eager to take things to the next level, to change the rules of development so dense and compact neighborhoods can be built or rebuilt everywhere-on virgin land known as ''greenfields,'' in older suburbs, and in cities large and small: a Kentlands in every square mile of built America.

Recognizing the political nature of that task, the CNU board last Sunday appointed Mayor John O. Norquist of Milwaukee, a founding New Urbanist and full-time politician, as its new executive director. Norquist, who will resign as mayor to take on the new job, is well-versed in the arena of government rules and regulations and the tedious business of changing them. The appointment is a significant acknowledgement that New Urbanism's sister movement, ''smart growth,'' is truly on the front line in the war on sprawl.

Like New Urbanists, smart-growth advocates-including Governor Mitt Romney's top lieutenant on development, Douglas Foy-want compact rather than spread-out development. But they go well beyond the New Urbanist's focus on the site, and go through a political process to deploy planning tools to make sure it happens chiefly in existing cities, close to transit. Smart growth is the fleece jacket made of 100-percent recycled plastic bottles; New Urbanism flashes a little leather and fur.

The New Urbanists' nod to politics over design-the board at one point considered an even more wonkish smart-growth policy maker, former 1,000 Friends of Oregon executive director Robert Liberty-is also startling because one of the founders of the movement, Miami architect Andres Duany, has been harshly critical of smart growth for many years.

Duany thinks the smart-growth people have it all wrong, especially in Portland, where an urban-growth boundary keeps development from spilling into the countryside. For Duany, the main thing is to build great neighborhoods over a range of settings he calls the ''transect''; environmentalists just get in the way. Recently he has taken to saying that the New Urbanism movement will not succeed unless it gets the support of free-market libertarians.

''The fact is, the CNU/smart-growth movement has carelessly, through sloppy tactical thinking, listed to the political left,'' Duany says. ''This has exposed us for the first time to powerful attacks from the right. Given the substance of our propositions, this is utterly unnecessary and untenable; our policies cannot come in and out with changes in government. What I have been executing is a radical correction to regain our political balance. The public needs to see we are intellectually alive and not a monolithic organization.''

While Duany actually prides himself on being called arrogant and asserts that his goal is ''not to be liked,'' he is tolerated as much as embraced these days by his colleagues in the movement. The dashing, Cuban-born Duany has long been New Urbanism's number one personality, responsible for the showcase projects of Kentlands and Seaside, Fla. But that may finally change with the arrival of Norquist, a Garrison Keillor-like figure who puts his feet up on his mayoral desk and tosses a baseball in the air while talking public policy. His goal will be to keep people stirred up without continually turning them off.

Even those in the smart-growth movement, however, don't want New Urbanism to lose its idiosyncratic swagger. Harriet Tregoning, formerly the equivalent of Douglas Foy for the state of Maryland and currently executive director of the Smart Growth Leadership Institute based in Washington, D.C., says that New Urbanists lead by example. ''They are big on inspiration-epiphanies, even. They get people to look at the built environment with fresh eyes,'' she says. ''Compare that to the planning field. What city planner has anybody even heard of today? Planners used to be rock stars, but we have none of that now.''

The movement has always attracted the architect in all of us, because its drawings and renderings are so soothing compared to the strip malls and cookie-cutter subdivisions that dominate the American landscape today. But it's also true that there's something contrived and a little too perfect about some New Urbanist projects; Seaside, after all, was the set for ''The Truman Show,'' where Jim Carrey sought to bust out of life-as-television-script. Mashpee Commons, Cape Cod's marquee New Urbanist project, gets praise for transforming a bland shopping center and vast parking lots, but some visitors feel that it's forced or artificial-especially since the real thing, in the form of Hyannis or Wellfleet village center, is not far away. A final critique is that New Urbanist projects tend to be pricey, and don't score well on racial or socioeconomic diversity.

But the movement has already proven adept at doing what politicians like Norquist routinely do when the conversation turns to loser issues: change the subject. Not by trotting out pretty pictures, but with savvy media strategies aimed directly at the public. At the 11th Congress, studies linking sprawl and obesity provided the sound bite. People who live in dense urban environments walk more and are less likely to be fat. The message: Embrace New Urbanism, lose weight now.

''It's an uneasy coalition,'' says another cofounder, the San Francisco architect Daniel Solomon, author of the recently published ''Global City Blues'' (Island Press). ''It's been a bit like watching the Spruce Goose fly-you think it'll never get off the ground.'' Even though the New Urbanism movement's contradictions and unwieldiness are its ''peculiar power,'' he says, the truly unifying force is the common enemy of sprawl. ''If CNU were to win, it would face... collapse,'' he says.

Jerold Kayden, a professor at Harvard Design School, which has remained on the whole a skeptical place when it comes to New Urbanism, thinks the movement is indeed at a turning point. CNU has had great impact going after bad zoning and offering alternative codes for building good neighborhoods, he says. But the price of success, he adds, is that ''they've promised so much. They've promised a new type of community, with all sorts of social interactions currently made difficult by suburban sprawl. There's just been no empirical demonstration of that.''

For now, at least. Kayden and ''Bowling Alone'' author Robert Putnam of Harvard's Kennedy School have proposed a study to try to quantify how much ''social capital'' New Urbanism really produces in places like Kentlands. For comparison, they want to study life in an older suburb like Brookline as well as conventional suburban subdivisions: spacious homes on two-acre lots along wide streets that terminate in endless cul-de-sacs-the predominant land use of Montgomery County. It is perhaps the ultimate commentary on the limited success of New Urbanism that if the Harvard researchers come to Kentlands and then go in search of a control group, they won't have to look very far.

Anthony Flint covers planning and development for The Boston Globe. He can be reached at

This story ran on page D4 of the Boston Globe on 6/29/2003.


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