The New Burb Is A Village

THE DAILY LANDSCAPE OF AMERICA, AS EVER MORE people experience it, consists of an office building and a ranch house, linked by a freeway--a closed loop, the yang and yin of life balanced at either end of a 90-minute drive. The big question is how much farther that loop can stretch. Already the hardiest New York commuters have begun to colonize eastern Pennsylvania, two states and nearly 100 miles away. For three decades, planners have proclaimed that the geometric expansion of suburbia had reached the point at which the pleasures of having a backyard were outweighed by the pain of getting home to it every night. In the next decade, either they will be proved right or Chicago and St. Louis will meet somewhere in the vicinity of Decatur. If there's reason to hope for the former, it's that now there is an alternative to sprawl--"the New Urbanism," a movement that seeks to redesign the American landscape on a model that is neither city nor suburb but something we have almost forgotten how to build: the village.

Like most visionary architectural schemes, this idea has sold more books than houses. Many of its principles were enunciated as far back as the 1960s by Lewis Mumford and Jane Jacobs. But their first systematic application came only a decade ago, when Andres Duany and Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk, a hus-band-and-wife architect-planning team, designed Seaside, a small resort town on the Florida panhandle. Seaside--with its cozy, narrow streets, its jumble of pastel-colored homes--is probably the most influential resort community since Versailles. Since then the formula has been copied, or independently reinvented, in communities as diverse as these:

Kentlands, Md., a decorous, Colonial-style community in Washington's prosperous suburbs;

Harbor Town, Tenn., a kind of gentrified-from-scratch development on an island m the Mississippi River, five minutes from downtown Memphis;

Laguna West, Calif., a large, middle-class development on the far fringes of suburban Sacramento.

Think back to the small town you probably never grew up in, but have seen in hundreds of life-insurance commercials. The houses were shaded by trees, close together and close to the street; front porches created a zone of interaction between the life of the home and the life of the town. There were shops and a bus stop or train station within walking distance. so that a car was not a literal necessity for every errand. The streets were not the arbitrary cul-de-sacs that cover modern suburban landscapes; they connected to each other, so that a child wishing to visit a friend a mile away could get there more or less directly on foot or by bicycle, without a detour along the busy highway that is typically the only way to get from one developer's domain to another in modern America.

Of course, you have to give some things up to live like this. You can't have an acre, or even a quarter-acre, to yourself any longer. And you lose the sense of exclusivity that the modern suburb enforces. Like the traditional village, the new kind provides for a variety of housing types (detached, townhouse, "granny flats" above garages and shopkeepers' apartments above the stores)--which implies a range of incomes, ages and family types. But this is not just a nostalgic notion. As Peter Calthorpe, the visionary planner who designed Laguna West, says, "Three quarters of [households] don't fit the American dream [of a two-parent nuclear family]. And the American dream doesn't fit them."

So far, the projects developed along these lines are mostly successful, although tiny. A big test of the idea will come in a couple of years, when Disney plans to open Celebration, Fla., its first housing development ever, on 5,000 acres of its empire near Orlando. If Americans are flexible enough to consider returning to a way of life that satisfied most of humanity for the last 6,000 years, then the idea may indeed shape the next century. And if not . . . well, just how far is it from Decatur to St. Louis, anyway?