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, a spokesperson for the Billingsley Company. “The answer was consistently ‘community,’ but very few developers succeed in creating this environment.”
Although the New Urbanism theory remains atypical of modern-day urban development, it has its notable examples: Florida’s eighteen-year-old Seaside community is one of the oldest and best-known (it’s where The Truman Show was filmed), while Disney’s Celebration, a small-town-like planned community in Orlando, is one of the newest. While the New Urbanism ideal is to bring together people of different income levels, most of these attempts have resulted in pricey, exclusive refuges from suburbia.
Burgeoning cities in the Dallas area have been slow to adopt the New Urban concept. Four years ago, Flower Mound residents killed a proposal for such a development—to have been designed by the Miami-based architecture firm of Andres Duany, a notable name in the New Urban movement—because, ironically, they felt that the relatively dense building layout and narrower streets typical of New Urban communities might worsen automobile traffic. There are, however, two New Urban developments to the east of Flower Mound: Austin Ranch and a Duany-designed town center for EDS’s Legacy Park corporate campus in Plano.
I eventually find my way to the entrance of Austin Ranch, where I meet Lucy Billingsley, the 45-year-old co-owner (with her husband, Henry) of the Billingsley Company. The first phase of the development, consisting of multifamily apartments, will be completed next January. The design of Austin Ranch’s residential master plan bears the name of another esteemed player in the New Urban community: Peter Calthorpe of Berkeley, California, who literally wrote the rules for the New Urbanism in his books, The Next American Metropolis and Sustainable Communities: A New Design Synthesis for Cities, Suburbs, and Towns. Billingsley, who describes the design philosophy for her development as “trees and technology,” points out the many trees that it will preserve. “The technology frees people from the routine, and the trees allow them the mind-set to concentrate on other important areas in their lives,” she explains. Part of the technology she refers to is Ethernet-speed Internet access, a high-priced telecommunications feature typically found in the corporate world that will allow Austin Ranch residents to telecommute more easily.
Saving trees is nice and so is surfing the Net at blazing speeds. But Austin Ranch is being built to satisfy the curious desire of many Dallasites to be someplace in the Dallas area that won’t remind them of Dallas. To this end, it will preserve and emphasize the land’s rolling topography, replicating the Texas Hill Country—hence its name. Indeed, the hilly landscape, unusual for North Texas, passes as a reasonable facsimile of the terrain around Austin, and I find it hard to believe that just beyond the trees is Plano.
Another kind of suburban experiment is being conducted northwest of the Dallas–Fort Worth airport, in Southlake. Here, developer Brian Stebbins and his partners are using the rules of the New Urbanism to create history. Today, not much about Southlake comes across as particularly interesting. Its strip shopping centers and new neighborhoods of $300,000 houses make this community of 21,180 residents blend in with neighboring cities. Unlike most suburb-cities in the Metroplex, Southlake never had a chance to start out as a small town in the traditional sense; it was sprawled over from the start. It never had the redbrick courthouse and town square with shops