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Cities Plan to Build a Sense of Community

Municipalities like Broomfield, Colo., adopt 'new urbanism,' a design approach that stresses mixed use and neighborliness

TRY to take a scenic tour of this growing community, and you are hit with a patchwork of land-use contradictions.

Drive-through banks and car dealerships abut weathered 19th-century farmsteads. Rolling fields of alfalfa are fenced in by tight rows of boxy, three-story homes; a skyline of uniformly angled roofs juxtaposes the jagged peaks of the Rocky Mountains.

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Now, in an effort to curb these hodgepodge growth patterns and preserve open space, quiet streets, and small-town friendliness, Broomfield is embarking on a new master plan for development.

In doing so, this municipality of 30,000 joins a growing number of cities around the country adopting a city design philosophy called "new urbanism," an architectural movement that has bloomed in recent years in response to what some see as unrestrained suburban sprawl.

"The problem for Broomfield and many cities isn't growth per se," says Peter Calthorpe, a new urban architect based in San Francisco. "It's how growth usually occurs that is so harmful to our environment and our sense of community."

Catering to cars, not people

The problem, Mr. Calthorpe says, is that in appealing to people's desire for solitude, safety, and predictability, most modern suburbs are showcases for repetitious architecture that gobbles up open space and caters more to cars than people.

Though Calthorpe's views are shunned by many architects, his critique strikes a chord in many cities like Broomfield. Last year, city planners hired Calthorpe to help script Broomfield's new master plan, which in essence requires all future developments to be built in accordance with new urban principles.

They are called "new urban" largely because they draw inspiration from the kind of neighborhoods that grew on the outskirts of cities such as New York, Cleveland, and Philadelphia prior to World War II.

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The old neighborhoods fostered a sense of community that is lacking in most modern subdivisions, new urbanists say. Instead of driving to the shopping mall for clothes, food, or entertainment, they point out, people in the old developments walked to nearby shopping areas, meeting their neighbors along the way.

Most baby-boom subdivisions, on the other hand, promote isolation and sameness, new urbanists argue. The suburbs isolate people by making the car the major force behind suburban planning; people leave the community for most of their needs. Further, developments built since World War II promote homogeneity by segregating people into enclaves defined by income bracket, age, or family size, Calthorpe says.

That approach is anachronistic, he says. "Our society is much more diverse than it was in the '60s. The 1990 Census, for example, shows that only one-quarter of the population is families with kids - and only 14 percent fit the American-dream stereotype of the mom, dad, and two kids [with one wage-earner]. The rest of the population is 'other.' "

Developers, Calthorpe says, should build communities that fit these "others" by combining apartments, town houses, and single-family homes - even commercial and civic centers - all within "mixed use" zones.

One case in point is Broomfield's new downtown - called for in the town's master plan and now under way. Designed as an alternative to strip malls and "big box" retail stores, Broomfield's downtown will mix retail outlets with office space and some residential apartments.

An idea that's catching on

At the same time, the master plan calls for the creation of a half-dozen smaller village centers built near residential communities, where residents can walk to video stores, pick up their dry cleaning, or take out a book from a satellite library outlet.

Although ideas such as "mixed use" are often controversial - people object to the noise and traffic of commercial properties next to residential areas - new urbanism is still catching on. In the booming corridor between Denver and Boulder, for example, Broomfield is just one of a half-dozen communities using the new urban framework for planning growth.

In other parts of the country - particularly the Southeast, West Coast and Northwest - entire new urban settlements are under construction. Meanwhile, cities such as Portland, Ore., Los Angeles, and San Diego are using new urban tenets as a way to preserve open space, revitalize the inner city, and foster economic development.

The oldest new urban communities are only about five years old. One of the original new urban showcases is Kentlands, a neighborhood in Gaithersburg, Md., designed by the Miami firm of Duany-Plater-Zyberk.

At first glance, the settlement seems old. Adorned with white picket fences and large front porches, the Colonial and Victorian homes vary in size, shape, and color. The sidewalks, meanwhile, all funnel into nearby village centers and parks, allowed in part by the fact that homes here are clustered close together.

According to resident Sandra Christian, if the idea behind Kentlands' highly specific architectural codes is to promote community, it's working.

"This is no place for a hermit," says Mrs. Christian, who lives here with her husband and three children. "We used to live in a town house in another development, and we hardly knew any of our neighbors. I'm a very social kind of person, so I felt isolated there. Here, it's very different."

"I like the fact that it's self-contained," she says of Kentlands, adding that, nevertheless, the development's small downtown areas don't have everything she needs. She often drives out of Kentlands to take her youngest child to nursery school, to attend church, or to dine out.

Nor is Kentlands the ideal of economic diversity. While the homes do vary block by block - anywhere from $175,000 town houses to $600,000 mansions - there is virtually no low-income housing, in part because of area real estate demand.

Fitting it all in

In many other cases, the situation is even less ideal. Already-developed towns like Broomfield must weave new urbanism into a complex world of zoning laws, property rights, road-engineering codes, economic realities, and basic human prejudices such as opposition to living near low-income housing.

Many in Broomfield, for example, didn't like the idea of mixing housing sizes and style into each city block, opting instead to separate housing by income. That leaves the town with the problem of where to site affordable housing. The town also balked at the housing density suggested by Calthorpe, preferring larger parcels for each home.

The downside of this salad-bar approach, say some developers, is that it makes an expensive form of development more risky. New urban developments are already more costly because of their mandate for diverse architecture. But in calling for larger lot sizes, the town made it more difficult for developers to recoup their costs.

Critics also say that there's little market for new urban communities because people like suburbs. But new urban enthusiasts say developers aren't looking at the right market.

"They're only looking at the new-home buyers," Calthorpe says. "But there's a whole other segment [of the market] that won't even look at new subdivisions."

*Next Monday: Community development projects in Britain.

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