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Planners Look Ahead to the Past

Husband-wife urban design team calls for a rediscovery of traditional neighborhood concepts

SUBURBAN and town planning has gone awry in the United States. Poorly designed communities are ruining American life, say architects Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk and Andres Duany. From Orange County, Calif., to Phoenix, to western Dade County here, suburbs have become dismal seas of strip malls, subdivisions, and mammoth parking lots, they say. Gone are town squares. Gone are small neighborhood schools. Gone are markets within walking distance.

The community supposed to be a ``getaway from the city'' is really just one more high-stress environment: eight-lane ``access roads'' crawling with cars.

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The solution?

Rediscovering traditional town design, say the husband-and-wife team who teach and lecture at the University of Miami. As nationally known architects, Ms. Plater-Zyberk and Mr. Duany have been wooing developers, city planners, and architecture students away from suburban sprawl toward the principles of traditional neighborhood districts - or ``TNDs.''

When the couple first explored TNDs, ``we were thinking how dismal suburbia looks and how there's no character in it,'' says Plater-Zyberk. Their crusade has become passionate. At Miami University's School of Architecture, Plater-Zyberk has introduced a masters program - the first of its kind in the United States - that aims to teach the next generation of architects and urban designers the virtues of TNDs.

Those include a main street, a town square or park, prominent civic buildings, and above all, the ability of residents to walk almost everywhere: to places of work, to the day-care center, to stores. Many such towns, which evolved during earlier centuries, exist across the country - especially in New England and in the South.

``It's not a matter of being purely nostalgic about the good old days,'' says the soft-spoken Plater-Zyberk, interviewed at her and her husband's firm in Coral Gables, Fla. ``We just can't continue'' relying on cars as much as we do. Traffic engineers working with the firm have calculated that the average suburban household makes 10 to 13 automobile trips a day, polluting the air in the process. Building more highways and ``collector roads'' is an expensive, stop-gap measure that misses the root of the problem.

``A certain number of [car trips] could be done on foot if communities were structured correctly,'' Plater-Zyberk says.

The couple has studied older traditional towns such as Annapolis, Md.; Savannah, Ga.; and Charleston, S.C.; and devised a generic TND code. In the last few years, they have drawn plans for more than 30 new towns across America, including the already-famous Seaside, a resort town on the west coast of Florida.

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``There are many who have preached the values of traditional towns,'' says Alex Krieger, professor of architecture and urban design at Harvard University's Graduate School of Design. But Plater-Zyberk and Duany ``have taken the lessons to the source - the developer - and tried to alter the way development takes place.''

Oddly, building traditional towns is illegal across most of the country. Zoning codes strictly segregate suburban communities into single-use islands of shopping, houses, and offices, which encourages sprawl, says Plater-Zyberk. Traditional towns, however, have ``finely grained'' layouts, which mix all the elements. An office complex, for example, could be in a residential area; a retirement home could be near a retail district (see diagram on Page 13).

Revising zoning codes is a bureaucratic tug of war, but in Dade County, government officials are listening. An amendment to the zoning ordinance is likely to be adopted this summer that would legalize the building of a traditional town here.

The TND concept ``is just about to break loose'' with the public, says Samuel Poole, an attorney with Holland & Knight, who has worked on the ordinance with Plater-Zyberk and Duany. ``A lot of people are very dissatisfied in the suburbs. That's why you can buy a lot of homes cheaply in west Dade County,'' Mr. Poole says.

Plater-Zyberk admits she and her husband have hit a chord they did not expect. ``Almost everywhere we speak, there's a public component saying, `Finally!' It's as if everybody knows what the right way to live is.''

But not everyone is convinced.

``Like all utopian solutions, it has limits,'' says Sergio Rodriguez, assistant city manager and director of planning for Miami. ``Life is much more complicated. You don't always work where you live - you work where you can get a job.''

A number of developers, however, have adopted the architects' advice. In Gaithersburg, Md., construction has begun on a new community called Kentlands, developed by Joseph Alfandre and Company Inc., which enlisted the help of the architects.

Kentlands ``attempts to address traffic problems, sterile communities, and to create a better environment for working and shopping,'' says William Winburn, vice president of the development company.

To developers, the architects' credibility stems from their willingness to work with them, not against them, says Harvard's Krieger. Duany and Plater-Zyberk ``are not challenging the basic premise of building new suburbs and subdivisions,'' Krieger says. ``They are saying to the developer, `Given that you're going to do this anyway, we'll show you how to do it better, how to get around the problems of overdependency on the auto, how to practice what your marketing seems to preach.''

A theme underscored by proponents of TNDs is the need for detailed, long-range planning that goes beyond the ``peanut-buttering'' of a county with a mix of housing types averaging four units per acre, strip shopping, and regional malls.

In Dade County, ``we've got a whole ethic that we've developed over the last 30 years of the way we do zoning,'' says attorney Poole.

Plater-Zyberk agrees new planning methods are needed.

``Municipal planners have to be educated in design, which they're not these days,'' she says. And ``design should always be a rational process of working through all the issues.''

AT the university, students in Plater-Zyberk's ``Suburb and Town Design'' program pinned up drawings on the board showing their plans for a TND based on the Dade County ordinance. Plater-Zyberk critiqued each one.

``It's a hard transition ... to think in square miles,'' said Barbara Lamb, a student in the class. ``[This method] is more addressed to quality of life and what people's daily experiences are.''

The course work ``is not about architecture, really,'' added classmate James Carroll. ``It's about all the space in between the buildings.''

Why should architects be involved in creating towns? Over the years, city planners have become immersed in social and public policy issues, shying away from aesthetic values, explains Krieger. ``If the university's program can persuade architects to work for the public sector, ... I think that would be a great service.''

``Miami has a lot of nice places,'' said Miss Lamb, ``but some areas have been really messed up.'' When she gets her degree, she wants to stay in Miami and use what she's learned. ``We should be more people-oriented than we are now.'' A previous story on community planning (`A Village Grows Around the Green') appeared in the Monitor of July 24, 1989.

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