Urban Design Library

Towns and Town-Making Principles

Urban Design Library #16
Andres Duany and Elizabeth Plater- Zyberk, Ed. Alex Krieger with William Lennertz

The publication of Towns and Town-Making Principles marked the start of a new debate about the suburbs in the United States, and the approach advocated by Andres Duany and Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk (DPZ) soon became a key strand of closely-linked urban design theory and practice in both the US and the UK. The book includes several essays on the links between theory and practice, edited by Alex Krieger. As a young urban design student, I found it fascinating and inspiring. The book includes: theoretical reflections on the state of American house building and suburban sprawl; a catalogue of Duany and Plater-Zyberk’s new townmaking projects with scaled plans; a detailed introduction to code writing ranging from landscapes and land uses to porches; and, a primer in how to present master plans and key places graphically for developers and communities alike.

Duany and Plater-Zyberk turned their attention to the American suburbs and urban sprawl with their project for the town of Seaside, Florida. American suburbs had gone from being a celebrated post World War II achievement in housing building (at a rate of around 1 million homes per annum in the 1950s) to a growing social, economic and environmental problem. Overlooked by the design professions, the suburbs soon became the predominant US housing context, and yet most suburban development was driven by zoning, rather than designed for people.

Towns and Town-Making Principles explains DPZ’s approach: designing suburbs like towns; using codes to make plans, not zoning rules; and, working with house builders to change outcomes.

The commission for the town of Seaside was unusual for many reasons. The developer Robert Davis’ approach was to learn about place-making alongside his architects, looking at ‘places that work’ and having ‘patient money’ (as Paul Murrain has subsequently explained so well). He went on to actively manage this investment in urban design quality, with community representatives helping to determine whether proposals upheld the design codes. The development of Seaside also addressed the significance of higher density housing in an urban street structure for place-making; calming highways to give pedestrians greater priority over major traffic routes, such as Route 30A which runs between the town and the beach; and, the use of form based codes for streets and buildings that meet the need for long life, loose fit places.

Duany and Plater-Zyberk’s approach to Seaside and other projects spawned a great deal of publicity for the movement that became known as New Urbanism, or Neo-Traditional Urbanism. This emerging practice-led theory attracted criticism from architects and academics alike, who grappled with New Urbanism’s stylistic controls. Yet Towns and Town-Making Principles showed then, and still does, that Duany and Plater-Zyberk understood how to rebuild urbanism from the street upwards. Alex Krieger described the problem: ‘we admire one kind of place – but consistently build something very different’ (p.9). This seems to be true of much urban design practice today, where the promotional imagery does not resemble the design, nor indeed the places that are ultimately built. Through black and white pages of detailed plans, diagrams and codes, as well as the colour pull-out pages with scaled plans, the book lists DPZ’s work as Villages, Towns and Cities, Territories, and The Codes.

At that time, the town of Seaside was the best known of these, and the layers of the town’s structure is well described by William Lennertz; it is a clear example of DPZ’s simple approach to urban design practice. The town is presented as a series of diagrams: the Masterplan showing the place as a whole, the Street Network and movement, the Pedestrian Network as a figure ground, Street Sections and the different character areas, the Regulating Plan zoning building types and not uses, Public Buildings and Spaces with the dissected town laid out neatly, and the Codes as urban regulations for how private development meets the public realm.

Lennertz also explains the design process - the charette and the energy that it implies - and finally Implementation, which led to the drawing up of the Traditional Neighbourhood District Ordinance (TNDO). This ordinance has been incorporated in many US state laws to uphold the overall design approach. The TNDO is significant as it overcomes conflicts with the ‘planned unit development’ (PUD) ordinances, the ones that set out the three development principles which had promoted rampant urban sprawl: the free and rapid flow of traffic; parking in quantity; and, the rigorous separation of uses.

There have been several examples of houses where architectural practices have been commissioned to ‘break the code’ at Seaside, resulting in houses which fit just as well in urban design terms, but not the architectural style (see the Walter Menteth house), as well as research seeking to show that various design principles do not work consistently (e.g. on natural surveillance). Yet the projects captured in Towns and Town-Making Principles show a way of making places that the American house-building industry had long forgotten, if it ever knew it. A different example is Mashpee Commons in Massachusetts, which involved restructuring an out-of-town shopping mall to create a town, with homes, businesses and streets for people. In the mid 1990s, having examples like these to show UK developers was invaluable, with the key public buildings and spaces clearly flagged up as scene-setters for pump-priming, as well as the importance of the master developer role for short and long term success. Having visited several of DPZ’s projects, it is clear to me that this is not all rhetoric: the places are what you would expect from the plans and drawings, and people enjoy the streets and the opportunity to be in a more human-scaled urban environment.

Coming soon after Towns and Town- Making Principles was Peter Calthorpe’s book The Next American Metropolis, Ecology, Community and the American Dream which took the combined theory and practice approach a step further. Calthorpe’s more abstract diagrams and guidelines transcended the distracting stylistic debates which at times overshadowed DPZ’s impact, and he tackled more of America’s existing regional urban sprawl. This followed his collaboration with Sim van der Ryn on Sustainable Communities (1986) and with Doug Kelbaugh on The Pedestrian Pocket Book (1989). Founded in the period captured in Joel Garreau’s entertaining if depressing book Edge City: Life on the New Frontier, on how little of America was being designed for walkability, Towns and Town-Making Principles and the New Urbanism movement continue to provide an invaluable argument for town-making in a global context.  

URBAN DESIGN 137 Winter 2016 Publication Urban Design Group

As featured in URBAN DESIGN 137 Winter 2016

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Read On

Peter Calthorpe (1993) | The Next American Metropolis, Ecology, Community and the American Dream | Princeton Architectural Press
Joel Garreau (1991) | Edge City: Life on the New Frontier | Doubleday
Steuteville, R., Langdon, P. (eds) (2009) | New Urbanism: Best Practices Guide | New Urban News Publications

Towns and Town-Making Principles Publication Urban Design Group
Reviewed By
Louise Thomas, independent urban designer