In the 1970’s, two graduate students of architecture at Yale University, Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk and Andres Duany, began to study the increasing suburbanization of America and the consequent effect of “suburban sprawl.” Since the 1950’s, America’s cities saw a gradual exodus to beyond the city limits; undeveloped rural areas away from the density of urban centers provided for new generations desiring a more secluded lifestyle.
This exodus away from cities was also accelerated and bolstered by America’s love affair with the automobile and the consequent strength of the auto industry. As people moved farther away from mass transit or commercial centers, commuting necessitated that families have at least one automobile, if not two. More cars obviously meant more traffic, which necessitated more roads among these burgeoning suburban communities. And as the inner suburbs became as congested and hectic as the city proper, people moved out farther, necessitating more cars, more traffic, and more roads.
This developing cycle of sprawl formed a stark contrast to the previous mode of life before the modern concept of the suburb. Metropolitan cities and small towns surprisingly shared a lot of lifestyle aspects in common, simply different in scale. The center of life in pre-suburbia was the neighborhood—most every neighborhood was arranged in some conglomeration of a street grid, with a “main street” or commercial center of sorts. Schools, parks, monuments, or other structures like courthouses, city halls, or post offices served as landmarks to the community.
For the most part, nearly everything one would need on a daily basis was within a ten minute walk to the corner grocery, local tavern, house of worship or downtown stores and offices. Also within that walking radius was the local bus stop, street car/trolley station or cab stands that could take citizens to other neighborhoods, industrial districts, the city downtown, or beyond. Automobiles were indeed specialty goods, if not luxuries for many families.
What was most important about the traditional neighborhood was that it inherently developed a sense of community among its residents. Classical styles of buildings put houses close together and close to the street, with broad front porches. Brownstones and townhouses had accommodating stoops. The network of narrow streets may have been a geometric convenience, but it served to reduce traffic and expose more people to each other within the neighborhood.
People identified themselves by their municipality to outsiders, “I’m from Detroit,” but to each other they identified themselves by their neighborhood, “I’m from Chandler Park,” because everyone shared a common origin but a unique personal lifestyle. As such, it was easier for residents to be involved in maintaining and improving the quality of life in their neighborhoods—they didn’t just live there, they were a part of it.
By the 1960’s, however, the first subdivisions were being built just outside the city limits. Instead of an integrating grid of streets, they were a self-enclosed amalgamation of circular roads and cul-de-sacs, connected only to side arteries or trunk lines by one or two entry ways. Houses were built far back with circular drives and back patios. Since these new subdivisions did not accommodate local businesses, the strip malls began to appear on the trunk roads; even if a neighborhood was only a mile away, patronage required cars due to the new traffic and inconvenience of walking. The focus of developers and planners shifted away from that inherent community and more toward concerns about traffic and parking, convenience through mass development, and expansion though segregation.
Plater-Zyberk and Duany, among others, noticed this alarming trend in urban and suburban planning and the effect it was having on communities, families and individuals. Their solution to the problem of suburban sprawl was a new approach to community building and planning they called, “New Urbanism,” (or neo-traditionalism) and the basis of this approach was the traditional American small town.