Skip to main content

Langdon – The Revival of Traditional American Community Design

The Revival of
Traditional American Community Design

Philip Langdon

The Philadelphia Society, April 14, 2002


One of the best changes that’s occurred in community planning in the
United States since the Second World War has been the rise of neotraditional
planning or, as it’s more often called, New Urbanism.

I want to tell you a little about my involvement in this tradition-minded
movement and why I think it’s a source of renewal for American communities.

In 1983, William Whitworth, the editor of The
Atlantic Monthly
, asked me to look at new houses being built across the
United States.[1] He wanted to learn about
energy-efficient construction, modular building, interior design — all sorts of
aspects of the state of the art in American homebuilding. That assignment —
and a subsequent book that I wrote,
American Houses
[2]
gave me an opportunity to travel throughout the U.S. to see what was being built
and to explore what people appeared to want in their houses.

I discovered that American houses were about 50 percent more
energy-efficient by the early to mid-1980s than they had been in the early
1970s. Kitchens were becoming larger and laid out for informal socializing.
Master bedrooms were expanding. In upper-end houses, they were being referred to
as “master retreats,” places where parents could escape the rest of the
household. Magazines about house design and decoration promoted the phenomenon
of “cocooning” — spending one’s time at home, retreating from the
stress-inducing outside world. I wondered how a nation busy cocooning could
become good citizens.

New houses often had two-story
foyers to impress the visitors — or the delivery person from UPS. In some
regions, such as southern California, where design trends often originate,
outdoor areas behind the homes offered considerably privacy. On the fronts of
the houses, facing the streets, were two- and increasingly three-car garages.

Many of the houses sat on
cul-de-sacs. The developments had impressive entrances. Often they were gated or
they had walls at the entrance. Builder
magazine, the official magazine of the National Association of Home Builders,
advised developers on how to lay out these entrances for maximum effect.[3]
The walls should sit back from the road and have plantings at the base. After
passing the entry walls, people would drive across pavement of a different
texture. To the left and right would be water or other landscape features.

But once inside the development, I
often found very little visible activity. Few people were out walking or
enjoying the public areas. In the course of looking at a large range of
contemporary development, I came to the conclusion that although the houses
offered many comforts, in the great majority of cases they did not foster the
connections that we call “community” nearly as well as did most of the
places that had been built in America from colonial days up to the Second World
War.

They failed as ingredients of a
vital community in the following respects:

First, the orientation of almost
all of the outdoor living was toward the back yard. The public realm, the
street, looked unappealing. The streets were lined by garage doors rather than
by the commodious front porches that were such a gregarious feature of houses in
the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

Second, the neighborhoods in which these houses
stood were designed in a single-purpose fashion. Beginning in the 1930s, when
Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal was attempting to stabilize the banking
industry and make lending institutions safe for depositors, planners concluded
that federal home mortgage guarantees should favor residential areas that were
homogeneous (i.e., populated preferably by white, native-born people), that were
middle- or upper-income (not low-income), and that did not have conflicting land
uses, such as industry. By the 1940s and 1950s, one of the marks of progressive
planning was an absence of stores, taverns, bakeries — just about any
nonresidential use — from newly developing subdivisions.

Third, new development was almost entirely dependent on automobiles.
Instead of streets that were continuous, making it easy for children and adults
to go from place to place within the neighborhood on foot or on a bicycle,
cul-de-sacs prevented ease of movement. Often there were no sidewalks, or if
there were sidewalks, they hugged the curb, placing pedestrians right next to
vehicular traffic. Parents had to spend much of their free time chauffeuring
their children around, since children could go few places on their own.

The street and road network was not created by humanists who cared about
the ways in which free movement of people supported a varied and vital community
life. Now there was a traffic engineering profession, which believed in
single-purpose streets. The purpose of a small residential street was to deliver
vehicles to a “collector” road, which in turn concentrated traffic onto
large arterial roads. As a result, the stores, restaurants, taverns, and often
even churches and synagogues had to be situated along busy, traffic-choked
roads. As the roads became bigger, the commercial enterprises became bigger as
well. They stood far back, behind large parking lots, and they had to fight
visually to grab the attention of thousands of motorists sweeping past in a
hurry. Their signs became more pronounced than their architecture.

All of this tended to break down the bonds that throughout American
history had tied people to their neighbors and their communities.

Many people who grew up in traditional neighborhoods can talk movingly
about how those settings surpassed the developments built in the 1950s, ë60s,
ë70s, and ë80s. One of the individuals who has captured the flavor of the
older pattern of urban settlement is Henry Turley, a developer in Memphis and
one of the great Southern raconteurs. In a speech several years ago, Turley
described his boyhood surroundings in Memphis just after the Second World War
this way:

“I can remember when I got big enough to roam around — I was six or
seven, it was about 1947 — Ö I had a new 24-inch bike from SearsÖ. I found
all sorts of things in my neighborhood.

“Just one block east of my house, there was a great mansion. It was on
a hill and had a name — Annesdale. People named Snowden lived there. They must
have been incredibly rich.

“One block in the opposite direction was Lamar Terrace, a
Depression-era housing project. Poor people lived there. We didn’t use the
word poverty then. Unlike poverty, poor didn’t mean forever, and it didn’t
imply that those people should be kept separate and apart. In fact, people who
were equally poor lived right on my street — in boarding houses and rooming
houses.

“[T]he real treasures of the neighborhood were to be found two blocks
north, at the intersection of Bellevue and Lamar. A wondrous collection of
stores was there: a hardware store; a bakery; a coffee shop; even a
5&10-cent store (imagine that); and more — everything strange and exciting
for a kid of six.

“There were two drug stores crammed with delights like ice cream sodas.
But they weren’t within my economic reach. I could only look at them, as I did
— furtively — the girlie magazines. The druggist, Dr. Garner, was given to
calling my mother. ëHenry’s down here looking at those books again. What
shall I do?’

“‘Send him right home Ö and watch him across that busy street;
he’s sure to be killed.’

“So right there in my neighborhood there seemed to be everything — a
hint of all of life’s possibilities mixed in with all kinds of people. And it
was within walking distance. It was small — just my size — and they knew my
name.

“That’s what a neighborhood does, it seems to me. It takes the world
— or at least a slice of the world, the more complete and varied the better
— and makes it just our size, where our lives, with our neighbors, can be rich
and meaningful and significant — where they know our names.”

Toward the end of my work on the book American
Houses
, I discovered the planning and design being done by a few individuals
such as the Miami architects Andres Duany and Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk and Robert
Davis, the developer of Seaside, Florida. These people were looking at
communities built throughout American history, from colonial days up to about
1940. They were beginning to apply the principles of those communities to the
planning of new developments. They learned from the New England town, which had
a green or common at its core, with the important religious structures placed
either on the green (as in New Haven) or facing the green. They learned from the
gridded small towns that were built by the thousands in the Midwest and
elsewhere. The grid made it easy for people to get around and to know their
community. They drew from the garden suburbs that were built between about 1900
and the Great Depression. They also drew from the mixed, walkable urban
neighborhood so eloquently portrayed in Jane Jacobs’ book The
Death and Life of Great American Cities
.[4]

Over the past 15 to 20 years a movement has sprung up that is trying to
restore or recreate the humanistic qualities that served individuals, families,
and communities well in prewar development. Henry Turley has been building a
beautiful, intimately connected development called Harbor Town on Mud Island
just off the northern end of downtown Memphis. Joseph Alfandre started Kentlands,
in Gaithersburg, Maryland. The Disney organization started Celebration, in the
Orlando area. Around the country there are now probably several hundred
developments that attempt to revive the planning and design pinciples that had
been commonplace before the war. When I wrote a cover story for The
Atlantic
in March 1988 about this encouraging turn of events, I labeled the
movement “neotraditionalism” because it drew on a number of American
traditions.[5]
Architects such as Duany and Plater-Zyberk introduced a slightly different term,
“Traditional Neighborhood Development,” or TND, for the neighborhood form of
this kind of development. Since about 1992, the term that’s come into
widespread use is New Urbanism — an unfortunate coinage, since many Americans,
following the frontier myth, instinctively recoil from the word “urban,” and
since the principles involved are not new but in fact old and venerable.

To many people, “urban” has connotations of the individual or the
family being swallowed up in mass society. But in fact New Urbanism or
neotraditionalism or is aimed at creating places that are more culturally and
spiritually satisfying for individuals and families than are the conventional
developments that have prevailed for the past half a century.

In his book The Great Good Place:
Cafes, Coffee Shops, Community Centers, Beauty Parlors, General Stores, Bars,
Hangouts, and How They Get You Through the Day
, the sociologist Roy
Oldenburg argues that individuals and families cannot thrive without connections
to people and institutions outside their homes.[6]
Oldenburg observes that historically, in Europe, the great majority of people
had access to a sociable place that was away from their home and their workplace
but often within walking distance of either home or employment or both. He
called this a “third place.” In Britain, people repaired to the pubs. In
France, they walked to cafes. In Scandinavia, they went to saunas. In Italy,
they frequented piazzas. Every culture produced its own distinctive gathering
places. In prewar America, we did, too, with corner taverns, beer gardens,
coffee shops, and other gathering places that people didn’t have to buy a
membership to enter.

But in postwar America, we did our best to eliminate evil taverns, noisy
clubs, cafes, coffee shops — just about every nonresidential activity other
than schools — and even the schools are often built in locations that no one
can reach without getting on a school bus or riding in a private car.

We impoverished the experience of growing up. Children lost the carefully
graduated immersion into a community that they had in the prewar places like
Henry Turley’s section of Memphis. Families have been thrown upon their own
resources, which, as Oldenburg argues, has generated tensions and has subtly
encouraged divorce and alienation. The nuclear family has been hard put to serve
as a substitute for all the social and gratifying experiences that a varied
traditional community provides.

New Urbanism tries to recreate the rich human and institutional
environments that have largely been missing from the developments built in the
past 40 years. I’ll mention four of the key elements that make New Urbanism
work.

First, neighborhoods based on a five-minute walk. On average, people walk
a quarter-mile in five minutes. One of the objectives of Traditional
Neighborhood Development is to build compactly enough so that a resident can
walk from home to a small neighborhood park, a gathering place, basic services
such as a convenience store and a dry cleaner, and a bus or other transit stop.
Depending on how dense the development is, it’s possible to create
neighborhoods like those built several generations ago, where many people can
live in houses or apartments on tree-lined streets and walk to the library,
church, some shops, and eating and drinking places, and catch a bus or train to
more distant destinations.

This mode of design is liberating for children, who learn to navigate the
community as they grow up. It is also liberating for families as whole, since
families do not need to have one vehicle for every person over the age of 16.
With enhanced mobility and the reduction in automobile expenses, more people can
participate in volunteer activities and community pursuits.

Second, there is a network of interconnected streets, designed to enhance
the public realm. Traditional neighborhood development puts the garages toward
the back of the lot or on alleys. Front porches are encouraged, sometimes with
the developer requiring that each house have a porch facing the street.
Sidewalks are mandated, often with room for street trees between sidewalk and
curb. Codes in New Urbanist developments call in many instances for the houses
to be built close to the streets, to make pedestrian life engaging and to
encourage interaction among residents and passersby.

Third, traditional neighborhood developments mix together a wider range
of house types and houses sizes and prices than the postwar suburbs typically
did. At Kentlands, there are streets the mix small two-story rowhouses,
three-story rowhouses, and large detached houses. Accessory apartments are
permitted, and groups of apartments are nearby. Consequently, neighborhoods can
retain residents as they get older, and their financial status waxes or wanes,
and as their house needs expand or contract.

Fourth, and of special interest to conservatives, religious and civic
institutions are given places of honor. Streets, squares, and parks are designed
so that churches, synagogues, town or city halls, public libraries, and other
such buildings have prominent positions. Their placement indicates that these
institutions have meaning for us as citizens and members of a good society.

Slowly, zoning codes are being rewritten by towns and cities. The
single-purpose thinking of traffic engineers and real estate developers is being
challenged. Architects are relearning techniques that allow houses to be built
close to the street without sacrificing too much privacy. All of this is a
complicated undertaking, and the U.S. has a long way to go.

I’ve talked with residents of New Urbanist developments, and it’s
clear to me that these patterns do help to create a more neighborly, mutually
supportive atmosphere.

For an article for the November-December 1996 issue of
The American Enterprise magazine
, I interviewed residents of
Kentlands, Belmont Forest (a Traditional Neighborhood Development in Loudoun
County in northern Virginia), and Harbor Town in Memphis. A homeowner in
Kentlands, Steve Christian, told me, “If you’re out doing yard work,
everyone stops and chats. . . . There’s more of a sense of community than
anywhere else we’ve lived.” His wife Sandra, who is staying out of the job
market while rearing a son and volunteering at the neighborhood’s Rachel
Carson Elementary School, which is within walking distance, said she had felt
“terribly isolated” in the townhouse development where they previously
lived. “It cleared out at 9 a.m.” At Kentlands, she said, “there are a
number of women around during the day, and they’re easy to meet,” since the
houses are close together and people frequently go out walking.[7]

Faith Kusterer, a Kentlands mother, said her daughter walked to piano
lessons in the home of the instructor. “She could go to the store alone on her
bike to get anything from candy to school supplies,” Mrs. Kusterer said.
“It’s afforded her some opportunities to be out in the community and to be
independent.”[8]

“When kids do something they shouldn’t, they’re caught doing it,”
said Barney Gorin, another Kentlands homeowner. “They’re often yelled at by
someone other than their parent. One kid set off a smoke bomb in someone’s
house. He was in deep trouble with a big chunk of the neighborhood. The adults
watched him.” Gorin says the boy’s behavior has come around to where it
should be.”[9]

Those observations reflect the power of good community design.

To encourage this kind of
community, it will be necessary to:


Replace current zoning, which mandates single-purpose land
development, with mixed-use development.


Encourage mixtures of housing sizes, types, and prices.


Make the buildings contribute to the public realm. Often this
means bringing buildings close to the streets and sidewalks and requiring that
their facades be communicative and engaging — with windows and doors and front
porches on the front, and with garages placed toward the rear.


Place more emphasis on dignified public architecture.

New Urbanism or neotraditionalism
is a design approach that encourages local rootedness, responsibility,
independence, and involvement in a community. This is precisely the kind of
design that conservatives ought to embrace because it fosters better
communities.

Philip Langdon is a journalist and author in New Haven,
Connecticut. He has written several books, including A
Better Place to Live: Reshaping the American Suburb
, and is a contributing
writer for
The American Enterprise
Magazine.



[1] See Philip Langdon, “The
American House,” The Atlantic
Monthly
, September 1984.

[2] Philip Langdon, American
Houses
(Stewart, Tabori & Chang,
New York, 1987).

[3] William Devereaux and
Deborah Woodcock, “Gateways,” Builder,
April 1987, pp. 86-89.

[4] Jane Jacobs, The
Death and Life of Great American Cities
(Vintage Books, New York, 1961).

[5] Philip Langdon, “A Good
Place to Live,” The Atlantic Monthly,
March 1988.

[6] Ray Oldenburg, The
Great Good Place
(Paragon House, New York, 1989).

[7] Philip Langdon, “The
New, Neighborly Architecture,”
The American Enterprise
, Nov.-Dec. 1996, pp. 42-43.

[8] Langdon, “The New,
Neighborly Architecture,” p. 43.

[9] Langdon, “The New,
Neighborly Architecture,” p. 44.

© The Philadelphia Society 2019 | Webmaster Contact

The material on this website is for general education and information only. The views presented here are the responsibility of their authors and do not reflect endorsement or opposition by The Philadelphia Society. Please read our general disclaimer.