Suburban design: back to the future

April 19, 1993

One of the worst sins of suburban sprawl is its lack of user-friendliness. A typical tract features big, detached homes set far apart, with few of the traditional touches -- porches, sidewalks, alleys -- that serve to encourage such quaint customs as kibitzing with the neighbors and traveling by foot. For those activities, you have to head to the local mall.

That's why the Howard County Council should be congratulated for recently voting, while sitting as the Zoning Board, to give preliminary approval to new regulations that would allow "traditional neighborhood design."

In most developments of 20 acres or more, developers would be able to install alleys as narrow as 16 feet, or nearly 40 feet less than is currently required. Setback requirements for streets and alleys also would be eliminated.

Builders would be given this kind of leeway only if their overall designs embraced a "traditional" approach, as did the planners of the Terra Maria development in Ellicott City. Kentlands in neighboring Montgomery County, which opened about three years ago to some national acclaim, offers another example of a back-to-the-future wave in suburban design.

In fact, it was the testimony of the Terra Maria developers that helped sell the council on the proposed changes. But then anyone who grew up near an old-style alleyway could have spoken enthusiastically for the new regulations.

Especially in a neighborhood-town such as Baltimore, alleys have been the shared playgrounds of generations of youngsters, the sites of block parties and car-washings, and convenient markets for truck vendors selling everything from produce to topsoil.

How deeply the alley image resonates for many people was illustrated by an exhibit last year of drawings of alley scenes in Baltimore County's Rodgers Forge area. It's hard to imagine an artist finding enough material to do a series of sketches of, say, suburban cul-de-sacs -- and harder still to imagine that anyone would take the trouble to visit an exhibit of drawings of them.

The County Council has a chance to give its formal approval to the new regulations when it approves the overall zoning regulation package. That should happen within the next few months. We strongly urge the council to take this step toward bringing a welcome touch of the old to new housing developments in Howard County.

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