When chronicling the fame and impact of Princeton alumni, we tend to focus on individual achievements: This man won an Oscar, that woman ran a Fortune 500 company.
It’s rarer to find examples of collective achievement by Princeton alums: instances where Tigers have worked together as equals to launch world-changing projects. In this more collaborative realm, consider our New Urbanists, a group of Tiger-trained architects and friends who, across the past four decades, have joined forces to reduce suburban sprawl and increase environmental resilience.
New Urbanism’s founders included the husband-and-wife team of Andres Duany ’71 and Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk ’72 — as well as Elizabeth Moule *87 and Stefanos Polyzoides ’69 *72, who are also married. (The others are the Yale-taught Peter Calthorpe, and Daniel Solomon, trained at Columbia and Berkeley.) The founders recruited several more Princeton alumni to became early leaders of the movement. These include environmentalist and architect Douglas Kelbaugh ’67 *72, landscape architect Douglas Duany ’75, and writer and educator Ellen Dunham-Jones ’80 *83.
Today, these architects remain at the forefront of their fields, working to combine New Urbanist designs for sustainable “smart cities” with the new imperatives of resilient design. Where sustainable architecture has traditionally sought to mitigate climate change (by reducing emissions and promoting renewable energy, for example), resilient architecture acknowledges the limitations of that approach. Instead of mitigation, the New Urbanists’ main focus is now on adaptation: designing communities to withstand a range of extreme weather threats — threats that will increase under even the most optimistic climate-change mitigation scenarios.
From the beginning, the New Urbanists’ chief goal has been to combat the social, health, and environmental menace of sprawl. Sprawl is not something that “just happened,” they argue. Instead, it arose logically from America’s midcentury embrace of cars, cul-de-sacs, interstate highways, and parking lots.
Today, the trends are starting to reverse. Have you noticed fewer McMansions being built in your area and more four- and five-story apartment complexes, perhaps featuring ground-floor restaurants and shops? Have you been thinking about building an accessory dwelling unit (ADU) in your backyard, to increase your property value or provide a nice place for Grandma to stay? These are architectural forms that have their roots in New Urbanist efforts to rewrite the code of American neighborhoods.
“New Urbanism is about changing the world not for the benefit of individual architects, but for everyone else. It’s about reconstructing the city, and being responsible for something beyond individual buildings,” says Polyzoides, adding: “Princeton taught us how to comport ourselves as citizens.” Moule draws connections between their movement and the University’s ethos of Princeton in the nation’s service: “New Urbanism, unlike a lot of architectural or urban theories, is very service-oriented.”
By the 1960s, urban theorists like Jane Jacobs had begun to bang the drum for dense, diverse urban neighborhoods. But on the ground, sprawl prevailed almost by default. In cities, urban planners and architects were bound by interstate-era zoning regulations that mandated plenty of space for cars and trucks. In the sprawling suburbs, meanwhile, developers were loath to invest in anything but subdivisions and strip malls — fearful, in part, that white home buyers would reject communities that recalled the much-demonized “inner city.”
While “starchitects” focused on glitzy museum and skyscraper commissions, Princeton’s New Urbanists took on the less glamorous work of figuring out how groups of buildings could harmonize to create a new kind of dense, walkable streetscapes. “For so long we kept reproducing sprawl because that’s what the regulation required — in terms of parking requirements, zoning prohibitions on mixed use, and so on. We’ve finally gotten to the point where communities are truly trying to create walkable places,” explains Dunham-Jones. In these efforts, New Urbanists have been influential twice over — today, they are often hired not only to design new living complexes, but also to rewrite a town’s very zoning regulations.
To prove their bona fides, New Urbanists started out in the 1980s by designing model “New Towns” on virgin land across the country’s Sun Belt. These were sweet, charming, neo-Traditionalist fantasias — full of verandas and gazebos and sandy walking trails — that critics compared to artificial film sets (one of them, Seaside, Florida, which turns 40 this year, did end up as the filming location for The Truman Show). But these communities — which came to include places like Kentlands, Maryland; Playa Vista, California; and Celebration, Florida — proved to developers that Americans would pay more to live in denser neighborhoods, so long as the styling was right. Mayberry-esque they may have been, but these early New Urbanist communities helped suburban Americans to rediscover the pleasure of having neighbors, shops, and offices within a few minutes’ walking distance.
Building on these early successes, Princeton’s New Urbanists turned their attention to redesigning and repairing America’s existing communities. Sometimes this involved rewriting planning and building codes for major American cities — the better to promote mixed-use zoning and walkability. In the 1990s, Moule and Polyzoides designed a plan for downtown Los Angeles. Among other things, the plan called for a pedestrian-friendly arts district — an area that, today, boasts city-defining institutions like Disney Concert Hall and the Broad Museum. Duany and Plater-Zyberk drew up similar pro-density plans for cities like Miami and Providence, Rhode Island.
Princeton’s New Urbanists have also confronted the problems of sprawl on the level of the individual block and neighborhood, devising replicable strategies for turning “dead space” into walkable town centers. Thirty-five years ago, Duany and Plater-Zyberk’s Mashpee Commons project in Cape Cod became the nation’s first successful conversion of a strip-mall complex into a traditional town center. Their design transformed an asphalt wasteland into a dense thicket of apartments, stores, and offices — all of which are still in use today. Such designs gained more momentum after the Great Recession of 2008, which had led to empty malls and Main Streets across America.
Many of these street-level New Urbanist interventions have been chronicled in the writings of Ellen Dunham-Jones. With her writing partner June Williamson, Dunham-Jones has published seminal textbooks and articles on the challenge of “retrofitting suburbia.” Their most recent book, Case Studies in Retrofitting Suburbia, was released by Wiley in late 2020. It includes the story of how Moule and Polyzoides put the city of Lancaster, California, on a “road diet” in 2010 and 2011. By reducing the town’s main street from five driving lanes to two, the couple made room for a central rambla, a pedestrian zone inspired by Barcelona’s leafy walkway.
By 2016, pedestrian-car collisions on the street had been reduced by 78 percent, while vehicular collisions fell by 38 percent — all thanks to a design that had also eliminated seven traffic lights from Lancaster’s downtown core. Today, Lancaster stands as a demonstration of the ways that New Urbanists have fused health, safety, and aesthetics into a new kind of urban design.
Most histories of the New Urbanist movement begin in 1981, when Duany and Plater-Zyberk designed Seaside on the coast of the Florida Panhandle. The less official, but no less true, history of New Urbanism begins a few years earlier, at Princeton, where the School of Architecture — “a very intimate place, physically and intellectually,” Kelbaugh recalls — was enjoying a golden age.
After years of fealty to High Modernist theory, architects in the 1970s and ’80s were looking beyond the tenets of “form follows function,” and reexamining more historical forms and decorations. “For a brief window, Post-Modern and Modern were in a kind of equivalence. This was a moment when everything was on the table. It was a very short period of extreme open-mindedness, a unique educational experience,” Duany says.
This new openness to historical forms was in large part spurred by Princeton faculty member Michael Graves. Graves had begun his career as a staunch Modernist, but in 1959 he won the prestigious Rome Prize, which came with two years’ residency at the American Academy in the Ancient City. When that ended, Graves began teaching at Princeton.
“The lessons of Rome are the lessons of public space, of framed quads and courtyards and patios and streets, in symmetrical and asymmetrical configurations,” Polyzoides explains. “Through this, you discover the space of the city, within and beyond city blocks. That [spatial sense] is one of the key ingredients for the regeneration of the 21st-century city. And Michael was crucial in showing the way toward that.”
He continues: “The faculty was mostly Modernists, but what happened is they taught us how to read and write, and we went deeper than they thought we would. When I was Graves’ teaching assistant, I was pulling books from the library for him — books on French theory, the Ecole Des Beaux Arts — that hadn’t been checked out since the 1920s.”
The school’s dean, Robert Geddes, made sure that the program made full use of Princeton’s art history scholars. “Princeton’s history faculty was full of giants,” Polyzoides says. It included the archaeologist Richard Stillwell ’21 *24, who discovered the ancient city of Palmyra, as well as David Coffin ’40 *54, the world’s leading expert on Italian Renaissance landscape design. “While we were being fed stupid Modernist theory — the importance of building freeways, and the like — these people were talking about the root causes of architecture, with examples that were breathtaking: Renaissance palazzi, Greek temples, medieval cities.”
At the same time, the upheaval of the Vietnam War had given rise to a new social consciousness. “We set up a people’s workshop in New Brunswick, working with people directly on [design] projects,” Polyzoides recalls, “There was a clear understanding of the social dimensions of architecture at that time, almost on the level of what’s happening today.”
Then, of course, there was the New Jersey factor. “In so many ways, New Jersey epitomized so much of what New Urbanism was reacting against,” says Dunham-Jones. “I think anyone who spent time in Princeton couldn’t help but notice that we were in this privileged, beautiful little bubble — but around that, you saw Trenton and New Brunswick become quite disinvested in, with all the new money going, instead, into extremely car-centric suburban enclaves. People ask why I got interested in retrofitting suburbia, and I say: I wanted to fix my state!”
Kelbaugh, for his part, completed his so-called “Kelbaugh Solar House” on Pine Street in Princeton in 1974. The project married Le Corbusier-style design cues with a passive solar heating Trómbe wall — the first Trómbe wall (named for French scientist Felix Trómbe) in the United States. It became a local tourist attraction, with passersby marveling at the then-far-out notion of a house heating itself.
Graduation scattered most of the future New Urbanists across the country — until the success of Seaside brought them back together. Seaside offered a subtly modernized update to the classic American small town. It was a place that felt open, neighborly, and optimistic. Chief architects Duany and Plater-Zyberk formulated a strong and unified “planning bible” to guard against suburban sprawl. Their planning codes called for narrow streets, smaller lots, and lots of walking paths. The architects integrated parks, storefronts, and civic buildings directly into the residential environment. Cars were allowed in Seaside, but at every turn their presence was decisively — yet politely! — minimized. Unlike earlier American “New Towns” like Columbia, Maryland, Seaside didn’t create separate zones for homes, offices, and stores. Separate districts might have looked tidy on a map, but they led to unwalkable, sterile cityscapes. In Seaside, Duany and Plater-Zyberk placed many different types of buildings within easy walking distance of each other.
What’s more, Seaside created this walkable “pedestrian pocket” using architectural language that was conceptually innovative, elegantly codified, and easily replicable. The firm Duany and Plater-Zyberk began, DPZ, created new formulas, ratios, and rules of thumb for walkable density — planning schemes that not only worked to make Seaside beautiful, but could be used by other architects hoping to achieve similar effects. Taken together, Seaside’s design cues encouraged visitors and residents to abandon cars in favor of their own two feet. The town became a commercial hit — so much that it failed to achieve one New Urbanist goal: affordability. (Today, houses sell for millions of dollars.)
Seaside’s success also created the conditions necessary to turn New Urbanist principles into a genuine movement. From early on, DPZ’s method would be to assign themselves the oversight of a project’s master plans and codes. Then, the firm would hand over design of a town’s buildings and landscapes to like-minded colleagues. The core of these collaborations was always a weeklong planning workshop called a charette, at which the core tenets of New Urbanism were hashed out and refined.
As Duany and Plater-Zyberk were designing new types of town grids, their old friend Stefanos Polyzoides happened to be working on “repeating typologies” — that is, the question of what types of buildings, in what quantities and styles, should populate the streets and lots of a progressive “New Town.”
“As one group was figuring out the town structure of future American urbanism, another was figuring out the typological structure. And then we all began to work on the third question, of what public shared space should look like,” says Polyzoides. His wife, Elizabeth Moule, had studied at Princeton with a leading urban sociologist named Robert Gutman — and soon established herself as a leader in this social dimension of New Urbanism.
After Seaside, letters sent back and forth between Duany, Plater-Zyberk, Polyzoides, Moule, and Kelbaugh soon became face-to-face meetings to talk over the future of urban design. Planning charettes then turned into group retreats where the new New Urbanists could hash out a shared set of principles. And then, in 1993, those retreats became the full-blown Congress of New Urbanism.
Each of Princeton’s early New Urbanist adopters put a unique stamp on the nascent movement. Kelbaugh had become a leading environmentalist voice in architecture following the success of his solar house; he soon contributed important work on how New Urbanist communities were necessarily “greener” communities, because of the way they minimized car usage. Douglas Duany became a crucial link between the worlds of urbanism and landscape design. And Ellen Dunham-Jones has been a leader in making the case that reducing sprawl is the key toward building climate-resilient communities in the 21st century.
In recent years, the Princeton architects have turned with gusto to the challenge of climate-adaptive architecture. They have not had as much competition in this area as you might expect. Even today, the architecture industry’s biggest “green design” awards and certifications reward buildings for conserving energy and reducing greenhouse-gas emissions. These are important goals, but New Urbanists have also begun to plan for the likelihood that humanity has reached a point of no return for climate change — that, as Andres Duany puts it, “the future is not going to be pleasant.”
In the near future, New Urbanists believe, “climate conscious” architecture will mean rewriting cities’ planning and building codes to provide incentives to minimize disaster risk and increase climate resilience. It will also involve strengthening individual buildings to withstand a wide range of extreme weather: from more frequent hurricanes and storm surges to fiercer droughts and heat waves.
To that end, Duany and Plater-Zyberk’s Miami-based architecture firm has begun presenting prototypes for “climate resilient” communities to developers and city governments nationwide. These include plans for walled, courtyard-style compounds — several of which would then, in turn, form a ring to enclose a central green space. The individual compounds would come with resilient adaptations like reinforced walls, backup generators, solar panels, and water-purification appliances. The community’s central greens, meanwhile, could include features like mechanics’ garages, fishing ponds, one-room schoolhouses, and shared gardens.
The purpose of these reinforcements isn’t to move residents entirely “off the grid.” Rather, the goal is to help families to bounce back faster after a climate event, and live more or less comfortably in the weeks and months after a natural disaster — at which point, it’s assumed, normal government services would resume.
“What I’m proposing for people who choose to live in the places we plan is: They will have better days for a generation or two.” Only governments, he argues, can implement the kind of sweeping regulations needed to meaningfully lessen carbon emissions: “Mitigation happens at the highest levels.” Architects’ biggest task, meanwhile, should be to ensure that people stay as safe and comfortable as possible in their immediate lived environments.
On the town- and city-planning level, many climate-resilience best practices borrow a lot from good old New Urbanism — specifically, the movement’s strategies for reducing sprawl and increasing population density. It’s a lot easier, for instance, to build one big, unified storm-protection system to shield a close-knit neighborhood — than it is to build lots of little storm barriers across a far-flung suburb.
Cities, a part of the problem, can also be part of the solution, argues Douglas Kelbaugh in his 2019 book on climate and resilience, The Urban Fix: Resilient Cities in the War Against Climate Change, Heat Islands and Overpopulation. Worldwide, heat waves are some of the deadliest — and most common — extreme climate events. Urban areas are “heat islands” that consistently are several degrees hotter than more open landscapes. Black surfaces are especially dangerous heat magnets — and cities are full of such surfaces, Kelbaugh points out, from black-painted roofs, to their many asphalt roads and parking lots.
Retrofitting our cities to withstand climate change will be an expensive job, he explains, yet it’s a job worth doing. “Urban density, done well, has all kinds of benefits,” he argues in the book: On average, people who live in “dense, walkable areas” are happier, healthier, and more productive; energy consumption is lower per capita than in the suburbs; and infrastructure costs less per capita as well.
His book, he writes, is “not so much about new or radical ideas,” as about “how to connect, balance, and deploy effective antidotes as soon as possible.” When there’s an abundance of heat-sucking black roofs, for example, the solution is surprisingly simple: Launch programs, as many cities have, to paint roofs a sun-reflecting shade of white. From there: Plant more trees, and design nonlinear street patterns that can better dissipate heat.
And as for reducing cities’ asphalt overloads: New Urbanism has 40 years’ worth of strategies to do just that. Road diet, anyone?
David Walter ’11 is a freelance journalist in New York.