“I love the city,” says Tom Moss, who’s sitting in the living room of the mint green two-story house at 115 Beachwalk Lane in Michigan City, Indiana. “I miss working downtown–the buzz of the Loop, seeing six people you know on the way to a meeting.”
Moss, a 40ish man with a direct stare and a quiet voice, loves the city so much he’s trying to re-create an urban neighborhood out here in the sandy fringes of suburbia. For the moment, his Beachwalk development is the only place in the Chicago area where you can see a physical example of the trendy “new urbanist” or “neo-traditional” movement to reclaim suburbia for pedestrians (one part of the Prairie Crossing development in northern Lake County, Illinois, will be the next). Beachwalk is also a good place to ask whether this movement can deliver on its promise to civilize the suburbs and revive the cities–or whether it’s just a new kind of nostalgia trip for the elite.
From the side windows of the mint green house you can almost touch the house next door. From its front porch you could chat with people on the sidewalk that runs toward Lake Michigan along narrow Beachwalk Lane. Enforced sociability is nothing new for beach houses, which, like city houses, are often built on expensive land. But Moss thinks regular suburbs would be nicer places to live if they looked this way too.
Neo-traditionalists and new urbanists differ in their emphasis, but they both agree that our physical surroundings should be more like the compact small towns and city neighborhoods built 50-plus years ago. They say our lives would be friendlier, less polluting, and more pleasant if we lived closer to each other, closer to necessary services, and were less dependent on cars than most suburbanites and many urbanites. In theory the kind of developments they propose could be built anywhere; in practice, like Beachwalk, they have almost always been built at the outer edge of suburbia.
“I had a wonderful job in Chicago,” Moss says. “I was head of community affairs for First National Bank,” helping that venerable downtown institution learn as much about low-income Chicago communities as it already knew about Winnetka and Brussels and London. “I taught neighborhood people about banking, and I taught banking people about neighborhoods. Because of segregation, they really didn’t have a clue.” They still live in Wrigleyville; his wife still teaches in the city, and their children attend private school there. So why did he quit to divide his time between Chicago and Michigan City? “I was a little bauble. The purpose of their enterprise was not community affairs. I was at the bank for political, CRA [Community Reinvestment Act], and marketing reasons. There are good people there–brilliant people. But I thought I would like to be doing something where what I’m doing is the reason that we’re here.”
Back in 1975 Moss and his wife visited a beach cottage outside Michigan City and wound up buying one. “Our friends thought we were nutty–we had a net worth of about $5,000. But people came out to visit all the time. In the city you can live anonymously, but before we closed on that cottage everybody around us knew our entire life history. It startled me at first, but I really liked it. Living there was a wonderful small-town existence. In some ways it’s like working downtown. You’d bump into people on the way to the beach. A five-minute walk could take an hour.”
Because his skin burns easily, Moss didn’t go to the beach all that often. But the constant stream of visitors made him realize that there was a market for a lakeside development, and he took up a project that by 1992 had become his full-time job. “I assembled six or seven acres and some investors, but the economics weren’t quite right. We needed four more lots that were owned by a sand-mining company headquartered in England. They said no to selling the four lots–‘But you can buy the whole thing.'” So in the spring of ’88 the Tom Moss Development Company wound up with 106 acres of prime land on the northeast side of Michigan City.
About the same time the Atlantic Monthly published a 15-page article by Philip Langdon that was later expanded into a book. Almost every U.S. suburb built since 1945 had been “a terrible blunder,” Langdon wrote, but architects and planners like Andres Duany and Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk (of DPZ Architects and Town Planners) had started building better ones by going back to traditional town layouts.
“The article clicked with me,” says Moss. “There was a problem with development, and I had 106 acres of land to develop. I wound up learning the land-development business and neo-traditional town planning at the same time.”
The new urbanists taught Moss that standard-issue suburbs are (1) ugly, (2) environmentally abusive, and (3) antisocial.
It isn’t hard to see why they’re ugly, they say: identical chain stores on identical commercial strips surrounded by identical acres of asphalt make it hard to tell Park Forest from Forest Park. House fronts set far back from the street make the pedestrian landscape boring and impersonal, and blank-faced garage doors emphasize the supremacy of the automobile.
Suburbs are also environmentally abusive, they argue, because trains and buses can’t run economically where everyone has half-acre lawns. Big lots mean that the 20 percent increase in the number of metro Chicago households since 1970 has caused a 47 percent increase in residential land area. They claim that this sprawl means that people and businesses leave behind well-served urban locations (the Sears Tower comes to mind) for the fringe, which results in an inefficient use of resources. So the prosperity of Hoffman Estates is implicated in the poverty of the south and west sides of Chicago. In addition, because suburbanites have zoned stores out of residential neighborhoods, they have nowhere to walk to. People too old or too young to drive are stuck, unless they press those of driving age into chauffeur duty–which can seem like a life sentence because dead-end suburban streets designed to keep out traffic channel cars into a few through streets so that a single backup blocks everything. Unlike Chicago, with its network of interconnected streets, suburbia has few alternate routes.
Perhaps worst of all, say the new urbanists, suburbs are antisocial. They lack neighborhood gathering places, public buildings, and common areas that draw adults out and kids in. “I worry from a fatherly point of view what we do when we put kids on one-acre suburban lots,” says Moss. “They can’t explore, they can’t find themselves. Will they have a rich understanding of the world and the strength to be good adults?”
Trapped behind their big lawns or inside their ever-running cars, the new urbanists say, suburbanites discover that these symbols of worldly success leave them not happy but strangely alone. The suburban desire for privacy feeds on itself, interest in public places and civic life dwindles, and people increasingly segregate themselves by income as well as by race. “Special-interest groups now replace the larger community within our political landscape,” writes new urbanist architect Peter Calthorpe, “just as gated subdivisions have replaced neighborhoods.”
The real culprit behind all this is the car–an instrument of privacy and mobility without which most of today’s home and business locations would be unthinkable. “Humans were meant to walk,” declared DPZ project manager Jeff Speck in a public debate that Moss sponsored at Beachwalk last fall. “A society where you need a 4,000-pound prosthetic device to get a gallon of milk is ridiculous. I believe the automobile is an evil being.” Yale architectural historian Vincent Scully turns the rhetoric up a notch. The automobile, he writes, has made people value individual freedom more than community. It’s “a device of deep illusion and may be said to have rendered all of society insane.”
The solution, say the neo-traditional town planners Tom Moss learned from, is to build in a different way–to return “to a cherished American icon: that of a compact, close-knit community,” in the words of Bay Area design and marketing consultant Peter Katz. They say we should:
(1) Mitigate suburbia’s ugly “placelessness” by putting houses close together, close to the street, and with front porches instead of blank-faced garage doors facing the street. Their architecture should draw on local and regional vernacular (untutored) styles. (This is where neo-traditionalism in architecture touches on neo-traditionalism in town planning, though the connection is more important to some than others.) DPZ’s codes require architects to follow standards regulating the proportion of building height to street width all the way down to the thickness of mortar bands between bricks. At Beachwalk Tom Moss got permission to use or adapt some of the designs from DPZ’s Seaside, Florida, development, because local builders had nothing in their standardized plan books like the street-friendly houses he wanted.
(2) Make the suburbs more environmentally friendly by minimizing auto use and slowing traffic. Within each neighborhood, stores, parks, and public buildings should all be within a five-or ten-minute walk. Finding your way can be eased by connecting streets using a grid or radial pattern, which also provides alternate routes for cars to abate traffic congestion.
(3) Restore civic life, starting with small things like sidewalks and front porches. Neighborhood public places–schools, parks, and government buildings–should get the best locations, not the leftover ones. Diversity can be served by making affordable apartments available above stores and garages and in “granny flats” behind houses.
An almost stern communitarian moralism underlies the jargon of “mixed uses” and “planned vistas.” In the long run, writes Langdon, “Americans must develop a renewed commitment to the public good”–meaning, among other things, that people should buy fewer things for themselves and spend the savings on public goods like schools and street trees. “I don’t know that E-mail and such will make us better citizens,” says Tom Moss. “Developments like this try to restore civic life by re-creating some of the physical elements–the street scene and landmarks.” Which is why Beachwalk will someday have a clock tower. “We’re arranging things so that people can get together without throwing a cocktail party.”
“Seductive” is too weak a word for this worldview. It’s easy to look down on the conventional suburbs, home of Pate Philip, the Newt, and their constituents–those well-off, ignorant white people who rarely visit the city and who imagine they’re in danger of imminent bodily harm when they do. By contrast, the shimmering blue vision of Seaside on the cover of Peter Katz’s recent book, The New Urbanism: Toward an Architecture of Community, looks good enough to eat.
“Neo-trad” has been trendy in architecture and city-planning circles for years, gradually filtering out to the general public. This spring it made the cover of Newsweek. The prototype from which Tom Moss draws much of his inspiration is DPZ’s Seaside, Florida, begun in 1981. Well-known variations on the theme Include Kentlands (Gaithersburg, Maryland), Laguna West (San Diego), and Harbor Town (Memphis).
Even so, the ratio of hype to finished buildings is extraordinarily high. Around Chicago it approaches infinity. The New York Times recently reported that there are 38 developments designed and built around golf courses in the Chicago area. That compares to a single fragmentary neo-traditional development and one or two more in embryo. Yet curiously it’s the neo-traditionalists who are analyzed incessantly.
Why is there so much more talk than town? It could be that the new urbanists’ ideas are just too good for the stodgy crowd of financiers, developers, and home buyers. Then again, maybe they’re not good enough. Is the new urbanism more of an inspirational fantasy than a guide to how we can really live our lives now? Maybe the suburbs are ugly only to a certain taste, bad for the environment only if you make a lot of alarmist assumptions, and antisocial only if you want to make other people do what you think is good for them.
Ugly? The new urbanists seem to want it both ways: they appeal to the “cherished American icon” of “a compact, close-knit community,” while denying that they’re nostalgia buffs.
But one definition of “nostalgia” is an appeal to the past uncontaminated by knowledge of history. In the heyday of compact, close-knit communities a century ago, the cognoscenti saw the city as a congested, disease-ridden, degrading place. Beginning in 1907 New York’s Benjamin Marsh catalyzed the infant city-planning profession by attacking “the overcrowding of population as the single most important cause of big city ills,” according to an account in the Journal of the American Institute of Planners. Small towns of the day were viewed as having a complementary set of vices: gossip, narrow-mindedness, and provincialism. The literary “revolt against the village” produced Sinclair Lewis’s Main Street, whose young urban heroine fought and lost her battle to improve the complacent, conformist prairie town she married into. Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio and Edgar Lee Masters’s Spoon River Anthology contain darker stories that reflect their authors’ gratitude at having escaped.
Close neighborhoods, then and now, can be good places to live. But there are real trade-offs. To live, not just vacation, in a truly compact, close-knit community is to be subject to its judgments as well as its comforts. Tom Moss knows this: “When all towns looked like [Beachwalk] we had lots of problems. If they all looked like this again we’d have lots of problems still.” As Martin Jaffe, who teaches in UIC’s urban planning program, likes to say, “You can’t be angry with your grocer in a small town.”
Good or bad, those old-time compact communities were there for a reason: infrastructure. Where people live has always been a function of how they get around. You might not have liked the small town or dense urban center in 1895, but you lived there because you had to. You walked, or your horse walked, or you took the train to those few centers the train served, and then you started walking again.
The car enabled nonrich people to transcend those limits and live where they wanted. Trying to re-create precar communities in the automobile era has a flavor of playacting, suggests Roberta Feldman, an associate professor at UIC’s School of Architecture and codirector of its City Design Center. “We could all adorn ourselves in Victorian attire,” she admonished the neo-traditionalists at last fall’s Beachwalk debate, “but this would not reinstate the Victorian social, economic, and political order.”
What were necessities 60 years ago are expensive toys today, adds Robert Bruegmann, a UIC art-history professor. “Back then you had to have a freestanding bakery. Now it requires a great deal of disposable income. In general, the more a place looks the way it did in the 1920s, the less it will actually be like the 1920s. In order for it to stay the same, you have to have bought it at a huge cost.”
Bruegmann concludes that neo-traditionalism is at its heart “a movement of upper-middle-class good taste.” Thus Prairie Crossing will eventually have a work-at-home support center (for photocopying, faxing, and the like), but it won’t have a Kinko’s. Thus Seaside, in the heart of the Florida panhandle’s “Redneck Riviera,” does not imitate the region’s true vernacular architecture, described by planning professor Martin Jaffe as “rusty trailers.” Thus Beachwalk resembles Seaside more than it does the modest working-class houses of the Michigan City neighborhoods just inland from it.
More important, the new urbanism appears to be following a curious historical cycle, in which many architects and planners repudiate their work as soon as it becomes too successful. It happened to the suburbs themselves: Once the great unwashed began to disperse from slum tenements out to Melrose Park and Levittown–fulfilling the dreams of a generation of reformers–Lewis Mumford and his heirs began the tirade against placeless, faceless suburbia. (Whether it’s “placeless” is open to debate: “While the critics cannot find their way around,” snipe Feldman and Jaffe in an article published in Inland Architect, “the public has little difficulty differentiating between communities.” As a rule, ignorance and disdain make places look alike, whether they’re small towns, city neighborhoods, or Barrington and Zion.)
A similar ironic reversal followed architect Victor Gruen’s design of the first modern mall in suburban Minneapolis in 1956. He promised that malls would fulfill the “urgent need of suburbanites for the amenities of urban living”–the new urbanist prescription exactly. “By affording opportunities for social life and recreation in a protected pedestrian environment, by incorporating civic and educational facilities, shopping centers can . . . provide the needed place and opportunity for participation in modern community life that the ancient Greek Agora, the Medieval Market Place and our own Town Squares provided in the past.” Sure enough, malls today have added post offices, church activities, community rooms, senior mall-walker groups–all features of which Gruen would approve. But today’s new urbanists don’t thank them for it. They think malls are part of the privatized problem.
These otherwise inexplicable changes of heart make it hard to disagree with Bruegmann’s class analysis: As soon as any given place– the Loop in 1895, Gopher Prairie in 1915, or Kane County in 1995–becomes accessible to those who carried lunch pails or who wear polyester without apologizing, then upper-middle-class good taste decrees it to be a blight on the landscape.
Environmentally abusive? Aesthetics may be a matter of taste or fashion, but everyone gets stuck in traffic and has to breathe exhaust fumes. The neo-traditionalists’ environmental case against conventional suburbia is stronger, but far from airtight.
Even traffic congestion, the common complaint of those living west of Austin Boulevard, is a surprisingly elusive phenomenon. In general, there are more cars than ever on about the same miles of roads. But the best evidence for an actual congestion crisis in the worst part of the country Philip Langdon could find for his book A Better Place to Live: Reshaping the American Suburb is skimpy and conjectural: “The average freeway speed in southern California dropped from more than 50 miles an hour in the mid-1970s [a transportation planner’s after-the-fact estimate] to 47 miles an hour in 1984, and it is expected to plummet to 24 miles an hour by 2010 unless new transportation facilities are built.” U.S. census figures show that the average commute to work in Cook County took 29.3 minutes in 1980–and 29.4 in 1990. In congestion-wary Du Page County the average commuting time during the 1980s actually dropped from 27.6 to 27.3 minutes. The times did increase in Lake and McHenry counties, but suburbanization is not causing a regional congestion crisis.
The suburbanite’s dependence on a car does create air pollution. But noxious emissions from cars are dropping faster than travel mileage is rising. State figures for 1973 to 1991 show that miles driven went up more than 40 percent, while carbon monoxide and volative organic compounds each declined by 45 percent and nitrogen oxides by 8 percent. This is hardly the suburb-induced pollution catastrophe the new urbanists sometimes claim. The worst you can say is that things would get cleaner faster if fewer people drove.
The Chicago area is sprawling faster than its population is growing, a process that can’t go on forever. But we’re not close to running out of land: 93 percent of Illinois is still farms and forests, according to a 1994 report from the Illinois State Geological Survey. Contrary to the general impression, homes, stores, industries, highways, streets, and parking lots together occupy less than 5 percent of the state’s land, 11 percent in the northern third.
Farmland is another issue. But if we were running short of that farm subsidies would be as dead an issue as free silver and farmers would be getting rich from high crop prices. Maybe someday we’ll need it to save the world from widespread famines, but such famines have been repeatedly predicted for more than a century and have yet to occur, except in horrible but localized cases of war and civil war. Those who predicted them simply renew their predictions every few years without explaining why they were mistaken before–hardly a firm basis on which to build a land-use policy for Illinois or anywhere else.
Similar reservations apply to the fear that suburbanites are using up the last of the world’s petroleum. Past predictions of petroleum apocalypse have proved false without visibly embarrassing those who made them. But if a shortage eventually does appear, gas prices will rise enough to provide ample incentive to develop solar-or hydrogen-propelled cars.
Finally neo-traditionalists accuse suburbs of simply wasting resources that could be put to better use. Ten houses on ten one-acre lots cost more in pavement, school-bus travel, water lines, etc than one ten-unit apartment building. (Not that neo-traditionalists are building ten-flats.) In general, it’s true that compact communities can be served more cheaply than spread-out ones. But Martin Jaffe insists on qualifying even this, noting that the bigger and farther out lots get, the fewer public services are involved and the more the residents themselves must pay the real costs of their chosen lifestyle–as is only fair. When expensive septic systems and individual wells replace public supplies at least the cost isn’t foisted on the public.
Absolute environmental limits are notoriously hard to find. It may be that, as in warfare, it will be relative efficiency, not absolute perfection, that wins out. Hardheaded new urbanists–such as Joel Stauber, director of planning for O’Donnell Wicklund Pigozzi and Peterson Architects Inc. in the Loop and west suburban Deerfield–think neo-traditional communities are the wave of the future, but not just yet. “After the 1970s oil crisis, contrary to predictions, suburban sprawl continued unabated,” says Stauber. “I keep asking Andres Duany, ‘When is your revolution coming?’ During the Gulf war, he said. ‘Now.’ I disagree. Neo-traditional marketing hasn’t been all that successful because people don’t really want community.”
Stauber doesn’t expect much success for the movement until world forces push Americans back into close-knit neighborhoods. For example, if political instability overseas curtails the U.S. oil supply. Or more densely populated and more efficient economies, such as Japan and Europe, out compete us because they don’t waste money building wildly on the fringe while closing down their inner cities. “Then,” insists Stauber, “neo-traditional plans will have more validity. I know what the solutions are. We just need to be ready. It’s only a question of when.”
Antisocial? According to Tom Moss’s relaxed view, people will start buying into places like Beachwalk “once they understand within themselves that there’s something lacking in their lives.”
Just how they’ll come to that understanding isn’t too clear. There’s a common presumption among new urbanists that suburbanites are captives of bad planning simply waiting to be released from their confinement. Unfortunately the evidence suggests otherwise. Suburbanites may not welcome their would-be rescuers any more than the Branch Davidians did theirs.
It needs to be said: nobody lined up our parents and grandparents in 1945 or 1975 and made them choose between a bullet in the brain and a tract house in Arlington Heights. They moved out because they thought they were moving up. Racism played its part, and for a time the phrase “white suburbanite” was redundant. But having known urban diversity, corner bars, and excitement, many people opted for elbow room, greenery, and a quiet life. Most have not moved back.
Sure, VA and FHA loans favored single-family developments, and postwar road building favored auto mobility over other kinds. But no one had to go along. The suburban subsidies were–and are–popular government programs. UIC’s Martin Jaffe describes the cars that opened suburbia–once an exclusive club indeed–to factory workers and secretaries as “instrument[s] of democratic liberation.”
The middle class whines a lot, but it usually gets Uncle Sam to do its bidding. If most Americans had genuinely preferred urban living–if they saw cars as “alien beings” rather than liberators–then President Eisenhower would have signed the National Mass Transit Enhancement Act in 1956 instead of the charter for the interstate highway system that helped make suburbia accessible.
Suburbanites don’t feel like captives today either. Architect Rick Phillips of Frederick Phillips & Associates, who sympathizes with the new urbanism, says it’s still ahead of its time. “The buying public is incredibly far behind any thinking in planning and architecture.” Sociological research confirms the market’s thumbs-down. The unsurprising truth is that different people like living in different kinds of places. People tend to identify themselves either as suburbanites or as city people, according to UIC professor Roberta Feldman’s research in New York, Denver, and Chicago. And the suburbanites tend to like exactly what neo-traditionalists abhor: a chance to withdraw from the world, the separation between residential and commercial, the ability to exclude outsiders and live among people like themselves.
Since Tom Moss is in business and not in academia, he’s tolerant of this mind-set. He hesitates to hold up even Beachwalk as a universal model. “Some good and reasonable people don’t want this, and I’m willing to accept that. I just want to get it on the competitive playing field, because I think it’s better.” He’s so easygoing that his fellow new urbanists might think he’s a heretic: “There is nothing wrong with contemporary suburban housing and contemporary suburban life. But civic life is not as good is it could be. Everybody is trapped in their houses with big-screen TVs and wall-to-wall carpet. It’s great–I love big-screen TVs and wall-to-wall carpet. But there are no other options.”
This is admirable pluralistic thinking, and it’s a good way to sell houses (why offend anyone?). But it sure seems tame to be just selling to a niche market instead of saving America from automobile-induced insanity.
Of course the critics might be wrong. Let’s suppose that suburbia is objectively ugly, poses all kinds of immediate environmental threats, and portends an uncivil America of segregated enclaves. If the new urbanists’ diagnosis is right after all, will their prescription cure the disease? On present evidence, probably not.
One reason Seaside is so photogenic is that it’s become a mecca for architects who want to build second homes. It remains to be seen how DPZ’s codes survive mediocre architecture or mass production. But the aesthetic promise is still greater than the environmental one. Most new urbanist developments are being built out on the fringe, which is hardly likely to conserve resources. Moreover they often don’t or can’t take advantage of existing mass transit; Beachwalk, for instance, is within walking distance of Lake Michigan, not the South Shore commuter train depot. Planning professor Robert Cervero studied traditional neighborhoods in California and found that “people wanting to leave a traditional neighborhood are just as likely to drive their car as are people leaving from a more auto-oriented neighborhood.”
So far neo-traditional developments also tend to be expensive and therefore at least somewhat exclusive (though Moss does hope to put together a low-to-moderate-income development in southeast Chicago or northwest Indiana). Beachwalk’s streets don’t connect with the Michigan City grid; its entrance is set off with a distinctive gatelike frame. And there’s something quixotic (though perhaps admirable) about Tom Moss’s building front porches for customers from Lincoln Park, who are not noted for their stoop-sitting social life. UIC’s Roberta Feldman is wary of the dogmatism with which some neo-traditionalists want to treat all communities. She says that in “place-bound” communities–like Wentworth Gardens, where she’s worked with residents, who have limited mobility–the neo-traditional idea of putting stores and Laundromats within walking distance makes sense. “But in the suburban case, are we going to design a community center for non-place-bound upper-middle-class people who might come down to get an ice-cream cone once a week?”
Worst of all, even if Beachwalk could become like the Loop it probably wouldn’t do the Loop much good. Building different-shaped suburbs is still building suburbs. (This is not just a quibble. Congress wants to cut $20 million from the CTA and spend $14 million on the new Wisconsin Central suburban commuter line, which will have a stop at the partly neo-traditional Prairie Crossing.) If combating sprawl is the priority–because it’s inefficient and drains the city–then we need a politically imposed “urban growth boundary” around Chicago (like the one in Portland, Oregon), that would force all suburban development to be more compact. No such measure is on the political horizon: even many new urbanists, like Moss, are wary of being seen as trying to impose anything on anybody. But without some strict ceiling on overall suburban expansion, neo-traditionalism at best just gives city people nicer places to flee to.
City neighborhoods can “provide for all the essential needs of daily life: living, working, shopping and recreation,” writes Peter Katz. But so far neo-traditional developments do not, though that’s their goal. This paradox puts a sardonic twist on the obvious question: If you like urbanism so much, why try to re-create it out on the fringe?
Walk-to stores are one key neo-traditionalist goal that has proved almost impossible to achieve. This should come as no surprise, given American shopping habits, but it still does. New urbanist architect and planner Peter Calthorpe laments, “Is the traditional [small-store] marketplace merely nostalgic and inefficient, or an option currently untested on a population secretly seeking local quality over chain store homogenization?” (Emphasis added.) His tone reveals the answer: If everyone who complained about Wal-Mart had faithfully shopped at the downtown drugstore instead Sam Walton would have died broke.
With only 20 houses in place, Beachwalk isn’t big enough for retail yet, but Moss has some realistic hopes for the next seven years. “You have to face facts,” he says. “We’d rather pay less for a toaster than buy it in a lovely place. So a 2,000-square-foot hardware store will not work. But think of all the things we do in our life where the process is as important as the product: a restaurant, a bed-and-breakfast, specialty shops, nice food places where it might cost $1.80 for a cup of coffee.”
Moss has a small inland lake to build on and easy access to U.S. Highway 12. He plans to have some of Beachwalk’s projected stores draw from outside the development itself. It doesn’t bother him that the amenities within walking distance of his new urbanist development may have to depend on visitors from the dreaded car culture. “You play the cards you’re dealt. I’m an eternal incrementalist. You can’t change the world overnight.”
Yet even this compromise may prove difficult. Back in the late1940s shopping centers tried the same approach–one side facing the street, the other neighborhood sidewalks–notes Dennis McClendon, a local graphic designer and sympathetic observer of the movement. “That pattern did not fall out of favor because of some edict from evil 1313 [E. 60th St. in Hyde Park, former office of the American Planning Association]. The neighbors didn’t like the Dumpsters, the deliveries.”
Another essential part of urbanity missing from new urbanist developments is some nonautomotive way to get around. The rule of thumb is that mass transit won’t work unless you have at least 10 dwelling units per acre. (Lincoln Park has 15.4 and Edgewater 26.) The neo-traditionalists aren’t even close; if they were, their suburban neighbors would be up in arms. Beachwalk may finish up at about 2.5. Prairie Crossing emerged from a court fight involving a previous developer whose 2.4 units per acre was controversially dense; it will average 0.5 houses per acre, 1.2 on the built-up part.
No stores? No transit? No density? None of this fazes Peter Katz, who says neo-traditional developments are urban because they’re meant to be urban. “Is there some threshold density that qualifies as ‘urban’? No. It’s a question of intention. [Los Angeles architect] Stefanos Polyzoides uses the example of a Greek temple placed by itself at a crossroads. It is urban because it’s intended that a village and a city grow up there. On the other hand, there are high-density places in the U.S. called edge cities that may never become urban.”
Katz defends this implausible theory with an appeal to the long term. “It’s natural and healthy for successful places to densify over time. But you have to lay down a pattern [that can accommodate growth]. In conventional suburbia that doesn’t happen. Young suburbs are delightful places. Open spaces, wide roads–it’s like living in a park. But when they’re about 65 to 75 percent built out, you get gridlock [because of the dead-end streets and faraway stores], and developers get resistance to building any more. ‘We’ve already got traffic jams,’ say the residents. The community is locked into a kind of permanent adolescence and can never become Paris or Rome.”
But the suburbanites, adults all, moved there precisely because they wanted to live in a park. Unless Tom Moss and his mentors can reeducate them to want postage-stamp lawns, through traffic, and neighbors within earshot, they may not take kindly to becoming something else.
The Classical Architecture League will sponsor “The Art of Building Cities: A Challenge for a New Millennium,” a conference that will “explore how architectural and urbanistic principles of city planning can build sustainable cities and towns,” at the Art Institute, July 9-11. Speakers will include Andres Duany, Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk, Peter Calthorpe, and Vincent Scully. The conference is being held in conjunction with an exhibit at the Chicago Cultural Center July 8 through August 25.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Photos/Randy Tunnell.