Imagine a place where you can stroll down the sidewalk, wave to your neighbors on their porch, then pick up your dry cleaning or have lunch at the café. That’s the kind of walkable, compact, mixed-use community envisioned by the founders of New Urbanism—including Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk. But some people say there’s a reason one of Plater-Zyberk’s developments played a starring role in a memorable Hollywood film about overly constructed reality.Download episode
Rebecca Sheir has been a host and reporter on All Things Considered, Morning Edition, Marketplace, Here and Now, The Splendid Table, and the Alaska Public Radio Network. Follow her on Twitter.
Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk is an architect and urban designer and planner, with more than 30 years of experience in a variety of projects at every scale, including regional plans and municipal zoning codes, downtown and neighborhood revitalizations, new towns and neighborhoods, streetscapes and building designs.
Rebecca Sheir: Twenty-five miles outside Washington, D.C., across the Maryland border, you’ll find a small town so idyllic, so iconic, you’ll swear it’s straight out of an old-fashioned movie. It’s called Kentlands, and the day I visit—
Well, let’s do a little walking.
Mike Watkins: OK.
Sheir: Longtime resident Mike Watkins shows me around.
Watkins: So we’ll go for a little walk.
Sheir: Strolling down wide, brick sidewalks, along narrow, tree-lined streets, Mike and I pass historic-looking homes with porches out front and garages out back. Elegant Victorians, cozy cottages, brick townhouses, all built close to one another on humble-sized lots.
Watkins: So, the houses you see are pulled up close to the street. So, the porches are within conversation distance of the sidewalk. So it makes it great when you’re walking down the street to have a chat with a neighbor.
Sheir: And Kentlands is nothing if not walkable. People lead their dogs down paths through the woods, joggers stride around glittering bodies of water with names like Inspiration Lake and Lake Placid. And no matter where you are, you’re always within walking distance.
So here we are emerging into what looks like a retail area of downtown.
Watkins: Right, this is our Main Street. So, the building directly in front of us is an age-restricted senior apartment building. And then across the street are shops with offices or apartments on the second floor. And quite a mix of shops. The beer and wine store, the barbershop.
Sheir: The music shop, the chocolate-maker, the dentist, the florist, most within sight of Kentlands’ good-old-fashioned town square.
Watkins: Well, the pavilion in the middle, uh, serves the farmer’s market. And during the week, uh, the yoga class or the tai chi class will meet outdoors here. And then the lawn you see beside it is used—as the markets grown, it’s taken over that lawn, but it’s also just place for kids to play. As parents are eating at one of the cafés nearby, they just let the kids have a little bit of a run in the park.
Sheir: So, with the exception, I guess, of the yoga and tai chi, Kentlands is kind of like your Bedford Falls in It’s a Wonderful Life, or your Mandrake Falls, in Mr. Deeds Goes to Town. But, here’s the thing. For all of Kentlands’ traditional, timeless charm, fewer than 30 years ago …
Sheir: What was here before? This charming community?
Watkins: A soybean field. Yeah, it was a farm.
Sheir: It didn’t even exist.
I’m Rebecca Sheir, and from Slate magazine, this is Placemakers: stories about the spaces we inhabit and the people who shape them. Today: the re-creation of small-town America, through the planning and design movement known as “New Urbanism.”
Now, in a way, New Urbanism is actually old urbanism—or at least the kind of urbanism we saw pre–World War II, before the car became king in this country. So, New Urbanism embraces walkable communities with traditional architecture, and easy access to independent businesses and greenspace.
In just a bit we’ll talk with one of the founders of New Urbanism. A woman who took one look at all that postwar suburban sprawl and decided to find an antidote. Her firm wound up designing hundreds of these compact, walkable New Urbanism developments all over the world, including, yes: Kentlands, Maryland.
And that guy who showed me around Kentlands? Mike Watkins? He was actually instrumental in the town’s development. Mike’s an architect by training, and as he explained as we strolled down Main Street, he was the “town architect” for Kentlands when it was designed and constructed in the late 1980s.
Sheir: What does it mean to be a town architect?
Watkins: My role here as town architect was to work with the various designers. To see that the work they were doing was compatible with the work the other designers were doing. Which is not to say the same, by any stretch—in fact, we value variety. We do want the work of each individual architect to support the principles on which the design is based.
We really want this place to work like a community. And many of the designers that started working here had never worked in a place that was deliberately about community life, and certainly pedestrian life. So this was bringing back many of the old ways of doing things, but for reasons that are still important today. Not simply a nostalgia trip.
Sheir: In a way, New Urbanism actually has a lot in common with what Jane Jacobs was encouraging for cities back in the 1960s. We talked about that in our first episode of Placemakers. Jacobs was this writer and urban thinker who wrote the legendary book, The Death and Life of Great American Cities, right? And in her writing she stressed the importance of “eyes on the street”, the “intricate sidewalk ballet”, “the cheerful hurly-burly”, all these things that, as she put it, “make people want to come into the city, and to linger there.” And in fact, one of the founders of New Urbanism?
Lizz Plater-Zyberk: I am Lizz Plater-Zyberk: architect and town planner.
Sheir: Says Jane Jacobs was highly influential to the architectural movement.
Plater-Zyberk: Well, Jane Jacobs’ book was written when we were in college. So, her descriptions of neighborhoods as places of walkability, of pedestrian comfort, of people interacting on the sidewalk or in shops, of the diversity of old neighborhoods, certainly became embedded in our thinking.
When Lizz Plater-Zyberk says “our thinking,” she’s referring to the other pioneers of New Urbanism, including her husband: fellow architect and town planner Andres Duany. Lizz and Andres founded their own firm.
Plater-Zyberk: Duany Plater-Zyberk and Company—actually recently renamed DPZ Partners.
Sheir: And quickly became rock stars in their field. They’ve written books, they’ve won awards, and their work has garnered all sorts of accolades.
The New York Times, for one, called New Urbanism “the most important collective architectural movement in the United States in the past 50 years.” Time magazine called the resort town of Seaside, DPZ’s very first project, on the Gulf of Mexico, in Florida, “the most astounding design achievement of its era.”
Which isn’t to say DPZ’s work has been free from criticism.
If you Google “New Urbanism,” you’ll come up with articles like “Why New Urbanism Fails,” and “Why is New Urbanism So Gosh Darn Creepy?” People who say New Urbanism is over-produced, artificial, not to mention prohibitive for moderate- to lower-income households. After all, in Kentlands? The average townhouse is listed for more than 500,000 dollars. A single-family home? More than 800,000 dollars. And as the community gets more popular, especially with people commuting to work in D.C., those prices are on the rise.
We’ll talk more about these kinds of issues with New Urbanism in just a bit. But first, it’s important to understand how this movement got to where it is now. Lizz Plater-Zyberk has been with it from the early days, of course. And, as she spoke with me from her office in Miami, it started to sound like her upbringing made her involvement in New Urbanism, almost inevitable.
See, like Jane Jacobs, Lizz grew up in small-town Pennsylvania, but often traveled to the big city. And maybe there’s something about traveling from the periphery to the center, that makes a person see the urban landscape with fresh eyes.
Plater-Zyberk: Paoli was the end of the Main Line, as it was known, and that was the main train line, one of the main commuter lines into Philadelphia. So I did my whole, all of my youthful activities were done by either train or bus from Paoli to school, the swim club, the dentist, the academy of music on Saturday mornings for children’s concerts. And I would say that that small-town life, walking into town, walking to the train station, have been very influential in my career after that. Little did I know!
Sheir: So it wasn’t like at the time you thought, “Oh, this is a nice way to live! When I grow up, I’m going to promote this kind of living!”
Plater-Zyberk: Well, I think I wasn’t thinking in those terms at all. It just seemed normal to be able to walk to the market, to walk to the train, to take public transportation to school, or to access the cultural facilities in downtown Philadelphia in that way. That was a kind of regional picture of living in a small town but being part of the metropolitan area that of course the New Urbanism has in a sense revived as a valid way of structuring our ever-growing metropolitan areas.
Sheir: If we fast forward some years, now here you are at DPZ. I was looking on your website, and you like to say that you believe “great places add to the sum of human happiness.” What do you feel is the connection there between where we are and how happy we are?
Plater-Zyberk: Oh, that’s a big question. You know, I think so much of our daily life is connected to place and the experience of place, whether it’s family life surrounded by community or lack of community, school and work life and how that relates to a community of people, but also the physical environment around us. There are just so many aspects of place and physical environment, whether it’s built or natural, to which I think we have an ever more evidence-based understanding of how places affect us, affect our behavior, affect our well-being.
It’s not to say that people can’t overcome negative conditions, which many people do, but I think many people recognize and try to place themselves in a situation when, if they have that privilege, to enable place to be supportive of their life, of their values, of daily life.
Sheir: So the kind of place that supports that and promotes that, what does that look like? Because you said that DPZ creates what you call “benevolent” urban places. What is it that makes an urban environment particularly benevolent?
Plater-Zyberk: Well, it may look different, depending on where you are. And it should. It should be related to the geography, climate and history of a place, of an area.
There is one key aspect, which is the community of people that are within walking distance. We live in an age in which many people will say, “Well, my community is international, or my community is on the internet, or it’s attached to a hashtag or whatever.” But the community of place is very important to people of all ages. Who your neighbors are, especially when there are children involved, who have a much shorter trajectory than many of us. Or when we get older and we are more place-bound, or want to be place-bound, then that community of people that are within walking distance, whether it’s resident neighbors or the shopkeepers whose establishments we frequent. You know, it is the kind of small-town atmosphere that makes that quality of place.
I couldn’t—some of the most touching descriptions of community of place emerged from New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, when people realized that they would not, might not be returning to the neighborhood where they had established a kind of interdependence. The social scientists call it “interdependence,” in which people of all types, abilities, living close to each other were helping each other in various ways, enjoying each other in various ways.
Sheir: So, when you were starting the firm with your husband, Andres Duany, what were you seeing around you in terms of building patterns, development patterns that you didn’t like, that you wanted to change?
Plater-Zyberk: Well, we saw an automobile-oriented, low-density fabric that seemed unsustainable economically in the long run. Our knowledge of the history of cities had taught us that cities had always been compact for, well, for reasons of defense but also reasons of economy. And so this somehow seemed out of sync with all of history.
And then we got to know what life in the suburbs was like. And we saw the great effort that people made to develop community, to have a sense of community through driving children everywhere, to soccer, to after-school activities, to the importance of focal places like churches.
But what was missing was the kind of daily interaction, that daily life might provide to you in a small town or in an urban neighborhood, when you could walk to places and when children could be monitored, or teenagers could be monitored by adults who knew them informally, the kind of informal relationships of community.
So I think that’s what started us thinking that it was worth looking at or worth trying to suggest alternate modes of developing cities.
And you know, we were lucky. One of our first clients, Charleston Place, was an investor who—when we realized that we were going to be proposing something that was very different than its surroundings in its suburban setting—he said, “You know, that’s fine, because all the market studies are telling us that people want the stuff that’s being built around us, but I am sure that there are some people who are outliers and would appreciate quite the opposite, and that’s the market that I will, I’m willing to risk addressing that market.”
And that was an important lesson, because we understood that that kind of diversity could be addressed and that likely there would be some response to suggesting that we could build neighborhoods with a sense of place or small towns with a great sense of community. And I think we were surprised by the enormous response to that. It wasn’t just the outliers who appreciated it, but a great many people, it was resonant with a great many people.
Sheir: And part of the reason for that may have been how accessible Lizz and her firm, DPZ, have tried to make New Urbanism. When a new development is in the works, they try to involve as many people as possible in the planning process, through something called a “charrette.” Maybe you’ve heard of it: basically, it’s this comprehensive session, or series of sessions, where residents, planners, officials, all sorts of stakeholders, get together and collaborate on a vision for development. They bounce around ideas, they do presentations, they give and get feedback, basically, DPZ tries to give everyone a voice.
But still, there are those who just don’t buy the whole New Urbanism thing. People who don’t like how planners such as Lizz Plater-Zyberk and Andres Duany, to quote one critic, “make a fetish of their debts to the past.”
We’ll hear more about this pushback, and find out which New Urbanist town played a surreal, starring role in a memorable Hollywood film, after the break.
Sheir: From Slate magazine, it’s Placemakers. I’m Rebecca Sheir.
We’re talking today with Lizz Plater-Zyberk: an award-winning architect and planner whose firm, DPZ Partners, has helped develop more than 300 projects across the world, everywhere from Mexico, Brazil and the Philippines to Turkey, India, and Egypt—not to mention Australia, China, Russia, what these developments all have in common is that they’re designed with walking—not cars—front and center.
Along with her husband, Andres Duany, Lizz helped found the movement known as New Urbanism. She and Andres were instrumental in starting a nonprofit devoted to its tenets of planning and design. The Congress for New Urbanism, as it’s known, now has upwards of 2,500 members.
New Urbanism is meant to be an alternative to the suburban sprawl that spread across this country after World War II.
And as we heard before the break, 20-some miles outside Washington, D.C., there’s a New Urbanist community in Maryland. It’s called Kentlands, and DPZ developed it in the late 1980s. I recently got a tour from longtime resident and former town-architect Mike Watkins.
Sheir: I heard a rumor that, um, when the sales office first opened in Kentlands, people camped out overnight, to get a good place in line.
Watkins: Well, they did do that, actually, yeah!
Sheir: Kentlands is the kind of place where you can stroll down the sidewalk, wave “hi” to your neighbors sipping lemonade on their porch, and then pick up your dry cleaning, pop in to the barbershop for a trim, or stop at the corner café for a cup of joe.
Watkins: One of the nice things about the neighborhood I think is that not only do we have a mix of housing types, but we also have a mix of uses here. For example, we met at my office and I live right upstairs which is pretty nice commute in the Washington, D.C., area! But I’m also able to walk to the gym or walk to the little breakfast café, or to a grocery store, or a movie theater. There’s about three dozen, four dozen restaurants in the neighborhood that we can walk to.
Sheir: But, as we also mentioned earlier, not everyone has been so thrilled with this kind of development. That article I brought up before? “Why is New Urbanism So Gosh Darn Creepy”? It appeared on the design and tech website, Gizmodo, in 2014. And in it, writer Alissa Walker is talking about Buena Vista, Colorado, which isn’t a DPZ project, but its developers were inspired by the ideals of New Urbanism. Walker says, I quote:
“They had indeed built a lovely place that seemed to be the walkable, pedestrian-friendly neighborhood they intentioned. But it all seemed so contrived. What bothered me the most was that instead of improving and integrating with the pretty, if well-worn, historic Main Street a few blocks away, they essentially created this faux Wild West-by-way-of-Pottery Barn kayaker’s ghetto.”
Walker goes on to talk about the edge of Buena Vista, where you can literally see the sidewalk end, before it turns into a dirt path in an empty lot. She writes that it is, quote, “as symbolic of a demarcation as you could get: That is old and this is New; that is real and this is fake.”
And actually, back in 1998?
Truman: Good morning!
Sheir: That idea was taken to the extreme—
Girl: Good morning!
Sheir: In a certain Hollywood movie.
Truman: Oh, and in case I don’t see ya, good afternoon, good evening and good night! Yep, yep!
Sheir: This, you might recognize, is The Truman Show, starring Jim Carrey as, yes, Truman: a happy-go-lucky insurance salesman who, unwittingly, is starring in his own reality show, and has been, ever since the day he was born.
Man: Morning, Truman!
Truman: Morning, Spencer! Hey, Pluto.
Sheir: Truman resides in “Seahaven”, this idyllic town by the sea, a picture-perfect village that, as he eventually learns, is far too perfect. It’s actually a giant set piece, surrounded by this massive dome that generates astonishingly convincing effects, like the sun, the sky, the weather,
At the very end of The Truman Show, Truman is out sailing in what he doesn’t yet realize is a totally fake sea, when, all of a sudden, he hits a wall. Like, literally. His boat crashes into the edge of the dome, that protective barrier that’s been covering his native town of Seahaven ever since he was born.
The thing about Seahaven, this far-too-good-to-be-true town, The Truman Show’s director, Peter Weir, decided to find a real-life town to “play the role” of Seahaven, if you will. And do you know which town he picked? None other than Lizz Plater-Zyberk’s very first project: Seaside, Florida.
So, when I spoke with Lizz Plater-Zyberk, I simply had to ask: was she flattered? Insulted? How did she feel about her development being cast as the ultimate feel-good “pseudo-town”?
Plater-Zyberk: You know, we didn’t take it as a critique. We saw the film being made. And it was interesting to watch it being made and also to hear one of the stories of its making, in which the downtown buildings and sidewalks and so on were painted up and made more colorful. And they were somewhat tarted up, I would say.
And we asked: “What was that about?” And the artistic director of the movie said that there was a disconnect between the houses, the little wooden houses, and the four-story modern buildings of the downtown.
And I thought that was very interesting, that the film continuity required a certain kind of physical continuity, and Seaside of course had to conform to that even though there was – so most people wouldn’t think that there’s such a great diversity of architecture there that it would appear to be discontinuous in a movie, but it was for The Truman Show.
Sheir: Well, something I found so interesting about Seaside as well as some of your other projects is you brought on many different designers to do the buildings instead of just one. Why was that?
Plater-Zyberk: Well, you know, I think we had looked at enough small towns, and of course our own, our ongoing admiration of great places, older places in particular, whether in the U.S. or in Europe, and we understood that they were made of a great deal of diversity. We were intrigued by the amount of harmony that these places had at the same time that there was a great deal of diversity, building by building.
And after seeing Charleston Place emerge, which was a housing development in the suburbs of Boca Raton, where we had tried to mimic an urban fabric with a sense of place, but we realized, as we had designed all the houses, that it had perhaps too much uniformity. And so the idea emerged in Seaside that it would make it possible for many people to participate in the design.
So it really was this, trying to replicate in a shorter amount of time, in a compressed amount of time, the diversity and harmony of places that have been built across history.
Sheir: So Seaside and Kentlands are early examples of New Urbanism. Has it changed much since then?
Plater-Zyberk: They’re still valid examples. It’s certainly evolved, and there is now, I would say, a body of knowledge and experience which really can relate to almost any kind of condition globally, which has to do with the exchange of information, the criticism that we very freely give to each other, the kind of examination of successes and failures that the Congress does, as well as listening to its critics.
Sheir: What do critics of New Urbanism say? What are they finding fault with, what are they picking at?
Plater-Zyberk: You know, I think especially, at the beginning, there’s probably less of this now, but there was a great misunderstanding about what we were doing. People would just look at a place that was made of traditional architecture and say, “Well, it’s really a step backwards and it doesn’t recognize that society and culture and technology are moving on.” And especially among architects who were fearful of being asked to design in traditional modes.
But the charter for the New Urbanism says very clearly that style is not an issue. It is an issue because it contributes to the character of a place, but it’s not any one particular style. Architects were worried about having their creativity constrained. Other people criticized the movement for individual examples, places that were not as diverse as we hoped they would be, that transit was not being immediately built for these places. You know that yes, they’re transit-oriented, but there’s no transit. Of course, that’s not the fault of the development, but I think most of the New Urbanism is transit-ready.
So there was really a variety of different kinds of critique that were always about a partial understanding of it.
Much of early New Urbanist communication, in fact, was criticizing the suburbs. Many people took that to be criticizing the people who lived there, but it really was intending to criticize the physical set-up of suburban development. So, the reactions were anything from, “Yes, you’re so right,” to people who resented that kind of criticism, especially if they were among the producers of those places, and sometimes residents who might feel personally attacked.
But you know, I think, we’re now at a point in which we can look back over three decades, really four decades of work that has built on itself. And it’s a tremendous build-up of knowledge and experience. And I think people may not, I worry that people don’t understand how useful that is and how much there is to build on. In fact, I worry that there is so much knowledge and experience that it’s a high bar for entry.
And we have always tried to say it’s not rocket science. It’s something that everybody can get to know. And we need to keep it as accessible as possible, because we understand the benefits for community, for the environment, even the economic benefits of working in this way. And so, you know, I think that’s something we need to focus on: how, in my world, that’s a kind of definition of culture or civilization.
The good news is that we’ve all done a great deal of trying to make it accessible, keeping it simple. But also writing the books, participating in conferences and communication with many people—not only in our professions but with a public audience, to help people understand that the built environment, it’s not some kind of elite professional endeavor in which only the experts should participate. But everybody who uses it on a daily basis has a great deal of knowledge and experience about it also, and that that should always be part of building and rebuilding places.
Sheir: And, say what you will about New Urbanism, maybe you love it, maybe you hate it, maybe it gives you Truman Show–esque heebie-jeebies, but what Lizz Plater-Zyberk says about “everybody” being involved in how a place gets built, gets shaped, that’s kind of what this podcast, Placemakers, has been all about.
All of these stories we’ve brought you, about, as we like to say, “the spaces we inhabit and the people who shape them”, there’s been this running theme of how these spaces, these places, they should be built with everybody, real residents, real community members, in mind. No matter who those people are, or where they live.
Sheir: Before we say goodbye, I want to leave you with one last thought, care of the woman who kicked this whole series off. I’m talking about, yes, Jane Jacobs. Because looking back at all of our stories so far, I can’t help but feel this one line from The Death and Life of Great American Cities rings especially true. As Jacobs writes in that oft-quoted classic:
“Cities have the capability of providing something for everybody, only because, and only when, they are created, by everybody.”
Placemakers is a production of Slate magazine and is produced by Mia Lobel, Dianna Douglas, and Michael Vuolo, and edited by Julia Barton. Our researcher is Matthew Schwartz. Eric Shimelonis does our mixing and musical scoring. Our theme was composed by Robin Hilton. Steve Lickteig is our executive producer. I’m Rebecca Sheir.
Man (from The Truman Show): We’ve become bored with watching actors give us phony emotions. We are tired of pyrotechnics and special effects. While the world he inhabits is, in some respects, counterfeit, there’s nothing fake about Truman himself. No scripts, no cue cards. It isn’t always Shakespeare, but it’s genuine. It’s a life.