IT'S RISKY TO WAX NOSTALGIC ABOUT AMERICA'S good old days. Often, gazing at a Norman Rockwell soft-focus version of our past glosses over the battles fought for the liberties and lifestyle improvements we take for granted today. A century ago, women in the United States had no voting rights; minorities suffered daily indignities; and half-starved immigrants (including children) bloodied their hands at factory looms. But improvements in basic living conditions were on the rise: Electric lighting was just hitting its stride, and even some of the more modest new homes were being built with indoor plumbing. Over the course of the century, standards of living advanced by leaps and bounds.

In at least one discipline, however—residential planning—we lost our way. At least that's the conclusion

“At the end of World War II, everything changed,” says Demetri Baches, director of Duany Plater-Zyberk (DPZ), in Miami, the world-renowned new urbanist firm that created the now-famous neighborhoods of Seaside, Fla., and the Kentlands in Maryland. “To wage war, you don't need subtlety. You need machinery that moves so many meals here, so many troops there. When the war ended, we had this huge machine in place, and it was ultimately redirected toward housing.”

Americans naively accepted modernism, he says, and have been paying the price in their communities ever since. “Neighborhood planning used to be a body of knowledge that people just knew,” he explains. “It didn't matter if you were an architect or a builder or a developer; everybody was a generalist before the war, so they understood at multiple levels what it took to create a neighborhood. That includes things like how to tie communities to transit, how many people you need to make it work. You didn't go to a transport specialist or landscape specialist. You didn't need one. That's why the neighborhoods built then are so valuable now.”

Baches says that American planners must return to the old masters, because most planning schools miss the point. “Only recently has design begun to creep back into a handful of planning schools,” he says. “All they talk about in most of these schools is policy, demographics, and ethics. And that's why cities look like crap—because they don't talk about design.”

Old Truisms Some aspects of archaic neighborhood planning might seem irrelevant today, lacking in the many standards built around the needs of automobiles, from parking to noise control to easing traffic. But that's the problem with most modern planning, says Baches. It treats the automobile like the client, the final stop in the transportation hierarchy, rather than the current stop, as early planners did. It's short-term thinking.

Baches makes no apologies for the fact that his firm borrows extensively from the wisdom of the old masters when planning what are now perceived as cutting-edge communities.

“Everything we as a firm have reintroduced to professions and industries is based on previous work,” Baches notes. “Before World War II, the average American neighborhood had about eight units to the acre. In a modern suburban setting, two units to an acre often looks bad. But in a town setting, eight units to the acre looks great. Just as important, you can create a pattern that can evolve to include mass transit, with up to 18 units per acre. That way you don't have to do all the leaps to try to make mass transit work.” By leaps, he means major demolition and reconstruction, often the dividend of poor initial master planning in residential areas.

Great designs, Baches says, keep the human being in the foreground, emphasizing interaction and natural forms of movement such as walking—while allowing dramatic changes in the future. In other words, simply making streets wider does not make them future smart. Instead, they must correlate with residential zoning that allows for future density increases. “Manhattan went from pig ruts to Broadway,” he says, “but somehow the street patterns still work. Old street designs easily accommodate changing modes of transportation: wagons, streetcars, and trains. They absorb change. Sure, there's heavy traffic, but considering the incredible density of that city, those streets do amazingly well at keeping things moving.”

Too Many Chiefs? Embracing 70- to 100-year-old planning principles is counterintuitive to most people in the building business today, says Baches, because the day of the generalist is long over. A fractured army of specialists controls every aspect of a neighborhood's planning and execution.

But Baches asserts that the separation between disciplines has led to widely accepted strategies for neighborhood planning that simply don't work, including park-and-ride commuter lots near public transportation. “In New York City, everyone can walk to a train station. But in Atlanta, where they can't, the modal split idea [changing modes of transportation] doesn't work. Very few people live and work near transit stations, and once they're in a car on their way to work, they are going to stay in a car. The only logical alternative is being able to walk to both their house and their job from the station.”

In recent years, a few progressive planners and architects like DPZ have made great strides in reintroducing the “lost” secrets of building great neighborhoods. Many of the illustrations in this article, in fact, are based on ones found in Time-Saver Standards for Housing and Redevelopment, a massive tome by Joseph De Chiara, Julius Panero, and Martin Zelnik, that synthesizes many of the “old ways” with new technology. While architects such as Baches might not agree with every section, its emphasis on the social impact of design choices makes it a valuable reference.

The Retail Edge Wondering whether your new 500-unit subdivision will support a centrally located main street with a town hall, a barber shop, and a couple of boutiques? Study the “Thresholds of Community” sidebar, above. As you can see, a single small neighborhood can't support serious urban amenities. But there is a way around this problem. Locate municipal buildings and stores on a major throughway at the edge of the community, adjacent to travel routes of surrounding communities. Ironically, even more traffic may be drawn there by the “main street” quality of the retail center.