Neal Peirce / Syndicated columnist
Two great American towns
If Christmas is about believing, so are two fascinating new American towns I've seen this year.
One is Prairie Crossing, a settlement of more than 400 traditionally designed homes and condos at a junction crossing of two rail-commuter lines 45 miles north of Chicago. Prairie Crossing is proudly re-creating pockets of the wildflower-dotted prairies that once thrived across Mid-America; with its easy rail connection to the Chicago Loop and O'Hare, it aims to be a national model of transit-oriented development.
Almost 1,000 miles to the southeast, on the banks of the Broad River near Colonial Beaufort, S.C., the new Habersham development offers classic, porch-rich Southern architecture in a variety of houses, townhomes and condos. Habersham's success in blending new construction into the semitropical Low Country setting — marsh-lined water edges and great live oaks, bedecked with Spanish moss — is close to breathtaking.
Both communities have roots in the New Urbanist movement of focused neighborhood development; famed architect Peter Calthorpe played a role in Prairie Crossing's design while Andres Duany was Habersham's planner. Houses are closer together, open and shared space more prevalent, the layout walkable. Both are developing attractive town centers for shops and civic functions.
In an era of subdivision exclusivity, both these new projects are designed with easy roadway access to their surrounding communities. Prairie Crossing established a K-8 public charter school; a third of the 360 students come from the community itself and the rest from surrounding areas through carpools and lots of biking. Habersham is planning a charter school that would have noteworthy diversity of race and income.
But it is how the communities are tied to the natural environment that strikes one the most. Prairie Crossing brought back prairie grass to fields occupied for decades by conventional corn and soybean crops that depended on heavy pesticide use. Before, six species of birds were seen on the site; now there are 120. The re-introduced prairie grasses, their roots running as deep as 15 feet, now hold the soil better.
Habersham, like Prairie Crossing, carefully constructed a system of swales and ponds to slow down and filter rainwater before it flows into the adjoining marshes and river. Its roads follow old cattle paths; at several spots one has to steer around a grand old oak or other tree left standing dead center in the roadway. In a prior developer's plan, rear yards of new homes would have occupied the land directly to the river; now the riverside features lovely walkways and roadways allowing grand views from the homes but keeping most of the riverbank and marshes open to all residents and visitors.
To assure views for everyone, Prairie Crossing built its houses around common garden areas, and in one case a 22-acre manmade lake. All the buildings are constructed to high-energy-efficiency levels.
But Prairie Crossing's most startling feature is its farm — 50 acres, nestled in the community and producing, organically, beets, grapes, herbs and fresh eggs. With an on-site farmers market and one other outlet, the husband-wife farmer team avoids wholesale markets and grosses an amazing $14,000 to $15,000 per acre per year.
So who sparked these remarkable developments?
At Prairie Crossing, it has been Chicago lawyer and civic leader George Ranney as well as his wife, Victoria "Vicky" Post Ranney, a civic activist and author on city planning. The Ranneys live in a historic house near Prairie Crossing; Ranney in fact grew up a half mile from the site, which would have been filled with 3,000 standard tract homes, ruining its rural character, if a major lawsuit hadn't stopped it.
Habersham is the dream child of Bob Turner, a New Urbanist developer — and more. Turner earlier managed a high-risk renaissance of nearby Port Royal, S.C., a historic town that had fallen into serious disrepair. Working with a progressive mayor and town manager, major cleanup began, scores of buildings were bought and renovated. The town's still a bit funky, but has block after block of renovated homes and a handsomely designed new post office as a gathering spot.
By belief and action, the Ranneys and Turner provide a gift for us all — evidence that America's communities can be more social, more beautiful, more environmentally friendly than standard development, yet still work economically.
Neal Peirce's column appears alternate Mondays on editorial pages of The Times. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org
2006, Washington Post Writers Group