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Suburbia Revisited: Housing That Promotes Neighborliness Through Design

Little by little, America's housing landscape is undergoing a quiet transformation.

In response to Americans who see suburban sprawl as fragmenting society, those who design and build developments are increasingly trying to create more intimate neighborhoods with features that foster a sense of community.

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Many of the architects, planners, developers, and lenders behind this change march to the beat of New Urbanism. It is a term that describes a range of housing development features, including layouts that encourage walking to stores, narrow and interconnected streets, town houses and multifamily dwellings, houses with front porches and out-of-sight garages, civic squares, and in some cases, town centers.

The biggest and best-known example of the genre is Disney's 4,900-acre town of Celebration, Fla., which eventually will have 8,000 homes and already has a $200-million town center. But New Urbanism is also emerging as a national movement that now includes more than 120 developments, many on less than 100 acres of land.

"I don't think this is a coincidence," says Sharon Sprowls, speaking of the growth in traditional neighborhood development (TND), a major subset of New Urbanism. "Society-wide, people are feeling a need for community. They recognize people are interdependent and must solve problems together," says Ms. Sprowls, the acting director of the Congress for the New Urbanism.

Some of the key principles of New Urbanism are:

* Development occurs in compact, walkable neighborhoods with clearly defined edges and centers.

* Without excluding automobiles, their presence should be minimized.

* Diverse activities (residences, shops, schools, workplaces, and parks) should be accommodated, and a wide spectrum of housing options should enable people of a broad range of incomes, ages, and family types to live within a single neighborhood.

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* Restoration of existing urban centers should occur within coherent metropolitan areas and protect the built legacy.

There is an unabashed element of nostalgia in this movement. The common enemy is the suburban-sprawl paradigm launched in the 1940s and '50s with its tendency to isolate rather than integrate.

Some of the better-known examples of new building inspired by traditional neighborhood concept are Seaside in Walton County, Fla.; Kentlands in Gaithersburg, Md.; Harbor Town in Memphis, Tenn.; and Laguna West in Sacramento County, Calif.

In the early 1990s, as the movement began to grow, some TND projects encountered slow sales because of mistakes in product mix and design, poor consumer research, and overpricing.

"We had a lot of pretty facades, but once you got behind the front door, the floor plan was not well laid out," says John Schleimer, a TND expert at Norcal Market Perspectives, a real estate research and consulting firm in Roseville, Calif. "Some of it related to the problems they were having in making the garage work at the back of the lot."

New Urbanism deemphasizes garages and attempts to put houses near the street to encourage front-porch neighborliness.

Among the lessons Mr. Schleimer says developers have learned is that a convenience store or general store plus other retail shops are high-priority amenities that people want right away, as are small neighborhood parks. Also, lot sizes, which are generally smaller than in typical subdivisions, still must be roughly compatible with buyer preferences in the marketplace.

Developers are responding and enjoying better sales, Schleimer says, plus surveys of homeowners in TNDs show that they expect their homes to appreciate faster than other master-planned developments.

The smaller yards of TNDs don't tend to appeal to established families with elementary- and junior-high-school-age children. But TNDs do attract young married couples, parents with young children, single parents who like the lower-priced units, and pre-retirement empty-nesters.

Instead of large backyards, the emphasis in TNDs is on shared gathering spaces, parks, and areas akin to New England town commons. In fact, architect David Howard's twist on TNDs is to create opportunities for the "good life" by replicating all the features of New England villages.

In villages, says the principal of The Village Company of New England in Walpole, N.H., walkable distances mean more face-to-face exchanges. This lifestyle is not for everyone, Mr. Howard allows, but it can be much more meaningful than auto-dependent suburban life, in which hand waves may substitute for true neighborliness.

He likens the interactions of village life to what happens on college campuses. "In college we lived together, did things together, formed societies, played games, and ran into people." In Walpole, he belongs to the Every Other Wednesday Night Club, a group that shares meals, walks, and other simple social pleasures.

Howard is working on setting up villages in Ohio and Michigan, on farmland with no mountains or shoreline to create wide swings in property values. It is rural, but not isolated. "They've rebuilt a phenomenal base of scattered industry all through the Midwest," he says.

A person taking up village life in these areas would feel connected to all these communities, Howard believes. Farmers would keep on farming, but benefit from allowing development on 150 or so acres among cultivated thousands.

Howard does not advocate building a model community overnight. He says the nucleus - perhaps 10 homes and a public meeting house - could take shape over 15 years, with the full evolution occurring during 50 to 100 years.

But some view the New England village ideal as a phenomenon that may not be readily duplicated.

Before the Revolutionary War these villages were mostly scattered crossroads, sort of an early form of suburbia, explains Joseph Wood in his book "The New England Village." These junctions only began to blossom into communities between 1780 and 1820, when America asserted its independence with a surge of business development. By then, there were enough houses scattered around to support the tradesmen and shopkeepers.

In today's commercial culture, access to stores and services is expected. "People don't like to be more than 10 minutes from their supermarket," says Randall Arendt of the Natural Lands Trust in Media, Pa.

Howard says the villages he envisions are not for people looking to make "a great experimental dive into the new millennium." The most important contribution of village-building, he says, is in creating pockets of shared experience that support and enrich the inhabitants.

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