SAN FRANCISCO — San Francisco. The critics say urban sprawl is a lousy idea -- trashing the land with schlock development, polluting the air, costing billions for duplicated roads, schools and water systems.
But they've been short on compelling solutions. Most sound like snores -- ''infill development,'' ''concurrency,'' ''urban growth boundaries,'' for example.
Of late, however, there's been a rush of popular attention to the idea called ''New Urbanism'' -- returning to an America of more compact neighborhoods of houses and walk-up apartments on smaller, less sterile streets, places with real town centers and pedestrian-accessible parks and gathering places.
The idea is that such communities, by consuming dramatically less land than strung out strip malls and cul-de-sac suburban subdivisions, will curb sprawl even as they give a rebirth to warmer design and friendlier community life.
Leaders in the first wave of New Urbanism's public notice were Miami architects Andres Duany and Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk, designers of the model town of Seaside on the Florida panhandle and Kentlands, a village-like suburb outside of Washington, D.C.
San Francisco architect Peter Calthorpe also began to garner wide attention for his advanced concepts for compact, transit-oriented developments spread across metropolitan regions, as well as his incentive plan for Laguna West, a pedestrian-scaled town near Sacramento.
Mr. Calthorpe became New Urbanism's first prophet to link decay in America's inner cities and the land-consumptive non-planning disaster on our exurban peripheries.
''Americans,'' he says, ''moved to the suburbs for privacy, mobility, security and homeownership. What we now have is isolation, congestion, rising crime, pollution and overwhelming costs -- costs that ultimately must be paid by taxpayers, businesses and the environment.''
Several books on New Urbanism, underscoring its emergence as a major architectural and city-planning movement of our time, have recently appeared. Top in the group are Mr. Calthorpe's ''The Next American Metropolis'' (Princeton Architectural Press), Peter Katz's ''New Urbanism: Toward An Architecture of Community'' (McGraw-Hill) and Philip Langdon's ''A Better Place Live: Reshaping the American Suburb'' (University of Massachusetts Press).
But is New Urbanism going to turn out to be more than an intellectual side current, a bothersome gnat to standard subdivision and strip-mall builders who claim they know what the public wants, and what it will buy?
Milwaukee's Mayor John Norquist believes New Urbanism can be the turning point in how America gets designed and built -- simply because people like traditional design better.
He bolsters his argument with a slide show that begins with picture postcard scenes of pre-World War I Milwaukee. Then he asks viewers to imagine a firm has hired them to create picture postcards for today's metropolitan Milwaukee. Almost invariably, his citizen audiences pick the old city halls, theaters and neighborhoods over modern beltway cinemaxes, cookie-cutter
motels and subdivisions.
''Proponents of New Urbanism should have more confidence in their own arguments,'' said Mayor Norquist after the third national Congress for the New Urbanism in San Francisco last month. ''Urban sprawl is not pretty. Liberals and conservatives, neither really like it. Just as the argument about the relative merits of free enterprise and Leninism was over quicker than we thought, the argument over livable, sustainable communities can won if we only engage it.''
One suspects Mr. Norquist may be right -- if. First, if the popular media can be encouraged to communicate more images of the quality New Urbanist designs coming on line. And second, if people can find some way to imagine entire regions developed with New Urbanism ideas.
Peter Calthorpe is doing all he can to make a new vision happen with his transit-oriented metropolitan plans -- first for San Diego and Sacramento, and now in full-blown form, for Portland, Oregon, in that region's breakthrough ''2040'' plan.
The Portland citistate's challenge is how to accommodate as many as one million new residents in the future, without losing its special Pacific Northwest way of life.
The 2040 plan adopted by Portland's Metro regional government in December is classic Calthorpe, with strong emphasis on light-rail lines linking cities and designated growth centers. The average size of residential lots will be shrunk, and a goal set to preserve downtown Portland's share of the regional job pool.
But the 2040 document is not some planner's concoction. Extensive community workshops were held. Questionnaires went to more than 500,000 households, asking residents about real choices -- whether they wanted more development on transit lines (83 percent said yes), encouraging growth-center cities (77 percent yes), reducing new lot sizes (58 percent yes), and reducing commercial-space parking (55 percent).
One can argue that Portland, with its long history of sound planning and state growth management, is more open to the new, green approaches than other American regions. But maybe Portland is simply a precursor of where we'd all go in America, if our alternatives to sprawl were clearer.
The New Urbanists' refreshing agenda is to give us the alternative vision, to imagine the designs that could be, to give us back some choice about our future.
Neal R. Peirce writes a column on state and urban affairs.