March 28, 1990 12:00 PM

Banishing Cookie-Cutter ‘Burbs

Two of America’s most forward-looking town planners are putting front porches, stroll-able streets and old-fashioned neighborliness back on the map of suburban America

They are hired guns who ride into town ready for a fight—but what they’re fighting is the status quo. “Americans don’t live as well as they deserve to,” charges planner ANDRES DUANY, 40. “The problem is the suburbs.” Convinced that rows of identical split-level homes on quarter-acre lots are less the American dream than a nightmare on Elm Street, Andres and his wife and partner, ELIZABETH PLATER-ZYBERK, 39, log 200,000 miles a year preaching the gospel of small towns with town squares and thoroughfares designed as much for walking as for driving. “The trouble with the American suburb is that every human function requires an automobile,” says Duany. “What you get are regions with the traffic congestion of a metropolis and the culture of a farm town.”

In the ’80s the Miami couple’s message began catching on with lawmakers, environmentalists and real estate developers. Now they are designing new towns-places like Kentlands, Md., and Blount Springs, Ala.—at the rate of one a month. In the ’90s, when their plans come to fruition, they will be recognized as the most influential American town planners in decades—or ever.

America’s last superstar town planner, William Levitt, created the towns Duany and Plater-Zyberk love to hate: “lifeless” cookie-cutter Levittowns that force people to inhabit identical-looking streets and keep rich and poor, young and old, from meeting.

What’s their solution? Putting an enlightened developer’s money where their mouths are, Duany and Plater-Zyberk turned Seaside, an 80-acre stretch of Florida’s Panhandle, into a town where houses sit close to the street and have front porches (to encourage dropping by) and everyone lives near enough to the commercial center—a traditional town square—to walk or bike there. Before construction began in 1982, Seaside’s defining features were formalized into a code—a set of construction rules—that has served as a kind of architectural DNA for the development and all its progeny. The code prescribes take-a-stroll proportions (“We found that 1,300 feet is the distance people will walk to shop, rather than drive,” says Duany) as well as friendly low picket fences, brick-paved roads (for visual interest), green space for children and footpaths to the commercial center. But individual dwellings are allowed to look, well…individual.

Seaside has brought the team both prestige (even Prince Charles hired them to formulate a code for the English village of Pound-bury) and financial success. Though they help shepherd the towns through the approval process (which can take years, because their code often clashes with local zoning), they leave the design of actual buildings to others. No mere architects, they are poised to become designers of a new American way of life.

In their quest, both had good models to draw from. The daughter of Polish immigrants, Plater-Zyberk was raised in Paoli, Pa. In Poland her father had been an architect, her mother a landscape architect. The four children grew up drawing, but only the youngest, Elizabeth, she recalls, “drew interior house plans at age 8.” Duany spent his childhood in Cuba, where his father was a prosperous developer. The family moved to Barcelona after Castro came to power, but Andres, like his father, earned his bachelor’s degree from Princeton. As undergraduates there in 1970, Elizabeth and Andres became acquainted. They met again at the Yale Graduate School of Architecture in 1972. Says Andres: “I thought she was incredibly cool.”

Duany and Plater-Zyberk, who married in ’76, will never be anyone’s idea of a fun couple. Elizabeth is “competitive and aggressive,” says Duany, conceding that he himself is “a workaholic.” They both carry cellular phones, put in 16-hour days and take two cars to meetings, in case one of them has to dash off to another appointment. Many weekends are spent at the University of Miami: Their urban planning students—the couple’s surrogate children-are both exasperated and impressed by their celebrity professors, who are brainy, inspirational and almost always out of town. Even a jaunt through their Coral Gables neighborhood has a business purpose, with Duany pacing off the width of a street. He prefers narrow ones, which force speeding motorists to slow down. That’s something Andres and Elizabeth may never do themselves, although their goal is to help America take it easy. Says Elizabeth: “In our towns, people will enjoy their lives more.”

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