The American front porch is back. Houses crowd narrow streets again. Leafy alleys lead to garages in the rear. Surprises are around almost every corner, from the edge of town to the village green.
Everything old is new again in a growing style of development across the country. Known as neotraditional towns, they are revolting against generations of suburban sameness and trying to reshape how we live.
“Before the 1880s, why did things look so good?” asks Joe Alfandre, master builder of the Kentlands development in Gaithersburg, amid Washington’s sprawl.
“There was a language to it. That’s what I think we’ve brought back.”
They’re trying, anyway, at Disney’s new Celebration community in Orlando, Fla.; Harbor Town in Memphis, Tenn.; and some 150 other places.
“There’s no way you can’t know your neighbor,” said Gaithersburg city planning director Jennifer Russel.
It may be too soon to know how well these places can move beyond experimental bubbles to rooted neighborhoods. They necessarily lack what the new urban thinking calls the “patina of age.”
“We really don’t have any proof that people in a (neo)traditional neighborhood know their neighbors more,” said Joseph Molinaro, director of land development services at the National Association of Home Builders.
“New towns built from scratch take a while to mature.”
What they may present to outsiders is a friendlier face than the gated communities that are gaining another prominent niche in the nation’s housing.
With the rise of the suburb, the old language of neighborhoods gave way to zoning and the building economies of repetition. If that exacted a price in style and up-close sociability, it also made home ownership affordable to millions.
Over time, back yards expanded for living and front yards expanded for distance from the street. Cul-de-sacs formed. Porches vanished. Garages came to dominate many streetscapes.
Enter the neotraditional pioneers, like Miami architect Andres Duany.
When Duany came to Gaithersburg to meet city officials, he had a vision of a community inspired by ideals of the past.
Dismissing the suburbs as “cartoons of planning,” he also had a bit of an attitude.
“Duany was going to save us from suburbia and ourselves,” Russel said dryly.
“He insulted us and made us look inside ourselves. And it worked.”
Back to the front
Harbor Town, on a 3-mile-long sandbar just off the Memphis riverfront, has brought the neotraditional town concept downtown.
“It’s a real movement from the back yard … to the front,” said Memphis real estate agent Jim Black, who shows houses in that bustling area ranging from the low $100,000s to almost $1 million.
“They created it so it would go back to the earlier times when people sat on their front porch and everything didn’t revolve around the TV - or the computer. And sure enough, there is a lot of activity.”
But Black said suburbanites may not be as isolated as neotraditionalists believe. “People are out just as much,” he said of conventional neighborhoods. “There’s a lot of children. People meet and interact.”
No dead ends
At Kentlands, which opened in 1990 and is mostly done, mansions, town houses, “granny apartments” over freestanding garages and a mix of other housing styles coexist in a deliberately achieved helter-skelter look of old.
There are no dead ends. Some streets are narrowed to one lane and parking is either around back or parallel to the sidewalk, not in driveways or lots.
The town’s density, its twisting roads and all its idiosyncrasies are just the thing to drive conventional zoning officials mad.
“It is the kind of town we used to build in Pennsylvania and now is against the rules,” said state Rep. David Argall, chairman of a Pennsylvania land use legislative committee whose members were touring Kentlands.
But there are drawbacks and trade-offs to most of these communities, too.
Lots tend to be small. Molinaro of the builders group said Americans don’t care much about front yards but want space in the back.
Despite robust sales among the 1,200 completed units at Kentlands, fewer families with children have moved in than the city expected.
So far in many of these developments, stores have not set up shop as planned, in part because the communities are fussy but also because the market is not always clear.
The goal is to have stores, jobs, schools and recreation within walking distance. Each step toward self-sufficiency risks increased isolation.
As in many new developments, residents are subjected to rules galore - not like the old days.
At Kentlands, people with a basketball net in their back yard were asked to remove it.
Mary Pat Berkoski doesn’t mind most of the rules. She recently moved from a Philadelphia-area apartment where she and her husband knew few neighbors, and they find people here tip-of-the-hat friendly.
“Our third or fourth night here, somebody rang the doorbell and gave us some welcoming bagels,” she said. “People you don’t know wave.”
Many developments are emulating neotraditional elements without buying the whole concept. Housing habits don’t change fast. Fortunes depend on giving people what they want or at least what they know.
Alfandre cut down plenty of trees in strip developments before he came to Kentlands and spent $40,000 to transplant a magnolia. Now he resists “the faceless kind of creature” suburbia has become.
Walking with zoning chief Russel, he spots a portable basketball net defiantly set out.
“Is that legal?” he demanded in mock horror.
“I didn’t see it,” Russel said, turning her head away.