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On the Ground at Kentlands, Maryland

A layman's impression of a D.C.-area New Urbanist development

This Friday, we’ll be running a feature in this space by Kevin Klinkenberg, an architect and urban planner roughly in the New Urbanist school. He’ll be writing a piece looking back at the first-generation New Urbanist developments, like Seaside, FL and Kentlands, MD, dating from the very late 1980s early 1990s.

Kentlands, technically a private development within Gaithersburg, MD but resembling a fully-formed town, isn’t very far from my home in Northern Virginia. So I took a drive out there with a camera to see what this early, and quite successful, project looks like to a layman on the ground.

Typical residential street. Addison Del Mastro.

The average person can certainly distinguish beauty from ugliness in architecture, and very few people actually like what we call suburban sprawl. But few people could explain why, exactly, that is, or what specific design features make sprawl ugly and classic development elegant. (James Howard Kunstler—currently TAC’s New Urbanism Fellow—wrote two popular books in the 1990s, The Geography of Nowhere and Home From Nowhere, which savaged the American built landscape and introduced the ideas of New Urbanism to a general audience.) His second book elaborated on what those ideas were and how they could be translated into actual construction.

Addison Del Mastro.

So what are they? The most basic New Urbanist concepts are walkability and mixed use, meaning that stores, offices, and apartments can inhabit the same street or even the same building, with relatively high densities and less prioritization of automobile traffic or parking. Kentlands has a Main Street-style walkable commercial district just like this. Three more granular details of Kentlands are small lots, narrow setbacks (distance of a building from the road), and alleys with garage access as opposed to front-facing garages requiring frequent curb cuts. These are not terms, or even ideas, that the average non-urbanist thinks about very much. But collectively they make a vast difference in the appearance and feel of a place. What these features allow for is a pleasant, unbroken “streetscape,” in which rows of connected or closely spaced homes hug a relatively narrow road (there are no “stroads” or wide roads in Kentlands). This happens to be the way classic towns are generally laid out, and it also happens to be prohibited by zoning in many localities.

Kentlands has no high-rise buildings, but a wide variety of housing styles and types. Addison Del Mastro.

But Kentlands stands out from a lot of modern mixed-use developments because it doesn’t just mimic the form of a town. There is great attention to detail in the buildings themselves. Rather than the rows of identical, cheaply constructed townhouses or McMansions that go up in many developments, the homes in Kentlands have varied facades, ornamentation, and materials. Some are three stories, some are four. Some have cornices, some do not. Some have siding, while some are brick, etc. Some of the Main Street storefronts have wooden facades, making them resemble Irish pubs. Again, someone with no knowledge of architecture or urban design might not specifically notice these features or be able to name them. But most will sense that it is different, in a good way. It should be noted here that Kentlands also has a large strip mall/big-box shopping center, which is pretty standard but is also accessible, comfortably, by foot from the surrounding neighborhood. (This might detract a bit from the town-like atmosphere, but it is reality; to substitute Main Street artisans for big-box chain retail would not be a matter of urbanism, but a totally different matter of global economics.)

Addison Del Mastro.

In his upcoming piece, Kevin Klinkenberg notes that these New Urbanist developments were often compared to movie sets when they first went up. It is clear now that both the design features and the quality of the construction were far better than that. This is a place that has aged gracefully and elegantly; it is hard to imagine that it was a brand new development only 30 years ago. Some of this is due to the fact that it’s actively maintained and affluent, with a lot of money to keep everything pretty. (The real estate market is healthy: the median price of a home, in a community heavy with housing options cheaper than detached single-family houses, is $424,000.)

Alleys with garage access, ensuring an unbroken streetscape and sidewalk. Addison Del Mastro.

But there’s also a je ne sais quoi here, and despite the critique that New Urbanist developments tend to be expensive, this kind of construction isn’t itself expensive. There was, rather, a pent-up demand for this kind of living arrangement in 1990, and there still is today. Whether we should still be building greenfield developments rather than focus on densifying and retrofitting existing places is a different question. But if we’re going to build new, we should be doing it like this.

The variation in facade design between townhouses contrasts with rows of identical homes in many developments. Addison Del Mastro.

Check back here Friday for Klinkenberg’s architect’s perspective.

This New Urbanism series is supported by the Richard H. Driehaus Foundation. Follow New Urbs on Twitter for a feed dedicated to TAC’s coverage of cities, urbanism, and place.