CRITICIZING THE SUBURBS City planner wants return to town concept


Andres Duany is trying to make a speaking career out of being obnoxious. Or so it seems.

"There's a good chance you'll find me an obnoxious and abrasive person," he told a crowd at the National Association of Home Builders convention in Las Vegas recently.

Certainly his supercilious manner, sarcastic wit, monumental self-assurance and faintly foreign accent might well be thought likely to alienate a group of down-to-earth, plain-spoken house .. builders.

As might his love for the word "stupid" when applied to almost everything builders, developers, architects and planners other than himself -- as well as society in general -- have done for the last 50 years.

Or his habit of skewering revered institutions by name and in person, as when he addressed a meeting of the Urban Land Institute and referred to it as the "United Lemmings Institute" because of the group's developer members' frenzied rush to build golf course communities.

But if Mr. Duany's aim is to outrage, he may be failing. His two-hour presentation to the builders drew enthusiastic applause and the throng of questioners around him afterward was not hostile but eager to learn.

One of the crowd, James Hemphill, head of Northfield, Ill.-based Home by Hemphill and last year's president of the Home Builders Association of Greater Chicago, invited him to come speak to the group.

The warm reception reflects an increasingly positive response to Mr. Duany's near-messianic message: that the typical American suburb is a monumental mistake, responsible for a host of social ills, and that only by building tight-knit towns in the mold of the 1920s and before can we restore to this country a decent quality of life.

Mr. Duany, 42, a Yale-trained architect who operates a Miami architectural firm with his wife, Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk, has achieved a remarkable prominence as the acknowledged, if occasionally resented, leader of what has become known as the neo-traditional town movement in the United States.

He has been widely hailed as the planner for Seaside, a quaint development with an old-timey feel on Florida's Gulf Coast, and Kentlands, a Montgomery County suburban development that aspires to be a fledgling Georgetown. As a dozen or so of his many other town plans move forward, he travels the country preaching his gospel.

Striking a chord

Until now, the word has been spread mostly among members of his profession and others connected with urban planning and residential building. But there are signs, such as a recent appearance on national television, that his words may be striking a chord with a larger audience.

Mr. Duany's presentations often deal with codes, regulations and technical planning matters, particularly when it comes to traditional grid street networks as opposed to meandering, curvilinear subdivision streets. But he continually emphasizes the broader significance of his ideas.

In speaking of one of his key concepts, the decline of the public realm, which means anything outside the house, he relates it to "the breakdown of society and the fragmentation and privatization of the family."

Once suburbanites step out of the "fabulous interiors" of their houses, they encounter "stress, hostility and ugliness," he said. "What goes with the fabulous interiors is an incredibly undercooked public realm -- traffic, signage and their fellow citizens competing for asphalt."

"[I] used to apologize for presenting what seemed like a panacea," Mr. Duany said. "But I see it so clearly."

Put people in the typical suburb, and their lives will deteriorate, he says. Put them in a cozy little town, and they will become better parents, children, friends and citizens.

Mr. Duany is certainly not the first social critic to decry suburbia, but he has emerged at a time when the suburb is as embattled as never before. Traffic, taxes, environmental concerns, and no-growth and NIMBY (Not In My Back Yard) movements have galvanized a generation.

And part of Mr. Duany's power is that his message is seductively simple: If we go back to traditional town design, with small gridded streets, public squares and walkable dimensions, we can conquer social ills.

"The neo-traditional town," Mr. Duany said, "is just a small adjustment. It's not as radical as it seems. People can't believe that a thing that has such radical effects can be such a small


Of course, on the other hand he can refer to the eventual time in which his ideas have triumphed as "after the revolution." But modesty is not his style.

In his blood

He sprang a surprise on the home builders in Las Vegas when he told them that his father and grandfather were developers and that this heritage had profoundly affected his ideas.

His father built homes in Cuba during the late 1940s and early 1950s -- the era of tract houses -- while his grandfather laid out a streetcar suburb in Cuba before World War I. Mr. Duany had a cosmopolitan upbringing, living and going to school in the United States, Cuba, Spain and Switzerland.

"I grew up in an atmosphere of development, and my certainties came from the difference between my father and grandfather," he told the builders. "My father is considered a developer, which as you know is . . . the lowest form of life. . . .

"My grandfather is a hero. He is considered a town founder. Almost anyone who developed in that pattern of a town is remembered fondly," Mr. Duany said.

He said statues and paintings are done of town founders, such as developer George Merrick, whose portrait hangs in the City Hall of Coral Gables, Fla., where Mr. Duany lives and which he often uses an example of a well-designed traditional town.

"If we revert to the pattern of towns, villages and neighborhoods, we will be as welcome as we ever were," he said. "If . . . we persist in building to the pattern of suburban sprawl, we will be welcome nowhere."

Mr. Duany's critique of suburbia is exhaustive and his recipes for improvement all-encompassing. A few examples drawn from his lecture and a subsequent interview.

* On quality of life:

"In the U.S. we are obsessed by standard of living in terms of cars and bedrooms. . . . Virtually any Italian, any German, any Frenchman, any Englishman has a higher quality of life than we do, though they have undeniably a lower standard of living.

"I think that the '90s are about quality of life, and less about standard and what developers so ridiculously call hot buttons and sizzle. I think the '90s are about steak, and steak is about quality of life -- what do you do with your time.

"In low-density suburbia, how is it we have achieved the traffic of metropolis and the culture of the cow town? How have we made that trade so we have the worst of all possible worlds?"

* On wasteful development practices:

"We have evolved development techniques of a very wealthy country. This business of building things wherever we want and just throwing highways after them and having developers build tremendous gold-plated infrastructure -- that was only possible in the '60s, '70s and '80s. It is no longer possible.

"It is . . . a useful mental construct to consider the United States again a poor country. That is not a dishonorable condition. We always were a poor country. We have just emerged from a very recent aberration of excessive wealth."

* On anti-growth movements:

"Never in the history . . . of Western civilization has growth been unwelcome, because growth has always meant . . . more jobs, economic opportunities, even culture.

"How is it we are rejecting growth? It has nothing to do with growth per se, which continues to have the healthy attributes that you know about. The problem is that the pattern of growth that we have selected is impossible to sustain."

* On the common practice of separating suburban subdivisions by housing prices:

"The most unpleasant kind of thing is to watch Americans being hostile to other Americans who simply earn slightly less money than they do.

"That has been unfortunately promoted by developers from my father's generation. My father . . . was told [at a home builder's convention] in the 1960s that the best hot button of all was snobbism, that you are better than anyone else because you live in this pod.

"This has been exacerbated until there is a complete fragmentation of suburbia."

* On tax revolts by suburbanites:

"Do you think they object to paying $200 a month to a homeowners association? Not at all. We have privatized the public realm. People in this pod . . . will only spend money on their direct public realm, their pod, their pool, their golf course. . . . This fragmentation of society is both a result and a method that's used by housing developers."

* On public space:

"The public realm has radically degenerated in this country. Las Vegas is one of the more extreme examples. I insisted on walking. People said: 'You're not going outside, are you? There's a bus!'

"That's bad, because insofar as the public realm is hostile, it lowers real estate values, and insofar as it is benevolent, it raises real estate values.

"This has to do with breakdown of society, and the fragmentation and privatization of the family. People are terribly lonely in the suburbs. There is no place to meet in public.

"You can't bore people when they walk. . . . In suburbia, the problem is that a person walking isn't satisfied by nice landscaping, good colors and decent architecture.

"In every city, the narrowest street has the highest real estate value, which is the opposite of what developers think. It's because people love the feeling of enclosure and sense of place.

"People will feel good in a space that feels like a room. They like to be in defined spaces. If it's not a room, it's an in-between place.

"How do you make a street feel like a room? It needs walls [houses right up against the sidewalk]."

* On the virtue of alleys:

"All the wonderful old neighborhoods with the highest real estate values have alleys, from Beverly Hills on down. The infrastructure can go in back. You no longer need to have a huge right of way in front.

"If you have alleys, you don't have to build playgrounds, because the kids love them. It's the most wonderful playground in the world."

* On suburban traffic planning:

"Go to any city, downtown Los Angeles or Chicago. Take the highways; they are absolutely congested. Take the grid; traffic is open and flowing all the time. Traffic flows in old networks, but not in the suburban system.

"The collector street is the most fantastic waste of your money imaginable. They are all designed to make cars speed. They make them with 55-mile-an-hour geometry, then hobble them with speed bumps. If you ever need speed bumps, you have overdesigned . . . even in parking lots.

"You can't get [anywhere] except by driving. The little suburban house generates 14 car trips per day. Every one of those trips hits the collector. The other streets are so underutilized, you could sleep on them during the day.

"For highways, every time you turn around there is a higher standard -- even ornaments. We have spared nothing for autos, but taken the money available for civic improvements, that we used to spend in glorious schools, beautiful post offices and city halls you could be proud of, and given them over to the car.

"Building highways is part of the problem because it permits people to buy more houses at stupid distances from where they work."

* On curvilinear streets:

"Every single downtown and city you have loved to be in -- Paris, San Francisco, Key West [has straight streets]. The most boring places in the world have curvy streets. If somebody can tell me one curvy street place that is really wonderful, please tell me, so I won't be able to say this anymore.

"I always liken curvilinear streets to Muzak: vaguely pleasant but nothing you can remember. What you need is a memory."

* On cars:

"People are expecting their car to be a prosthetic device. They need it like crutches.

"I love cars. I've always had fast cars, but I just want them to move. I don't want to be forced to use a car. I want it to be the original romantic liberation, not a prosthetic device."

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