I’M LOOKING FOR THE FUTURE OF SUBURBIA, and I’m lost. I pull into the parking lot of an apartment complex in the North Texas city of Plano and unfold my trusty street map of Dallas and its suburbs. I’m looking for the site of a future development called Austin Ranch, a mixed residential and business neighborhood that its creator, the Billingsley Company of Dallas, describes as a “city-style hometown.” Plano is regarded as an “edge city”—a suburb that has grown so immense it is no longer a mere adjunct to or refuge from a city but has essentially become a major city itself. Looking up from my map, I notice my surroundings. New apartment complexes are all around me, but I see no people out and about. Granted, I’m in a residential area on a workday, but the physical desolation and anonymity of this environment is disquieting.
As American suburbs continue inexorably to expand, urban planners have been pondering how the phenomenon of suburban sprawl has affected our quality of life. Their unsurprising consensus? The combination of miles of anonymous strip shopping centers and our overreliance on cars is alienating us from the land, one another, and perhaps even ourselves. But there is good news. Urban planners, together with land developers and architects, have been testing alternatives to the entire concept of the American suburb. Dallas’ northern suburbs are especially notorious for their sprawl, so it’s fitting that this region is the setting for some innovative suburban developments—like Austin Ranch—that aim to reshape the way we live and work. All of them share the goal of restoring the sense of community and civic life that has been lost amid the cookie-cutter housing and strip retail centers, but each uses a different approach to accomplish it. And all of them want to transport suburbanites to another world that, paradoxically, feels familiar.
Austin Ranch, situated on 1,900 acres of land west of Plano, will adhere to the principles of the New Urbanism, the basic idea of which is the “walkable community”: Residential, retail, and civic buildings are laid out within walking distance of one another, thereby lessening dependence on cars. In some areas, land is not zoned exclusively for residential or business use, but rather the two are intermixed: Apartments can be set above stores in a two-story structure, for example. Parks and greenbelts—and the preservation of features of the natural environment—are encouraged.
If the ideal New Urban community sounds like an attempt to recreate the mythic American small town of yesteryear, it’s no coincidence. “We asked ourselves, ‘What do people really want and what do developers try to build?’” says Jennifer Farmer,