A suburban dream so old that it's new

July 14, 1996|By Lorraine Mirabella

SUBURBIA AS WE know it is under siege.

The land of carpools and cul-de-sacs first promised a better life to a newly mobile, post-war generation that traded urban congestion for a driveway and a patch of lawn. In their new,

auto-dependent society, early suburban pioneers drove to shopping centers, commuted to work, rode buses to school and chauffeured children to baseball practice on weekends.

Four decades later, little in that way of life has changed. But a steady flow of people onto roads, into schools, settling farmland-turned-subdivision has spawned strong anti-growth sentiment. Policy makers have pulled back or hit the brakes entirely on new development, the costs of which ultimately fall to the taxpayer.

The latest call to combat sprawl comes from Gov. Parris N. Glendening. The governor, who blames suburban growth for increased road congestion, pollution and taxes, announced last week that the state will spend more than $46 million to spruce up decaying commercial districts and help families buy homes in older neighborhoods.

"Moving up does not have to mean moving out . . . moving out of our cities and towns, moving out to suburban sprawl," Glendening said.

In the past quarter-century alone, population has grown 67 percent in Baltimore's suburbs and 72 percent in Washington's suburbs. If growth patterns remain unchanged, the governor warned in an earlier June address to the Maryland Municipal League, "We will virtually abandon our great and historic urban centers. We will consume half a million acres of farmland. We will consume nearly one-quarter of a million acres of forests that are so critically important to the water quality of our rivers and bays."

The same day Glendening spoke, offering a harbinger of a growth management plan he'll unveil next year, about 150 members of the Urban Land Institute from across the United States gathered in Reston, Va. Their purpose: to explore alternatives to runaway suburban development.

At the cusp of the 21st century, a new breed of planners, builders, architects and engineers from Seattle to Florida envision a radically reconfigured future landscape.

Increasingly, they take a dim view of the bedroom communities where many grew up, the disparate collection of tract housing, strip shopping centers and office parks connected by cars. Suburban development, they say, lacks the character and visual appeal of either small village or historic downtown. Worse, they charge, the suburbs isolate us socially, segregate us economically and gobble land mercilessly.

These planners have a new suburban dream, and it looks a lot like the cities and towns their parents left.

"The elements of living, working and shopping used to be integrated," says Andres Duany, a Miami-based town planner and architect who is a pioneer of neo-traditional design. "After the war, these elements became shredded -- housing where you only live, shopping centers where you shop, office parks where we only work, and arterials connecting them. It is not necessary to be separated like this."

That's not to say this neo-traditional vision -- also called "new urbanism" -- is a back-to-the-future trip to Mayberry for the sake of nostalgia.

"A neo-traditionalist would buy a Victorian house because the house is beautiful, but he would rehab the bath with the latest gadgets and finest, latest model kitchen," Duany says. "Neo-traditional is a combination of whatever works best. The skill is how to combine those things."

Planners advocate using small-town principles to re-invent suburban -- and even urban -- communities. In creating the nation's 37 completed or partially built neo-traditional communities -- most within the past five or six years -- planners and developers have looked for inspiration to downtown Annapolis, Georgetown and Old Town Alexandria. The appeal of those towns comes not so much from the houses themselves but from the relationship of buildings to streets and from public places designed as visual focal points and gathering spots.

Rather than segregating workers in office parks, shoppers in malls and first-time homebuyers in townhouse developments, new urbanism reassembles the elements into towns or villages in the manner of a city block with large and small homes and apartments over shops.

Rather than spreading houses over large lots that tend to isolate neighbors, new urbanism clusters homes, taking space from the front yard and putting it in the public realm in parks, town squares or village greens.

Rather than creating wide, looping streets as the domain of the automobile, new urbanism lays out narrow streets in grid patterns with multiple entryways, to slow cars, encourage walking and relieve traffic bottlenecks.

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