Kentlands Main Street. Photo by the author.

It’s been 25 years since development started at Gaithersburg’s Kentlands, America’s first year-round new urbanist community. With a quarter century of experience under our belt, not to mention a major shift in American development patterns, what have we learned?

When new urbanism hit the big time in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, central cities were still declining, and suburbs were still focused around enclosed shopping malls. Generations of Americans had grown up driving around the suburbs, thinking of urban places as crime-ridden ghettos.

New urbanism changed all that. Wherever a new urbanist neighborhood opened, a nice-looking and safe walkable urban place suddenly became accessible to the suburban masses, many of whom had never had one before. New urbanism reintroduced Americans to the concept of urban living. And as recent history tells us, once we learned urban living was an option, people flocked to it.

New urbanism’s strength is its weakness

But all walkable communities aren’t created equal, and the very thing that made new urbanism initially successful also became its most limiting weakness.

In older urban areas, new urbanist development is indistinguishable from well-designed regular infill. So although new urbanism has many infill projects to its name, the term is more strongly associated with suburban development like Kentlands, where it’s more distinct.

Those suburban new urbanist communities have usually turned out to be internally walkable, but poorly connected to their auto-oriented surroundings. Without the critical mass of a huge walkable city surrounding them, they hit a ceiling. Residents can walk to a corner store and a few cafes, but most of them still need cars to get to work, or really to go anywhere more than a half mile away.

So new urbanism boomed, but those who bought into the concept of urban living quickly deduced that larger and older urban communities offer a superior experience. Kentlands is nice, but compared to places like DC, Arlington, or Silver Spring it’s still relatively isolated, homogeneous, and car-dependent.

Thus, in a twist of fate, new urbanism’s main lasting benefit may be that it’s a gateway for suburbanites to become urbanites — a baby step towards regular urbanism. A necessary step, to be sure, but one quickly passed by.

We do still need new urbanism

Despite the fact that regular urbanism is back, and that new urbanism is no longer the progressive cutting edge of city planning, we still need it in the suburbs.

New growth at the suburban fringe will continue to happen, after all. It always has and it always will; even Dupont Circle was once rural. So we will need a steady stream of new suburban places that are more walkable, more mixed-use, less dependent on the 20th century highway paradigm that has failed so badly. New urbanism remains ideally suited for that purpose.

Regardless of whether or not it’s true that we still need new urbanism to build good cities, we clearly still need it to build better suburbs.

Cross-posted at BeyondDC.