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Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk, 2003
A quarter century ago, as the ' 70s oil crisis crippled the economy of the Northeast and blighted its market for high-concept architecture, many of the best young architects of the era found themselves migrating South to search for work in the newly affluent Sun Belt states. Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk, then a recent Yale graduate, was among this group of twenty-something, soon-to-be-famous architects. Also assembled around Miami at this time were Deborah Berke, Walter Chatham, Laurinda Spear, Bernardo Fort-Brescia, Steven Holl, and Andres Duany, Plater-Zyberk's future husband and architectural partner. Things heated up when Robert Davis, an ambitious business school grad, appeared on the scene with the idea to develop a beachside resort in the Florida Panhandle employing the new ideas about contextualist planning and design that were circulating in the US and Europe. Plater-Zyberk and Duany were hired to execute the master plan. The new town was to be called Seaside, a name that has became synonymous with the aspirations of the New Urbanist movement. With her work on Seaside, Lizz Plater-Zyberk had found her calling. For the next twenty-five years, she would expand and refine the concepts first realized there, creating a planning vocabulary based on her belief in the viability of urban social space and the importance of human scale in architecture. She has become one of today's most influential urban planners, concentrating on new towns, revitalization projects, and zoning studies all over the United States. Plater-Zyberk's work does have its critics. They distrust her reliance on historical building types and her apparent idealization of a simpler past. But architect Walter Chatham, also a Seaside alumnus, sees it differently. "Plater-Zyberk's towns represent an incredibly sophisticated modern creation," he says. "In one hundred years, Lizz will be regarded as a key figure in restoring beauty to the urban landscape." Publisher peter halley met with elizabeth plater-zyberk in princeton where she was attending a meeting of the board of trustees.

peter: I guess you must have been just out of school at the time Seaside was built.
LIZZ: Yes, we were pretty young. After school there was no work in our field up north, so little by little a group of us assembled in Miami. An editor at House Beautiful, Susan Lewin, who was always putting designers and clients together, introduced us to Robert Davis, a young MBA who was interested in working with architects on his development projects. Seaside primarily grew out of his relationship with my husband, Andres Duany. They really bonded over the idea of making a traditional town of very modest ambitions.
PETER: It turned out to be one of the most debated architectural projects of its time.
LIZZ: Yes. But it was intended as a summer artists' colony where the cultural things that we all appreciated could be shared with like-minded people. What it grew into was much more a phenomenon of its time than was our intention.
PETER: What were the precedents or ideas that you, Andres, and the other people involved were thinking about?
LIZZ: In the 1970s, Vincent Scully at Yale was the first person to tell us to look further back into our own history. Academia was biased towards twentieth-century Modernism we were taught about Soviet town planning. At the same time, Robert Stern, the New York architect, was writing about what he called the Anglo-American suburb, especially the Garden City and City Beautiful movements.
PETER: Your planning work seems to advocate a participatory "town meeting" form of democracy. Historically, town meeting democracy has its roots in places like New England and the Midwest. Yet much of your career has been spent implementing your ideas in the South, a region with a very different social and political history.
LIZZ: The South has been receptive but more from a cultural than a political perspective. In the latter part of the twentieth century, the South became an extremely optimistic, constructive, and creative place. In fact, I think it is probably like New England was one hundred years earlier. In the South, there is a very unself-conscious cultural life of writing, arts and crafts, music, everything.
PETER: A real emphasis on local, amateur creative activity.
LIZZ: And it's of varying quality, as it would have been in New England in the late 1800's. But it's also a question of economics. There is still devolution occurring in the North, as opposed to the South, which has experienced a long period of growth in its population and economy.
PETER: In recent years, the Northeast has also developed a reputation for resisting new large-scale projects.
LIZZ: Our firm, Duany Plater-Zyberk, has done a lot of projects up North. But in the North, government is usually organized by township. In the newer Sunbelt states, it's organized by county. Townships are characteristically small and inexpert, and they don't have enough money to spend on things. The officials are almost always volunteers. The county structure is usually far more professional and forward-looking.
PETER: Your answer totally surprises me. In theory counties would be inhospitable to your urbanist views because county government itself is a product of sprawl.
LIZZ: One of the problems of our time is how to get to a larger view of how things interconnect, in terms of transportation and where development should occur. One of the big stresses on good planning is the connection between increments of government. Often, even a county is not enough.
PETER: I am interested in how, as an urban planner, you deal with the process of getting public approval for a project.
LIZZ: It is probably unprecedented how many people today have a voice or want a voice in planning and even architectural design — there is usually vociferous public participation.
PETER: How did it become so open?
LIZZ: I think the public forced it.
PETER: And that is something you can accommodate in your work?
LIZZ: It is part of my make-up to appreciate and work with many voices. When you are working on large-scale places that will be used by many people, those voices are essential.
PETER: I am interested in how you engage public response. Let's say you hear from the mayor or a commissioner, "We have to have one thousand parking spaces," or "Make sure you don't use brick." And then you hear from somebody else who has an equally strong opinion about something else. If it were me, I imagine that I'd just want to give up and leave town. How do you incorporate that into your work?
LIZZ: You lay out a set of principals ahead of time, a kind of high road of standards that is not just about what we do, but about what makes good places.
PETER: Is that articulated at the beginning?
LIZZ: Yes. You can't organize a group of people to start moving unless they feel that there is a clear direction. And they can't choose that direction unless someone is there getting people to agree on the basic principals. The buck has to stop with someone.
PETER: How does that relate to the parking spaces and the brick?
LIZZ: We would say, "All right, we'll draw a thousand parking spaces, and we'll see how it fits. And we'll try other materials besides brick." We'd go away and study it. Then we'd come back and say, "You know, we really need brick here because the building next door is brick, and one thousand spaces will fit, but only if we dig the garage lower at greater cost." It may take time, but if we can give people confidence that we have not shut off any avenue that someone has asked us to review, if they trust our process, then it can be very fruitful.
PETER: It impresses me that you really seem to feel pretty good about this town meeting, participatory process. It's in line with the urbanism you advocate.
LIZZ: Yes. It's an integrated thing. It is just amazing when you see someone — I'm not referring to myself — run one of these meetings in which all eight tables of participants come up with essentially the same idea.
PETER: You have become engaged in zoning issues as well.
LIZZ: Yes. Right now, we're working on a plan for the northern part of Miami. We're reviewing and consolidating the pre-existing planning, and rewriting the zoning code. It's a real challenge because that area encompasses a series of very different districts and landscapes.
PETER: There must be a total lack of zoning in a place like Miami.
LIZZ: Not at all. Everybody always thinks the mess out there is a result of people not paying attention to planning, when the opposite is true. The Miami zoning code is incredibly complex and thick. The American legal system layers things — it never goes back and cleans anything up.
PETER: What direction are you taking in Miami?
LIZZ: We're developing the idea that cities can be made of many different things. We have a conception of the city that says, from the most urban to the most rural areas, there is an appropriate planning and detailing that is based on principals derived from the condition of being rural, being urban, or being in-between.
PETER: I guess the tendency is to zone everything as one homogeneous suburban mass.
LIZZ: Recent zoning codes have become suburban in that they ask for lots of green space. So if you have a high-rise downtown, you're expected to have a green buffer out front.
PETER: I've certainly seen that.
LIZZ: But it's just inappropriate to landscape around a high-rise. And in rural areas as well, you can have inappropriate zoning. Have you ever seen thirty-foot-wide curbed streets added to a small rural village? The width of the sidewalk should relate to how many people are going to use it. In some areas, there might be at most two people walking down the street side by side, but downtown you may need a twenty-five-foot-wide sidewalk. We want to transform zoning into what we call smart code, based on the idea of the transect, a concept taken from ecology.
PETER: How are you applying that to Miami?
LIZZ: We are mapping a transect, or section, through the area that shows its physical characteristics, from the ocean, through the beach, the dune, the swamp, the highland, all the way to the pineland.
PETER: You and a number of like-minded architects banded together eight years ago to form the Congress for the New Urbanism. In all the New Urbanism literature, you are on record opposing gated communities.
LIZZ: There are lots of reasons why they shouldn't exist. There's the idea of exclusion. And there are traffic reasons. The gate dictates that you're only going to come and go by car. Gated communities always let out onto the big roads, so there are no smaller interconnections.
PETER: They tend to attach themselves to busy state roads?
LIZZ: That's generally the idea. With a gated community, you could be living across the fence from a shopping center. But you can't walk there. You have to get in your car and go around. They also imply a limited type of housing. It's always a townhouse community or a big house community.
PETER: And a gated community usually doesn't have stores or services.
LIZZ: I would say that housing, which has been a problem for many decades, should never be just housing. When a bunch of people is grouped together, there is always the makings of a community because people have services that they need, even if it's only the corner store. We should really think of housing as community-making.
PETER: Has the Congress for the New Urbanism been successful in promoting these views?
LIZZ: It's an uphill struggle because we are fighting longstanding conventions that have set us up for leaving the city and sprawling into suburbia. There's a real system in place that we are fighting. That's why we started the New Urbanism group — because we said we needed to be powerful nationally to overcome it.
LIZZ: Precisely.
PETER: But people must argue with you about that. A lot of people would argue that the human condition significantly changes in response to social circumstances.
LIZZ: Yes, and I don't disagree with that, if we're saying that architecture, cities, and anything else we make should reflect the differences over time in society, politics, and technology, and that we have a moral responsibility to reflect our time.
PETER: Alright, will you explain how you can be sympathetic to both views?
LIZZ: The part that is left out, which is inarguable, is that we are still walking on two feet. We may be a few inches taller then we were five hundred years ago, but a ten minute walk is still a reasonable distance to go to do the things that you have to do each day, and the span of a day is still pretty much the same. There are certain measurable dimensions — and less quantifiable spiritual dimensions — that are shared across time.