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New "Olde Townes"

By Marien Helz―first published in              
Word Worth
® ©2005 all rights reserved

Kentlands is a community in Gaithersburg, Maryland, that was begun in 1988 and is now a premier example of the “new urbanism” or “neo-traditional” movement in community design.  Kentlands is a development, but one with a difference.  It’s based on the concept of “the towne.”  Towns and villages have existed in our lexicon before the year 725 in the common era with roots given in the Oxford English Dictionary going back before Old English “tuun” and the word “village” used by Chaucer in 1386.  The nature of the town and village hearken back to the principalities of Europe during the last two millennia and to the city states of Greece before that.  Essentially, what we see in human development is a fission-fusion society in which humankind lives together in various clusters which can range from tribal organizations to communities within cities in which individuals live, work, and interact with other members of their group.  When clusters get too large, it is natural for communities to break into sub-groups which are small enough  for members to know and interact with each other in terms of local government, religious and social activities, and livelihood.  

Barnstaple, England, is an example of a European town with an extended history. "In the year 930 A.D. Barnstaple was a typical Saxon Stronghold, key to the defense of North Devon and ,as such, surrounded by a stong wall designed to withstand the attacks of Danish raiders. It was not only as a strongpoint in the country's defensive system, however, that Barnstaple was important for, as it's old name, Beardestaple (i.e. the market of staple of Bearda) implies, it was also the centre of commerce for the sub-shire of North Devon...

"In 1066 A.D. the Normans came to Britain, and two years later the proud town which had held out against so many Danish attacks fell at last." 

from Barnstaple History by Stephen Upcott

At the mid point of the 20th century, developments grew up around urban centers that were designated as single use communities.  The advantages were that no one could put in a store next to your house that was unsightly or had too big a parking lot.  The houses were all similar, meaning that people who had a “keep up with the Jonses” mentality didn’t have to worry about something too splendid coming in next door to them—nor did they have to be concerned about something that was too shabby being built on the vacant yard nearby.  All the houses were within economic reach of each other.  The plan seemed to solve a number of problems.

What such a plan did not anticipate, however, was that it generated a lifestyle that became progressively more dependent on the automobile and also more isolated.  While one car was sufficient in the 1940’s with women typically being homemakers, the suburbs with cookie-cutter developments necessitated a second car for anyone to get anywhere.  Children could be bussed to school, but if they were to do anything after school—any sports, see friends who did not live within several blocks, join any clubs or any organizations, take any lessons—they had to be driven.  Hence, Momism developed and homemakers became full time chauffeurs.  In addition, the homemakers needed a car in this plan in order to shop for groceries, take on projects in their churches or communities, join PTA’s, or participate in any of the necessary activities outside the home.

In order to prevent these housing developments from becoming too sterile looking, the streets in many of them were not laid out in a north to south, east to west pattern.  They curved and swirled, and turned into giant mazes which made finding a home difficult even for the inhabitant, not to mention for a visitor.  Malvina Reynolds wrote a song mocking such communities:

     Little boxes on the hillside, little boxes made of ticky-tacky,
        …    little boxes, all the same.

In the intervening years, those houses have been individualized by successive owners, and most have distinctive character.

What has not changed, however, has been the ever increasing commuting distance between house and job.  In the 1940’s families around Washington, D.C., for example, who wanted to “get away from it all” could move ten or fifteen miles from the city to a small community or twenty miles away and be “in the sticks”—in one of the small farming towns, like Gaithersburg was then, with all the conveniences for pleasant living including easy train rides into the city for commuting or for more extensive shopping for more exclusive items.

Predictably, the pleasant living in such places drew more and more residents, at least half of whom were commuters.  By the mid 1960’s the small farming towns turned into small cities and traffic tie-ups reached from D.C. all the way along the super highways to them.  Not long after, the tie-ups reached way past what had been an escape from the bustle of city crowding and extended from one major metropolis to another.

Resenting commuting time, drivers want more and more super highways—going, of course, through your neighborhood, not theirs.

An idea whose time had come was to create communities that crumbled the cookie, that broke away from the single use design and returned to a more natural and congenial setting.  This concept envisioned developments that included their own town centers and could become miniature cities in terms of convenience.

Architects began developing, not just buildings, but communities which were designed to bring back the more natural and traditional look and lifestyle of the town and village.

The architects who are credited with the push for the new urbanism, Andres Duany and Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk with their firm DPZ, founded The Congress for the New Urbanism which has promoted what they call the “smart growth” concept.  This promotes high density and traditional, appealing design.  The theory behind the high density is that human population will be clustered in urban areas with the fields and woodlands left for wildlife and environmental reserve.  Houses are close together with small or no yards—this is a perfect arrangement for urbanites who leave for work at 7 am and return at 7 pm with little time for landscape upkeep.  Shops and offices are within walking distance, as are schools.

In 1981, DPZ designed Seaside, Florida, the setting for The Truman Show.  Seaside’s charm was over-looked by no one, but that community, on eighty acres, is largely second homes many of which are short term vacation rentals.  This inhibits the formation of an interactive community.  In 1988, the firm began work on Kentlands, a much larger canvas with 350 acres.

Kentlands is thus named because it was built on the estate of Otis Beall Kent who bought the property in 1942 from the Tschiffely [pronounced shƏ - fāl’- lee] family.  They had owned the land since 1852 when they purchased it from the Clagett family.  Kent has been referred to as “eccentric,” largely, it seems, because of his perspicacity and foresight.  Kent gave some of his land to the Izaak Walton league, some for a NIKE base for the protection of Washington should it ever be under attack, and some to the National Geographic on the condition that hunting, fishing, or trapping of any bird or animal would be prohibited.  Early purchasers of Kentlands’ homes were told that that land would always remain wild due to the protective covenant.  Such did not hold, however, when the National Geographic moved and sold the land.  It has since been divided, and the Lakelands community sits on part of it.  The part that would most please Kent would, no doubt, be that used for Gaithersburg’s Lakelands Park.

After Kent died in 1972, his heir worked with the developer to create a place that she felt Kent would approve of, and hence Kentlands came into being.

Kentlands includes paths and wooded tree-save areas, and trees are carefully preserved.  In his article, “It Takes a Village” in The New Yorker in March of 2000, Paul Goldberger pointed out that “you can do a lot of your daily business without a car.”

Kentlands is not, however, without its detractors.  Goldberger, although he points out the many positive qualities of Kentlands, states, “most of the places Duany and Plater-Zyberk design do, alas, look too cute by half.”   He also deplores the “heavy missionary work,” stating, “I wish these people could loosen up about the world a little more, because so much of what they say is right.”

In his article, “This Old House” published in the New Republic May 8, 1995, Witold Rybczynski, the Meyerson Professor Of Urbanism at the University of Pennsylvania, accedes, “Walking through Kentlands is a pleasure” and is pleased with architecture’s bringing back something “that had all but disappeared from American town planning: beauty.”  He concludes, however, that Kentlands is:

bordered not by countryside but by highways, strip malls, office parks and other planned communities.  It’s composed of two-wage-earner families whose workplaces are scattered across the urban region…. 

Kentlands does include less-expensive condominiums and rental apartments, but these are located in a separate “neighborhood,” separated by a wide boulevard in an unwitting re-creation of another small-town tradition: the other side of the tracks.  This is a reminder that the traditional town had many faces—shanties as well as gracious houses, skid rows as well as main streets, narrow-minded discrimination as well as neighborliness.  …Traditional neighborhood developments are definitely a way of building better suburbs, but it will take more than narrow streets and grassy squares to deliver the sense of community they promise.

Urban Mobility Corporation in Abstract Vol.13, No. 6 – November/December 2002 states:

The New Suburban Frontier
For many years, advocates of managed growth (or its contemporary sobriquet, “Smart Growth”) have exhorted Americans to turn their backs on suburban sprawl and embrace living at higher densities. But despite impassioned rhetoric, hardly anything has changed. Suburban America continues to develop at average densities that have changed little since Levittown. While a few “neo-traditional” communities, such as Kentlands and King Farm in Maryland, and Seaside and Celebration in Florida, have added cosmetic features that make them look more like traditional villages (sidewalks, front porches, ersatz “town centers” with Disney-like urban streetscapes), they are no more “self-contained,” or “auto-independent” than the neighboring subdivisions. Homes in Kentlands and King Farm are no closer to jobs and schools than elsewhere in Montgomery County and their vehicle ownership rates equal or exceed those in the surrounding developments. The neo-urban “villages” are simply small pockets of planned development, planted in the midst of spread-out suburbia.

Actually, while Kentlands may still be working on a sense of community, the market center is becoming more and more developed with shops, businesses, international restaurants, and live/work units where a number of families are managing to work in their homes or close by.  Whereas few places in the United States are truly automobile independent, it is possible at this point to live in Kentlands and Lakelands without a car.  There is enough of a town center.

The best known commentator on the advantages and disadvantages of small towns is the man from Anoka, Minnesota, in his weekly monologues about “the town that time forgot” in The Prairie Home Companion.  Garrison Keillor includes the man whose family was considered lazy and has had to fight that image his entire life by never refusing to help people.  He tells of the very talented woman in the church choir who has to downplay her ability to avoid having everyone say, “who does she think she is?!”  Small towns have long memories, and the residents don't want their neighbors getting uppity whether they have talent or not.

In spite of all that, we still want to look into Ralph’s Pretty Good Grocery [a general store where if they don't have it, you can get along without it].  We still want to drop in at the Chatterbox Café [where everyone in town drops by at one point or another during the week and gets to meet and chat with each other]—and Kentlands is a step toward entering the café.

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