Sprawling 'Burbs Tighten Up ; Developers Are Taking Lessons from Traditional City and Village Neighborhoods to Save Open Spaces, Money, and Quality of Life

By Woodard, Colin | The Christian Science Monitor, May 22, 2003 | Go to article overview

Sprawling 'Burbs Tighten Up ; Developers Are Taking Lessons from Traditional City and Village Neighborhoods to Save Open Spaces, Money, and Quality of Life


Woodard, Colin, The Christian Science Monitor


Developer John Chamberlain is walking through the woods of one of this area's more desirable plots of undeveloped land, pointing out hills that will be bulldozed into an old gravel pit to make room for his company's proposed subdivision.

The farmhouse facing Route 1 will be knocked down to make way for more than 400 units of new housing. Woods will be cleared to make way for homes and rowhouses, parks and roadways.

You might think sprawl opponents and environmentalists in this coastal town of 12,000 would be up in arms about the proposed development. But Mr. Chamberlain's ambitious, high-density Dunstan Crossing project is being championed by Maine's leading smart- growth advocates as the cure for the state's increasingly serious sprawl problem. Local conservation groups back it as well.

"Here's a case where the developers genuinely want to do the right thing," says Richard Barringer, a professor of public policy at the University of Southern Maine in nearby Portland. "The town will be better, society will save more resources, people will live better, and the developers will make more money."

The idea behind Dunstan Crossing is simple: Build a traditional village-style neighborhood instead of a car-oriented subdivision. Plans include public parks, tree-lined streets, and a mix of buildings including single-family homes, brick rowhouses, shops, and apartments. Streets, parks, and hiking trails will be open to the public, and homes will be close to the streets - with front porches, even stoops.

Advocates of this "back to the future" approach say that by encouraging walkable, compact, and diverse neighborhoods, towns and suburban cities can reduce traffic, preserve open space, and grow at the same time. These are the features that define the most beloved villages and neighborhoods in the country, they say, from Greenwich Village in New York and the French Quarter in New Orleans to the picturesque villages of New England.

"It's the human habitat and it serves us well," says Miami-based town planner Andres Duany, father of this so-called "New Urbanist" movement and coauthor of the book "Suburban Nation." "Today's suburbs have all the ingredients of a livable place - office parks, service centers, and a range of housing - they just aren't being assembled correctly."

Pods of housing, schools, and businesses connected only by highways make current development unhealthy and unsustainable, says Mr. Duany. Rearranging those elements "put[s] the pieces back together again in a way that makes sense."

Dozens of such developments are now under way across the country. The Maryland and Virginia suburbs of Washington host more than a half dozen. Arlington, Va., a city in its own right, allowed mixed- use high-rise development along a rundown corridor above a major subway line, transforming it into a thriving urban district. …

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