Ever since World War II, Americans have loved the suburbs. In the late 1940s, thousands of simple, affordable homes were built in places like Levittown. In these suburban homes, returning veterans and their families realized the American dream of owning a home. In the suburbs, parents could raise their children in a pristine place away from the congestion of the city.
Today, Americans are taking a second look at the legacy of Levittown. Commuting to work and chauffeuring children can cut into the time available for family activity. Some home buyers, discouraged by the choices of homes in new developments, complain about the "cookie-cutter" appearance of houses along suburban streets.
A growing number of developers, architects and planners are creating an alternative to the suburb. They have looked to the past and found lessons in the small towns and villages of America. The idea is to revive key ingredients of old towns in the hope that new communities will blossom.
"We're trying to create friendly neighborhood settings that foster the bonds of community through daily casual contact," says Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk, a Florida-based town planner who, with her husband Andres Duany, heads DPZ Architects.
|Steeple Street Shops, Mashpee Commons.
Applying principles that wed community building with contemporary lifestyles, pioneering planners such as Plater-Zyberk and Duany are creating America's new traditional neighborhoods. Insiders call them Traditional Neighborhood Developments (TNDs). These developments represent a vision for a humane, civilized place to live.
This vision is shared by a new breed of developers. One of them is Henry Turley, who wanted to build a new community similar to the Memphis neighborhood where he grew up. Turley's childhood home was in an established part of the city, not far from downtown and within walking distance of stores and shops that offered all of life's necessities. The houses were simple but solid, built in the classic architectural styles common in the 1920s.
"Right there in my neighborhood," Turley says, "there seemed to be everything—a hint of all of life's possibilities mixed in with all kinds of people. It was all within walking distance."
Turley found investors who shared his vision and built Harbor Town, an award-winning development on an island in the Mississippi River, near the heart of Memphis. He had no idea that other developers were pursuing similar projects until he read an article in 1988. "Until that point," he says, "we thought we were the only ones trying something like this."
During the 1980s, the first TND wave included such notable projects as Seaside in Florida and Kentlands in Maryland. Each of these developments had its own distinctive style, setting and approach. Yet all shared the goal of building more than just rows of houses or a gated community surrounding a golf course. These new neighborhoods share a special character based on the patterns of the past.
Corner stores, tighter setbacks, service lanes and carriage houses are some of the elements borrowed from historical models such as Charleston, South Carolina and Alexandria, Virginia, and from 1920s planned communities such as Mariemount, Ohio.
In an updated version of American small towns and historic neighborhoods, TNDs integrate a variety of housing types, front porches, garageless streetscapes and street networks that invite pedestrians. As a result, the residents walk more and socialize informally in neighborhood squares and along the narrow streets.
|Neighborhood Square, Kentlands.
A sense of community begins with the neighborhood squares, which serve as places for impromptu socializing. Surrounding the squares is a mix of homes, which accommodate everyone from singles to seniors and first-time home buyers to empty nesters. There are detached homes for families, cottages for retirees and townhomes for young professionals. Sometimes various types of homes are mingled on a single street, which makes for a varied and interesting streetscape—a far cry from some new subdivisions, which are dominated by look-alike houses and garage doors.
Traditional neighborhoods are the perfect setting for architecture reminiscent of Grandma's house. Some of the timeless elements include floor plans designed for day-to-day living, as opposed to maximum sales impact. Classic vertical proportions are used for entrances, windows and columns. Dignity is achieved with balance and restraint—no single element screams for attention. Contemporary home designs are not barred, but each community has design guidelines that promote architectural harmony. T
he goal is to create an entire streetscape that is as attractive as any individual house. Locating homes closer to the sidewalk allows residents sitting on their porches to converse with passersby. Porches are complemented by flower boxes and picket fences. Garage doors are recessed or hidden. Narrow, tree-lined streets encourage cars to move slowly, which makes the neighborhood safer and more inviting for pedestrians.
When all these elements are combined—neighborhood squares, front porches and a mix of residents—the result is small-town social interaction, reminiscent of Norman Rockwell paintings.
"My children are safe in this neighborhood because my neighbors know them," claims Janet Wood, a resident of Harbor Town. "This concept is great for kids, because they have an entire neighborhood to play in, rather than being confined to only the backyard."
Traditional neighborhoods also create a physical setting where residents can comfortably acquaint themselves with people they might not otherwise meet. "I really know my neighbors" is a comment heard repeatedly from residents of new traditional develpments.
A traditional neighborhood has conveniences many have forgotten. Friendly, walkable streets encourage residents to stroll to neighborhood shops. Most TNDs do their best to include places of employment and civic institutions such as post offices, schools, houses of worship and day-care centers.
Providing shopping, jobs and community services within convenient walking distance allows residents to meet some of their daily needs without driving. This provides mobility and freedom to all residents, from 8-year-olds who can't drive yet to 80-year-olds who don't drive any more.
|Post Office, Fairview Village.
Offering residents the opportunity to commute to work on foot has scored points with some environmentalists, who see traditional neighborhoods as a solution to suburban sprawl and overdependence on cars.
These new neighborhoods aren't for everyone, however. Home buyers who want to spread out on acreage with no neighbors in sight will find such developments too crowded. Some people bridle at the design guidelines and covenants that constrain what they may build.
Still, the rapid emergence and growing popularity of TNDs suggest the basic concept taps into a reservoir of yearning and unmet needs among the home-buying public. Even the Walt Disney Company is getting into the act. Its new traditional neighborhood, Celebration, has a town center, a public school, a golf course and a population of 20,000. Celebration and like efforts are sure to inspire the creation of more TNDs. Maybe one of them is right for you.
James Constantine is a principal with Community Planning and Research, Inc. in Princeton, New Jersey. A researcher in consumer housing preferences and an urban planner, Mr. Constantine helped to select the plans presented in this TND plan Book.
Portions of this article appeared previously in the summer 1996 issue of Better Homes & Gardens' Home Plan Ideas.