Forward to the Past

Grapevine Lake project takes aim at the automobile

You don't expect to uncover any revolutionaries at the D-FW Airport Hilton -- especially ones who are plotting against the dysfunctional automobile culture of American suburbia.

The Hilton epitomizes the placelessness of modern planning: it sits in the middle of nowhere, accessible only by car or airport shuttle, ready to receive business travelers who may see no more of the area than the hotel's windowless conference rooms.

But during the last week of October, a group of architects, planners, and other consultants turned one of those conference rooms into a kind of war room with computers, an expresso machine, CDs ranging from Philip Glass to Eric Clapton, and walls covered with maps and drawings. There, they hammered out the plan for the Village of Lakeside, a 132-acre development on Grapevine Lake that represents Miami architect Andres Duany's latest effort to build a livable, walkable community in the suburbs.

By Dallas standards, 132 acres is hardly a blip, but Duany and Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk, his wife and partner, have a history of making a big impact with small projects. The pair has won national attention and enduring admiration for their first town plan, a Florida Panhandle resort community called Seaside.

The idea behind Seaside, as well as Duany and Plater-Zyberk's subsequent communities, is maddening simple: design places so that people can walk -- pleasantly and safely -- to stores, parks, schools, civic buildings, and even workplaces. Duany says that instead of rigidly segregating commercial and residential areas, as suburban zoning now requires, we should concentrate all the pieces of suburban development into neighborhoods where all the housing is within a five-minute walk of a clear, recognizable retail and civic center. Such centers typically include a small grocery store, a branch post office, dry cleaners, and other service businesses. Some of Duany and Plater-Zyberk's communities also have their own elementary schools (though Lakeside likely will not).

Duany and Plater-Zyberk call it "traditional neighborhood development," and if it sounds familiar, it may be because you grew up in a small town, or in a city whose urban neighborhoods were still intact. Duany and Plater-Zyberk readily concede that their ideas are not original, but merely a rivial of the precepts that had guided city-making for centuries until the mid-20th century. Then, after World War II, says Duany, "everything went to Hell." Postwar planners combined a disdain for messy cities, a love for abstract, diagrammatic plans, and a belief in unlimited land and fuel to create the kind of urban sprawl for which cities like Dallas and Houston are famous.

Andres Duany's style falls somewhere between those of a television evangelist and a trial lawyer. With his short, slight build, his self-assurance and eloquence give him an imposing, Napoleonic presence. He has earned converts around the country with his lectures -- potent mixtures of statistics, common sense, and preaching -- that hammer away at the shortcomings of suburbs while conjuring visions of idyllic, close-knit communities. And he insists such visions can become reality -- through the use of his very specific planning principles.

"At what point is Dallas going to get extraordinary planning?" Duany asked in a public lecture at the beginning of the Lakeside design sessions. "There's a lot of green space left here. There's still enough time to change the model of development that is being applied, which is Los Angeles. If we don't do anything, Dallas will choke on its own growth, like L.A."

Like most effective evangelists, Duany wasn't always a believer. Born in Cuba in 1950, he fled the Castro regime with his parents in 1960; Plater-Zyberk's parents left Poland for the U.S. before she was born. After meeting at Princeton and attending graduate school together at Yale, the pair helped found the Miami firm Arquitectonia, which became famous in the 1980s for a distinctive brand of modern architecture with bold colors and audacious gestures.

But after becoming, in Duany's words, "disenchanted with the making of form undisciplined by urbanism," he and Plater-Zyberk split with their partners, using the Seaside job as the foundation for their own firm. While they do design buildings, the great majority of their work is town planning.

Duany's beef with the suburbs is less with its housing than with zoning and street plans, which he calls "almost a fast-food version of what planning should be." In fact, he says that Dallas homebuilders "are providing an unusually good fit with the buying public. But outside, or as soon as you leave your lot, it's as miserable as anywhere else."

He is relentless in preaching about the failures of the suburbs in social, economic, physical, and environmental terms: the need for every family to have two cars, at an average cost of $6,500 each per year; the 14 car trips per day that originate from the average suburban house (and the resultant pollution problems: remember the ozone levels this summer?); the need for senior citizens to enter retirement communities when they can no longer drive; the countryside that inefficient land use gobbles up.

But beyond these quantifiable factors, Duany's most compelling argument is that today's suburbs discourage the kind of human interaction one finds in cities and small towns. More and more of life becomes privatized and isolated as people commute one to a car, play in backyards instead of streets or parks, and feel no identification with their community.

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