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7 'retro' towns in fashion now
Planned communities have a new look and feel...would you live in one?
September 28, 2005: 4:34 PM EDT
By Les Christie, CNN/Money staff writer
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NEW YORK (CNN/Money) - Across America new towns are being built that owe little to the mid-century design that produced thousands of cul-de-sac suburbs and crushing "housing-bloc" urban developments.

Instead planners have looked back further in time. Dubbed the "new urbanism," today's planned communities consciously try to recapture the charm and fabric of classic city neighborhoods or repackage the look of gracious small cities.

According to Peter Katz, author of "The New Urbanism -- Toward an Architecture of Community," it's no wonder. "If you look at the typical suburban subdivision, it's a pretty miserable place."

Developers following new urbanism principles not only build more interesting communities, they make a ton of money doing so, said Katz.

Since the first went up in the early 1980s, more than 330 planned communities embracing new urbanism principles have been constructed, as identified by The Town Paper, a publication focused on traditional neighborhood development. Dozens more are planned.

Why they work

"People like variety," said Katz, and these planned communities provide that. They include a mix of housing types and commercial spaces; they're walkable, with streets welcoming to pedestrians and bicyclists; and they're compact. Residents can walk to the store.

New urbanism began with such neighborhoods as Battery Park City in New York, which Katz calls "a revolution. It extended the Manhattan street grid out onto the landfill rather than developing a superblock."

Superblocks were a typical misuse of urban space; they are much larger than normal city blocks and often bounded by widely spaced, high-speed, arterial or circulating routes rather than by local streets.

Local streets form the conceptual hearts of these communities.

"Houses front on the street, front porches face the street. People walk. It fosters interactions among residents," said Mary Trask, who lives and brokers homes in Newpoint, a planned community outside of Beaufort, South Carolina.

Early exurban development

Seaside, on the Gulf Coast of Florida, was one of the first towns built using the principles of new urbanism. Stacy Brady, a Seaside spokeswoman, said that when construction launched in 1981 there were no other communities of its type.

Its founder, Robert Davis, started Seaside on 80 acres of family-owned beach front property. "Rather than clear it and build condos or large homes, he wanted to build something more meaningful," says Brady.

Davis drove up and down the East Coast studying what made certain places successful. He looked at Charleston, Savannah, the Keys, Cape Fear, Cape May, and Nantucket.

He even incorporated ideas he gleaned from European coastal communities. Later, he asked the noted architectural theoretician, Leon Krier, a consultant to Prince Charles, about his design philosophy. Krier informed him that 80 acres was the perfect space for a small, walkable community.

The town won an award for excellence from the Urban Land Institute. Movie viewers may be familiar with Seaside from "The Truman Show," in which it becomes almost a plot character.

Enter Eisner

When the Disney Corporation tried its hand at community building, with Celebration, CEO Michael Eisner traveled to Seaside to see how it was done. But unlike Seaside, still mostly a resort where just 10 percent to 15 percent of the houses are occupied year-round, Disney intended Celebration to be a 12-month community. It accepted its first homeowners in June 1996 and now has about 9,000 residents.

Andrea Finger, a spokeswoman for Celebration, says its architect based his designs on 1940's southeastern architecture, which often mixed Mediterranean, coastal, Victorian, and other influences. The results have been a "huge success," claims Finger, both financially and as a place to live.

"People feel passionately about the community," said Finger. "Sales have improved every year."

Cons

Some critics bemoan a lack of spontaneity. Nearly everything is planned, down to the color of the trellises; covenants often make it difficult to introduce personal eccentricities.

And although diversity is, theoretically, one of new urbanism's aims, in practice that sometimes falls by the wayside. David Rusk, a former mayor of Albuquerque and a noted expert on urban issues, says he supports of new urbanism in theory, but that many results have been less than ideal.

"It often lacks a social justice, a social opportunity component," he said. "There's almost a complete absence of any economic diversity." Many contain only middle class, or upper-middle class, or even affluent Americans; lower earners can be entirely absent and minorities in short supply.

Still, that is little different from many other suburbs and even downtowns. At least these new planned communities seem to have the potential to evolve gracefully into places where people know their neighbors and fellow townspeople and care about the community's well being.

See our gallery of photos of planned communities.

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Americans may not be sure what they want in a community, but they sure know what they want in the home. For more about that, click here.

Some homeowners in planned communities hate their homeowners associations. See this story.  Top of page

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