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American Neo-Traditionalism and Surburban Design


John Punter

Designing a Place Called Home: Reordering the Suburbs , James Wentling, Chapman and Hall, New York, 1995, £39.95
Yard-Street-Park: The Design of Suburban Open Space , Cynthia Girling and Kenneth Helphand, John Wiley, New York, 1994, £50
Visions for a New American Dream., Process, Principles and an Ordinance to Plan and Design Small Communities , Anton Nelessen, American Planning Association, Chicago, 1994, £60
Rural by Design: Maintaining Small Town Character , Randall Arendt et al, American Planning Association, Chicago, 1994, £35

These four volumes constitute some of the latest American writing on the design of contemporary American suburbia. Drawing heavily on the neo-traditionalism of Andrew Duany and Elizabeth Plater- Zyberk, and the transit-oriented developments traditional neighbourhoods of Peter Calthorpe, these books represent the latest stage of a major reappraisal and reevaluation of American suburbia.

This re-evaluation rejects the all-pervasive Federal Housing Agency models of the 1930s and 1950s, the planned unit developments of the 1970s, and the masterplanned communities of the 1970s, and seeks to rediscover and adapt the traditions of community and environmental design promulgated by Olmsted, Howard, Unwin, Nolen, Stein, Wright, Whyte and McHarg to suburban and exurban environments.

There have been a number of major books on American suburbia published in the last five years that are of major relevance to urban design. These include the excellent syntheses of neo- traditionalism available in Peter Katz's 'The New Urbanism' [1] ( UDQ53, p. 33), and projects and critical essays entitled 'Andres Duany and Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk: Towns and Town- Making Principles' [2] and 'Seaside: Making a Town in America' [3]; the work on pedestrian and transit-oriented development in The Pedestrian Pocket Book [4] and Peter Calthorpe's The Next American Metropolis [5] (see UDQ 53, pp. 26-28) supplemented by David Solomon's more architectural Re-Building . [6] A major academic analysis of America's suburbia has been attempted by Peter Rowe in Making a Middle Landscape , [7] and a more journalistic but still useful overview by Peter Langdon in A Better Place to Live: Reshaping the American Suburb , [8] while Anne Vernez Moudon has edited a volume on Master-Planned Communities . [9] Alexander Christoforidis's review of neo-traditionalism [10] is one of the most useful articles in academic journals.

The four books that are the focus of this review all essentially rework, amplify and extend both the critique of suburban development and the revisions proposed by the neo-traditional movement in different ways. As the titles suggest, the focus is different in terms of scale and context home; yard; street and park; community and suburbia; and, finally, small town and exurban hamlets and villages. None of the books provides a coherent overview of neotraditionalism (fortunately this is available elsewhere: see notes 1, 7, 10), but each makes a contribution to more intelligent planning and design of American suburbia.

Designing a Place Called Home is written by an architect, James Wentling, sympathetic to the neo-traditional design movement, but firmly rooted in current market practices. It focuses on the design of mass produced or production houses, and this is one of its strengths. Subtitled Reordering the Suburbs , it does not really address the broader issues of estate (subdivision) design, but instead concentrates on siting and lot patterns, floorplans and layouts, building design and exterior details, and interior details. It begins with an historical overview which is selective but very accessible, and then discusses the contemporary housing design problem - affordability, density, zoning, marketability, community, developer conservatism, consumer expectations. It sees the neotraditional approach as a response to consumer dissatisfaction with community design, or rather the lack of it. It proceeds to discuss principles of community design, embroidering six principles of neo-traditional community design with brief discussions using illustrated examples.

A whole chapter is devoted to siting and lot patterns, focusing on key issues like set backs, accentuated entrances, garaging and parking, small lot configurations, community and privacy, patios and decks. Another chapter is devoted to building floorplans, focusing particularly on their role in the generation of building forms and facades, and their relationship to different lot configurations and constraints; issues of use, circulation, lifestyle, furnishing, storage, or recycling are not neglected. A chapter on interior details focuses on 'special features', while the chapter on exterior details seeks to identify and correct common failings of facade design. Emphasis is placed upon the importance of establishing a focus for the elevation, and appropriate roof profile and trim, 'veneers', fenestration and choice of colours, and the argument is convincing.

Regrettably, the concluding chapters on multi-family housing, manufactured housing, and housing for tomorrow become progressively thinner so that the latter is barely an afterword. Nevertheless, this is a valuable book because of its marriage of distilled experience of commercial practice and its constructive criticism of suggestions for design improvement. The author provides clearly elaborated lists of points, criticisms, rules, principles or components that are invariably well illustrated with photographs, site plans and, best of all, composite sketch plans. This, combined with a large typeface and double-column format, makes the book particularly easy and pleasurable to read. The focus on middle-class housing means that, despite its claims, the book is not really able to address issues of affordability that would make it more relevant to contemporary housing, and issues of environmental sensitivity or sustainability are also underplayed. This apart, there is very little in the book that is not relevant to British suburban design and it would provide most house builders or design guidance writers with much food for thought.

Yard-Street-Park: The Design of Suburban Open Space is advertised as being written to help designers, planners, and developers of suburban communities to deliver on their traditional promise of offering 'the best of both worlds'. Written by two landscape architects, Cynthia Girling and Kenneth Helphand, it is a less coherent book because its strong historical dimension and holistic analysis of community design is not followed through in later chapters where it becomes rather lost (like many of these books) in a flurry of case studies. The title leads one to expect a careful analysis of each of these three elements of suburban space, but there is more discussion of yards in Wentling's book, of streets in Nelesson's, and of park systems in Arendt's.


Levittown initial house and yard contrasted with residents' additions and remodelling.

Section and figure ground plan of a wide two way street.

The essential thesis of Yard-Street-Park is that "to create a suburban landscape supportive of individual fulfilment, community life, and environmental sustainability requires a broader, more comprehensive view of open space... i.e. yard, street and park." This thesis is also a key underpinning of neo-traditional development. The book is structured historically with a study of three key early suburban models - Olmsted's Riverside, Stein and Henry Wright's Radburn, and Frank Lloyd Wright's Broadacre City. This lacks a synthesis but is followed by a revealing overview of federal housing designs for the 1930s and 1950s, including a particularly interesting study of Levittown that emphasises how the residents reshaped their environment to express their own values. Subsequent chapters chart the rise of cluster and planned unit development (PUD), its strengths and weaknesses, includes an overview of Reston and Columbia, and explores the design of the master-planned communities of the 1970s and 1980s. The latter includes a case study of Woodbridge in Irvine (a 'technoburb'), Village Homes in Davis and Woodlands in Texas (an 'ecoburb'). The latter is particularly important because it was designed using the ecological design principles of Ian McHarg.

The book goes on to review the neotraditional suburbs, noting Duany and Plater Zyberk's debt to Raymond Unwin and John Nolen (but curiously not their debt to Leon Krier), examining three of their projects and noting their slowly-developing awareness of the ecological concerns in open space planning. Peter Calthorpe's work is also reviewed with similar criticisms of his neglect of open space as a community linkage, integration and definitional device. A final chapter considers Suburbia 2000, the importance of retro-fitting suburbs, and the future of the yard, street and park. Only a little over a page is devoted to each, missing the opportunity for an informed synthesis and clear design recommendations, a disappointing end to a well- illustrated and presented book of unfulfilled potential.

Anton Nelesson's Vision for a New American Dream is promoted as the results of 25 years of practice and research largely in New Jersey. The author confesses to being more of a lecturer than a writer and has not been well served by his editor, typographer, or proof reader. Still, the 370 pages of text are enlivened by layout and profuse illustrations, and the very repetitive nature of the text and illustrations is in part necessitated by the development, illustration and application of the methodology.

At the heart of the book is Nelesson's patented technique of the Visual Preference Survey VPSTM which presents communities with slide images and asks respondents to rate them on a scale of plus 10 to minus 10. An optional questionnaire can supplement this with more demographic and market information, and more ideas and opinions on desirable future forms. Nelesson claims to have administered 50,000 such surveys across eight states in addition to New Jersey, and he claims that 'a clear visual and spatial preference has emerged - the vision of a new American dream'. To complement and deepen his VPSTM, Nelesson has also developed a 'hands on model-building workshop' with which communities can produce scale models of their ideal community, utilising pre- designed building types (32) in several vernacular and functional styles at a scale of 1:20. Nelesson argues that 'most people reject the current pattern and spatial characteristics of sprawl in favour of more traditional or neotraditional small communities' and that 'no group has ever laid out the models in cul de sacs!'(pp. 88-9).


Design vocabulary mix for residential types.

Nelesson's book is an exposition of a seven-step planning and design process for small communities that begins with a 'biography of the past' and an analysis of the pattern of growth of the community; explores its problems through focus groups and determines a common vision utilising the three innovative techniques previously discussed; and identifies the potentials for positive development and redevelopment. The last three steps involve the drawing of a layout and figure ground plan, the writing and illustrating of a code (occupying nearly a quarter of the book), and the development of a submission and review process to get it adopted.

Nelesson defines basic design principles to create small communities that have obvious British resonances, but a number are less then complete statements of the neotraditional impulse. Nevertheless, some of the detailed sub-principles and recommended dimensions are useful rules of thumb, and reveal an appreciation of the details of site planning long ago lost to many urban developers and planners.

Nelesson's work, and predominantly his imaginative and practical if easily manipulated methods, will be of considerable value to those genuinely interested in greater community involvement in design regulation and review, or even in market research for community design. It promotes a very narrow conception of desired future forms based heavily upon the New England vernacular, and the parade of highly-rated VPSTM images begins to pale as the gentrified landscapes of east coast small towns and villages are endlessly paraded for our delectation. But it would be possible to use the same process and methods to explore a much wider range of design alternatives.

Plans showing transformation from rural community to conventional suburb in Montgomery County Pennsylvania.

Rural by Design , by Randall Arendt and others, applies neo- traditional design thinking cross-fertilised with careful open space planning to the smaller towns, villages and hamlets of America. The book is divided into four parts. The first presents an analysis of the character of towns, a critique of zoning, a prognosis of eventual build-out patterns, a review of neo-traditional alternatives and a review of the aesthetics of form (Unwin, Cullen, Prince of Wales, Nelesson and other American citizenoriented townscape analysts are cited). The second part examines alternative scenarios for conservation/development in four hypothetical and one actual example, exploring the contrast between conventional and 'creative'development in a range of development contexts. The third section constitutes half the book and consists of eleven chapters under the general title of implementation techniques, exploring such issues as highway- oriented development, affordable housing, road standards, sewage systems, open spaces and greenery design and farmland preservation. These are the most useful sections of the book and each is an excellent and comprehensive review.

The final section offers 38 case studies of 'creative' residential, town centre and roadside commercial development, including a few historically important exemplars, and the extensive appendices contain five detailed studies or planning documents of relevance. The whole is extensively illustrated with sketch plans and photographs, and is very well referenced, making this the definitive reference text on the subject. Its synthesis of a very wide body of practice manuals and design experiments and innovations is particularly useful to academics and practitioners alike. It is overly long and repetitive, a fact half acknowledged in the preface; but otherwise it justifies the rave reviews it has received.

It may be considered that such a book has nothing to teach British designers where the one (and only?) undisputed achievement of the post-war planning system has been the concentration of exurban development onto the margins of existing settlements and the prevention of sporadic rural subdivisions. However, by and large, the detailed site planning of rural development in Britain has been equally unresponsive to local character, and many of the same problems persist here - inappropriate standards, insensitive and wasteful highway standards and layouts, neglected open space design, inability to provide affordable housing, a failure of community design. There is much to learn from the approaches taken by the more innovative American planners and developers, even if the nature of the problem is different - in many states the growth rate of residential land consumption is twice that of population growth and the per capita land take is rising to nearly two acres per person (the target densities of all these 'reformers' is less then half current British suburban densities).

Reading these four long texts and the other dozen or so books that espouse the neotraditional approach one cannot escape the mischievous thought that the extent of the writings are inversely proportional to their real impact on the American scene. This conclusion is reinforced by the market demise of two key schemes - the McHargdesigned Woodlands near Houston, and the Calthorpe- designed Laguna West near Sacramento, and the appropriation of neotraditionalism by top-of- the-market developers. But it is substantiated by another overly-long, highly-repetitive and uncritical text written from a quite opposite perspective, a book which has outsold all the neo- traditional books combined many times over. Joel Garreau's Edge City: Life on the New Frontier [11] is now five years old, but it is a must-read for urban designers because it celebrates what most appals them. Garreau sees in suburbia and its new dense nodes'a new balance of individualism and freedom', which he explains evoking the time- honoured myth of the frontier and the 'ingenuity and enterprise' of the American people. He describes the third wave of American suburbanisation (first housing, then retail, now jobs) and the consequent growth of 20' edge cities' in suburban downtowns, celebrating their dynamism and their new concept of community (the growth of voluntary associations and special interest groups) while downplaying their government subsidies, the privatisation of government, the absence of civic culture and their essential exclusionism. Edge City emphasises the scale of the task facing the neo-traclitionalists, and the forces arraigned against them, most succinctly in a final chapter entitled 'The Laws'. These constitute the current design rules of mass suburbia. Two examples must suffice.

Peter Calthorpe has noted that 'Americans moved to the suburbs largely for privacy, mobility, security and ownership. Increasingly they have isolation, congestion, rising crime and overwhelming costs' [12]

The neo-traditionalist texts described here do partially address each of these issues, but it remains to be seen how effectively they counter the rampant privatisation, social fragmentation and now job insecurity that characterises American suburbs. For a British audience, they are useful substitute for a non-existent debate about the product of our mass house builders left largely unregulated by Central Government advice. #

1. Katz, Peter (Ed.), The New Urbanism: Towards an Architecture of Community, New York, McGraw-Hill, 1992,

2. Kneger, Alex and Lennetz, William, Andrew Duany and Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk. Towns and Town Making Principles, New York, Rizzoli, 1991

3. Mohney, David and Easterling, Keller, Seaside Making a Town in America, New York, Princeton Architectural Press, 1988.

4. Kelbaugh, Doug (Ed.), The Pedestrian PocketBook, New York, Princeton Architectural Press, 1988.

5. Calthorpe, Peter, The Next American Metropolis, New York, Princeton Architectural Press, 1993.

6. Solomon, David, Rebuilding, New York, Princeton Architectural Press.

7. Rowe, Peter, Making a Middle Landscape, Cambridge, MIT Press, 1991.

8. Langdon, Philip, A Better Place to Live: Reshaping the American Suburb, Amherst, Mass., University of Massachusetts Press, 1994.

9. Moudon, Anne Vernez, Master-Planned Communities. Shaping Exurbs in the 1990s, Seattle, University of Washington, Urban Design Program.

10. Christoforidis, A,, 'New Alternatives to the Suburb: Neo Traditional Developments', Journal of Planning Literature, 8(4), 1994.

11. Garreau, Joel, Edge City. Life on the New Frontier, New York, Doubleday, 1992

12. See note 5, p.18.


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