For decades after World War II, America's suburbs thrived while its cities struggled. Many planners adopted the philosophy, “If you can't beat them, join them.”
As late as the 1990s, many architects and zoning officials believed that "what was going on in the suburbs was the right solution for the cities, too," said Hunter Johnson, owner of Tono Architects in Lancaster.
"So you saw high-rises in the middle of parking lots," he said. "We realized that was the wrong direction."
Instead, architects and planners have returned to time-tested principles of urban design, crafting buildings in harmony with their context.
Tono designed the Olde Uptown townhouses, a block of 16 upscale new residences on Green Street in Harrisburg's midtown section. The development matches the "scale and rhythm" of the neighborhood, Johnson said.
The block's three-story brick facades and capacious porches resemble those of houses built a century ago. One can imagine families sitting outside on summer evenings to chat and watch passersby.
The houses feature largely open-plan interior spaces, "almost a loft kind of feel," said Dave Butcher, president of WCI Partners, which developed the project. WCI Partners also has renovated more than 85 residences as part of its Olde Uptown revitalization.
In suburbs, "architecture is dealt with behind the windshield," Johnson said. Everything is disconnected, and visual cues have to be simple and big so drivers can see them as they whiz past.
In an urban setting, the environment should be pedestrian-friendly, he said. Dense development lets people walk comfortably from place to place. Materials and details become important again, because people are moving slowly enough to notice and appreciate them.
Anyone used to contemporary housing norms will notice Olde Uptown's lack of forward-facing garages. Instead, there is space behind each house to park two cars nose to tail under a deck, Johnson said.
In cities, architects have to find creative ways of dealing with parking, he said. Vehicles can be tucked away inside a block rather than eating up prime frontage, he said.
Garages occupy a lot of room — a typical two-car garage uses 400 square feet, or one-fifth of the space in a median U.S. home.
Less than a block away from Olde Uptown, a strikingly modern house shows how urban design can fit in while exuberantly standing out.
Designed by its owner, architect Ruggero Scarabello, the house is dominated by the brick-red cube of its second and third stories. The mullions of the two large windows in the facade are off center, creating symmetric asymmetries; it looks like a house Picasso might have built.
Yet it is recognizably a townhouse, similar in scale and conception to its neighbors. The intent was to echo the feel of the neighborhood "but with a more contemporary expression," said Scarabello, who works at Crabtree Rohrbaugh & Associates Inc. in Upper Allen Township.
Before building, Scarabello had to submit his plans to the city's Historic Architectural Review Board. They were surprised at first, but ultimately "the reaction was very positive," he said.
Social and cultural changes are making cities attractive to a new generation of Americans, WCI Partners' Butcher said. People are delaying having children and want to emulate the stylish lifestyles they see in movies and TV shows.
Olde Uptown's homeowners tend to be younger professional couples, mostly without children, he said.
The problem with building urban residential projects is that they usually cost more to build than they can be sold for, Butcher said.
A project like Olde Uptown costs around $100 a square foot but will sell for 75 to 80 percent of that, he said. Without tax credits, grants and other incentives, developers can't break even, he said.
In the suburbs, it's easier for new construction to turn a profit. However, Johnson said, once suburbs are built out and start to age, they face issues of long-term sustainability: the cost of repairing roads, maintaining sewer lines and so on, given a tax base that is no longer expanding.
Increasingly, municipalities with sprawling suburban development patterns find themselves "stretched and taxed to the limit," Johnson said.
In cities, infrastructure is more compact, he said. Having dense neighborhoods with shops nearby eliminates much of the need for cars, shortens the length of sewer and electric lines and so on.
"That's where true sustainability already is in place," he said.
Scarabello, who hails from Padua, Italy, said he feels a sense of community in his adopted neighborhood: People know each other and look out for each other. He said he enjoys walking along the river and looking at the city's rich architectural heritage.
"I'm always amazed," he said. "Harrisburg is a nice city."