Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk, author of Suburban Nation: The Rise of Sprawl and the Decline of the American Dream, discusses her efforts to bring back traditional neighborhood design.
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RAY SUAREZ: With its white picket fences, front porches and narrow streets, the community of Kentlands seems like a throwback, where kids still walk to school and mothers and babies can stroll into town without worrying about heavy traffic, or parking a car.
In fact, Kentlands, a 352-acre housing development in Gaithersburg, Maryland, is only ten years old. There are 1,700 houses, townhouses, cottages and apartments here, with about 3,000 people living in them.
Kentlands was created by architects Andres Duany and Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk, authors of a new book, "Suburban Nation," and leaders of a growing movement called "The New Urbanism."
That movement aims to put an end to the kind of suburban development that has dominated American life in the past 50 years: The anonymous cookie-cutter houses, congested eight-lane intersections, cavernous, soulless shopping malls.
Instead, Duany and Plater-Zyberk argue for the traditional urban neighborhood and the small town where in five minutes a resident can walk to a store, a park, even to work. Besides Kentlands, Duany and Plater-Zyberk have designed 120 other communities around the country, all in the New Urbanist style. Recently, Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk showed me around Kentlands.
RAY SUAREZ: Explain to us why this building looks the way it does and why it's where it is.
ELIZABETH PLATER-ZYBERK, Kentlands Architect: Well, these houses at Kentlands are not that different from their counterparts in subdivisions around here. Inside, the plans are almost exactly the same. What makes it different is that it's much closer to the street. The porch is just a few feet away from the sidewalk. And you notice you're not seeing the garage out front.
RAY SUAREZ: Oh, yeah. Yeah.
ELIZABETH PLATER-ZYBERK: So this whole street...
RAY SUAREZ: Where is it?
ELIZABETH PLATER-ZYBERK: The garage is in the back...
RAY SUAREZ: Oh, okay.
ELIZABETH PLATER-ZYBERK: ...On an alley, in an outbuilding, a separate building from the house, not unlike the one you see across the lawn there, which has the garage below and a small apartment above. As you walk along the street, you can see what a pleasant street it is to walk along, because there's constant houses. It's not interrupted by driveways. The sidewalks are not going up and down with the curb cuts because the cars are kept to the back, and meanwhile you can be saying hello to your neighbors, people who might be sitting on the front porch.
RAY SUAREZ: Do you come back and check to see whether they really do, though? I mean, do we know whether people use this porch?
ELIZABETH PLATER-ZYBERK: We hear about it.
RAY SUAREZ: Prices in Kentlands, as in its surrounding area, have skyrocketed in the last few years. The most expensive single-family houses go for over a million dollars; a townhouse can range from $200,000 to $360,000; a cottage rental, $900 a month. And an important feature of the new urbanism is they can all be found in the same neighborhood.
RAY SUAREZ: Why is it an important part of the design to have houses of different sales price together?
ELIZABETH PLATER-ZYBERK: It's an important part of the idea because it happens so little. In the last several decades, we have built housing that's been separated by price point, by income. Small houses and big houses are separated. People of different incomes are separated often by very long distances, and that doesn't... that's not a good social result. So this is really a breakthrough. It's breaking the conventions to build this way.
|A friendly environment|
|RAY SUAREZ: Later, Plater-Zyberk and I then walked into
Kentlands' town center, where she explained why its wide sidewalks and
narrow streets make for a friendlier and safer place to shop.
RAY SUAREZ: So if the effect is the same, people get stuff and they get services, why is it important to do it this way instead of doing it the way we've been doing it?
ELIZABETH PLATER-ZYBERK: Well, one of the reasons this form is important is besides the stuff that's here-- the stores and services-- there are also people who live within walking distance. And the walk is not across two enormous parking lots and a six- lane road, it's around the corner, along a wide sidewalk like this, along a narrow street where parked cars protect you as a pedestrian.
RAY SUAREZ: So how is the social landscape different from what it would be in a regional mall, which has many of the same services?
ELIZABETH PLATER-ZYBERK: This is the kind of town center, or downtown, where you will get to know the storekeepers. You will, on the way to the hairdresser, stop and have a cup of coffee -- those kinds of interconnections. You'll tell them if the older lady down the street needs to have something delivered because she's ill. It's hard to imagine that. That just doesn't happen in a mall or a strip center.
RAY SUAREZ: Do you and Andres Duany feel like you're swimming upstream against the culture? We can travel ten minutes from here in any direction and see the absolute antithesis of what you prescribed in the book being built, being planned for next year and the year after.
ELIZABETH PLATER-ZYBERK: That's right. Swimming upstream is probably a good way to put it, but at one point, we hope to reach what's known as the tipping point in which the tide changes.
|The search for autonomy|
|RAY SUAREZ: But if you ask people who are
looking for houses what they want, a lot of the things that you're designing
against is really what they want. They want the semi-circular drives and
the segregated space -
ELIZABETH PLATER-ZYBERK: The autonomy.
RAY SUAREZ: -- so that houses are all together and commercial space are all together somewhere else. That's what they want.
ELIZABETH PLATER-ZYBERK: Absolutely, and there will always be people who want the autonomy of a freestanding house making their choices about driving to their needs. That's a part of our history here in this country. But you know, we already have plenty of that stuff. The large... our metropolitan areas are now more suburban than they are urban, and there will always be plenty of that kind of suburbia for the people who seek that kind of lifestyle. What there is not right now in most places is the ability to make the choice to live in a community that is community-oriented and where people choose to be interdependent and choose to walk the transit, or to the corner store, or to the school.
RAY SUAREZ: Are the places you've designed going to be allowed to age in place the way a neighborhood in the middle of the city might be able to age in place? Will people be able to change their windows, repaint their houses?
ELIZABETH PLATER-ZYBERK: Those kinds of quality controls, I think we've seen over the last few decades really serve their communities well in terms of keeping long-term value. That doesn't mean that you couldn't put an addition on to your house, or change the front porch, change the paint color. That all... that kind of freedom is in there.
RAY SUAREZ: Does it have to be approved by others, though?
ELIZABETH PLATER-ZYBERK: Usually. There's some mechanism for that.
RAY SUAREZ: Well, let's talk a little bit about your critics. And I'm sure you know what they say. One of the charges is that you're sentimentalists, that you're designing nostalgia. How do you respond to that?
ELIZABETH PLATER-ZYBERK: You know, sentimental and nostalgic, since you attach it to critics, might appear to be pejorative words. But in fact we don't think they are. Especially in this time of technological change, constant change, people change jobs very easily. The idea that your place of residence might have some kind of stability and some kind of connection with a larger picture, whether it's a larger community than just your household, or your daily life; a longer history that you might be contributing to a community that has some history and looks forward to having some future as well, I think makes a tremendous amount of sense.
RAY SUAREZ: Are you ready to sort of join a national argument? I know that you've been engaged in it to a degree already, but would you like to hear from people who read the book? Do you see this as part of an ongoing process?
ELIZABETH PLATER-ZYBERK: Very much so. We'd love to hear from people who read the book, and we'd like to continue this discussion in any way we can. And it is an evolving picture. There's a lot of work to be done. There's a lot still to be learned about how to do things better, more easily, more permanently.
RAY SUAREZ: Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk, thanks for being with us.
ELIZABETH PLATER-ZYBERK: Thank you.
MARGARET WARNER: You can learn much more about Kentlands and the New Urbanism movement by visiting The Online NewsHour at pbs.org/newshour. Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk and a New Urbanism critic will take questions in an online forum.