Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Two decades of Kentlands: a New Urbanist classic comes of age

While in the DC area last week, I took the opportunity to make a pilgrimage to the Kentlands, one of the first—and largest—New Urbanist communities in the country.  Located west of Gaithersburg, Maryland, it is now 21 years since Kentlands first residents moved in.  To get there, one must first drive far into the Maryland suburbs, past the “Anywhere, USA” stretches of arterials, highways, wide lawns, and subdivision developments whose standard is, as Frank Lloyd Wright put it, “the man seated in his motor car . . . rather than the man standing on his legs or his limitations in a trap hitched to a horse.”  But out in the land of the automobile, a right turn takes you into a peculiar transformation, one that looks like Georgetown dropped into a leafy, lake-filled setting.  This is Kentlands, or, as the names of the lakes might lead you to believe, a place for inspiration, placidity, even nirvana.

The beautiful pictures of Kentlands are legion, and no doubt about it, Andres Duany and Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk (collectively, “DPZ”) brought a magic to this suburban location not typical in developments of this type.  The 8,000 residents here have something unique in the DC ‘burbs.  But for this audience, I wanted to report on a couple thoughts—and offer a couple pictures—that I thought might give this groups something to contemplate.

Single-family homes - Kentlands Kentlands - common area Kentlands - cafe 

First, it was immediately evident to me the legacy of Clarence Perry’s neighborhood unit scheme on Kentlands.  DPZ have openly acknowledged their reliance on Perry’s neighborhood unit scheme (see their Smart Growth Manual section on neighborhoods), but it was interesting to see it play out in the suburbs.  As many of you know, Perry was highly influenced by the success of Forest Hills Gardens in New York City’s Queens’ borough, and wanted to find a way to establish a neighborhood that could preserve a walkable community in the age of the motor car.  His 1920s solution:  invert the traditional street-car suburb.  Late 19th century neighborhoods had evolved around trolley stops—long strips of commerce around a stop—and then residential behind that.  Many of our cities have this legacy, such as Park Slope in Brooklyn, Noe Valley in San Francisco, Elmwood in Berkeley, and Boise’s Hyde Park, to name a few.  Perry thought that if “arterials,” as traffic engineers were calling the new big roads they wanted to "drive" through cities, were built along the trolley tracks, they would divide the neighborhoods.  Instead, Perry sought to move the traffic to the exterior of the neighborhood unit, place the commerce along those external arterials, and in the middle, place all the components of daily life within a walkable community.  That included schools, churches, and neighborhood-serving retail.  Perry imagined the neighborhood unit size around 5,000 – 10,000.  Kentlands fits this model to a tee.  It is surrounded by arterials, but once inside, the roads are narrow, serviced by street parking and rear-alley parking, all streets have sidewalks, there is an elementary and junior high school in the project, a church, and neighborhood-serving retail.  At its center, just like Perry also proposed, are amenities, such as common lawns, a tennis center.    If you want to see Perry’s model brought to life in the suburbs, Kentlands is a must to visit.

One tenant of Kentlands is supposed to be the neighborliness engendered by the design.  Notably, I did not see anyone walking or out on their porch, though perhaps one could chalk this up to a cool winter’s day.  I did notice that most of the shops in Kentlands traditional downtown center appeared to be mostly professional services, such as dentists, accountants, and such, which typically do not provide tremendous foot traffic.  I did not see an abundance of restaurants or retail (there were a few) in the "retail center."  No doubt this mix of stores was affected by the very Anywhere, USA big-box store complex immediately adjacent to this neighborhood retail center and the big-boxes attendant fields of parking lots and large-footprint stores.  I couldn’t help but wonder whether the closeness of this car-dependent retail didn’t, in some manner, affect how people used the rest of Kentlands.  If you are going to drive your car to the grocery store, then won't you also use it to drop off Timmy at school rather than walk him there?  It was unclear from my visit whether the big-boxes were part of the original Kentlands design, but it does affect the character of the division as it is experienced—and perhaps also how it is used by its residents—as it has evolved.

Kentlands - shopping center 1 Kentlands - transitional zone - traditional downtown to big-box retail

There was a nice mix of unit size and affordability throughout the development, though it did seem that the apartments lacked the character of the single-family unit portion, and also had especially large floorplates.

Kentlands - apartments 

I was particularly interested in how DPZ dealt with cars, and in particular, their road design.  I must admit, this is a particular indulgence of mine, and I loved a recent report produced by Berkeley about legal issues that play out in street design (full disclosure:  I am on the advisory board of one of the groups that drafted this report, but did not participate in the research).  DPZ did a great job of keeping neighborhood streets small, creating great alleys for services, and as a result, the cars get tucked away and don’t dominate the development.  I’ve included some pictures of this here for those of you who may be interested.  Finding ways to accommodate this type of road-work is one of the great challenges of land use planning to my mind.

Street design - Kentlands Access to rear garages Old school alleys

Finally, I found myself reflecting on who it was that would live in Kentlands.  After all, if the idea is to have a community that looks like Georgetown, why not just live in Georgetown?  It reminded me of a recent housing report from the Urban Land Institute that spoke of the future of development.  It noted that many Baby Boomers and Gen X’ers would like to live in urban areas, but either find it too expensive or don’t want to deal with the headaches.  The report indicates that there is a growing interest in urban-style communities on the urban fringe, largely because the cost is cheaper and developers can have large plots of land with which to work.  Is there any better description of Kentlands?  As much as Kentlands was in the vanguard of the 1990s, it may well be the future of what will be developed on a mass scale in the next decade.

Stephen Miller

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