Architect criticizes exclusive zoning, '50s-style suburbs Case made for return to era of mixed incomes, front porches, sidewalks

July 15, 1998|By James M. Coram | James M. Coram,SUN STAFF

The way to stop urban sprawl, a Silver Spring architect told a Carroll County audience last night, is to end the "sacrosanct" zoning of the past 50 years and return to the patterns that dominated pre-World War II America.

"The suburb of the 1950s no longer works," architect Neal I. Payton told a crowd of more than 50 people at Liberty High School in Eldersburg.

"We changed the pattern of how we developed," he said. "We went from a grid of [land] uses that were somewhat intermixed to a pattern in which zoning became sacrosanct and every activity of American life was separated from every other activity."

Maryland's population not only doubled in the 39 years from 1953 to 1992, Payton said, but residents occupied more than twice as much land per person as previously.

Before World War II, most people were satisfied to have a home on a quarter-acre of land, he said, but now an acre is not enough in many instances.

People of diverse incomes used to live in close proximity to one another, but in the past 50 years, neighborhoods developed along economic lines with many residents resenting any crossing of that barrier, Payton said.

He told of a resident in a wealthy Maryland suburb who complained recently about expensive townhouses that might be built nearby and quoted the man as saying, "I didn't work all my life to live next to someone who can only afford a $250,000 townhouse."

In the pre-war years, people were city dwellers, lived on a farm, or were residents of a small town with "an acute sense of public place."

People could shop, have tea, go to the post office, and walk to a town center where they could see and be seen, he said. "Each town had a clear sense of end -- an edge."

It is something that Payton and other like-minded architects are seeking to recapture in emerging developments across the United States. He showed slides to give the audience a sense of what is happening in Maryland and across the country.

His development strategy seems deceptively simple. Narrow the streets, build sidewalks on both sides, put in parallel parking, move houses closer to the street, and put garages in the rear or in alleys instead of the front.

"Having a place to walk to is essential" to create a sense of place, he said. Shops or a town center should not be more than a five- or 10-minute walk away.

"Bringing the house closer to the front and adding a porch has an extraordinary effect on how we view our neighbors," he said. "It's almost impossible not to stop and chat" with someone sitting on a porch close to the street behind a picket fence, he said.

Payton ended his hourlong talk with a challenge: "Will you develop places of character -- or will it be business as usual?" he asked.

Pub Date: 7/15/98

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.