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The Villages and the Dangers of Holding Too Tightly to the Past

Some parts of The Villages, Florida, the nation's largest retirement community and one of its most popular master planned communities, bear a striking resemblance to the neotraditional development favored by famous early examples of New urbanism.
July 20, 2020, 12pm PDT | James Brasuell | @CasualBrasuell
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The Villages, Florida
Peter Titmuss

This is the second of two articles on The Villages, Florida, where an ugly example of racism during dueling protests was subsequently shared on Twitter by President Donald Trump. Part one was published on July 13, 2020.

A trained eye might have recognized the streetscape in the background of a video retweeted on June 28 by President Trump featuring an aging white man in a golf cart yelling "white power" at a group of anti-Trump protestors. The scene is The Villages, Florida, a quickly growing master planned retirement community—growing in both land area and population—smack dab in the middle of Central Florida, just north and west of Orlando. 

The Villages pops up on the planning radar with surprising frequency, and for a surprising confluence of reasons, like its status as one of the best-selling master planned communities in the country, year after year; the developer running afoul of the IRS and getting away with it; and its importance to the Republican party's presidential prospects—all features of life in this unique community documented in part one of this Planetizen series.

There's more to the familiarity of the streetscape for the trained eye, however, due to the architecture and planning of the commercial areas of The Villages, which owe a debt, in spirit at least, to New Urbanism, a popular school of planning and urban design thinking that prioritizes the revival of historic styles, referred to in architecture circles as historicism.

For the uninitiated, the Congress for the New Urbanism coalesced a growing number of adherents in the latter decades of the 20th century around a new approach to the planning and design of communities that centers considerations of building form over land use as a means to encourage more cohesive, holistic communities and prioritize walkability and a mix of uses. While the planning and design of Seaside, Florida was the first comprehensive large-scale application of New Urbanism, recent successes include the adoption of Missing Middle Housing as an affordable housing policy in a growing number of cities.

But the visual similarities between The Villages and Seaside are striking. My searches for stock images of The Villages to supplement my coverage over the years always turns up plenty of images of Seaside. If you only laid eyes on the commercial areas of The Villages, you could be forgiven for mistaking it for a classic New Urbanist approach to development. All the signifiers of neotraditional development or traditional neighborhood development—terms for the specific kind of historicism favored by New Urbanism—are obvious in both.

The debt owed by The Villages to New Urbanism seems apparent again with the popularity of Neighborhood Electric Vehicles (aka golf carts) in The Villages, which could be considered a logical application of New Urbanism’s priority on developing at pedestrian scales. 

A Planetizen feature article by Lisa Nisenson from 2011 highlighted the lessons of golf cart use in The Villages as a model for sprawl repair—one of the leading causes of New Urbanism. An Atlantic article by Henry Grabar in 2015 used the example of The Villages in an article about the golf cart as a cutting edge mobility option. Citing evidence In Young-Old: Urban Utopias of an Aging Society, by Deane Simpson, Grabar lists statistics that could be mistaken for a New Urbanist's wildest dreams. In The Villages, "there are 50,000 golf carts and 90 miles of dedicated golf-cart infrastructure. Autocentric facilities like drive-ins and car washes have been adapted. Golf-cart bridges and paths lead to golf-cart parking. One-third of trips, in this city of 110,000, are taken by cart."

Despite these similarities, in reality, The Villages offers a kind of Bizarro New Urbanism, with a multitude of golf courses (The Economist counted 48 courses in all in 2018) to explain at least some of the golf carts. Moreover, The Villages is fundamentally defined by a sprawling separation of uses, rather than the mix of uses sought in the ideals of New Urbanism. Historicism is also only one purpose of only some New Urbanists, which has pursued numerous agendas of reform badly needed in the planning and design of communities of all shapes and sizes, so to classify New Urbanism as only neotraditionalist is reductive and unfair. But its affinity for traditional development has opened New Urbanism to criticisms of neotraditionalist development: that the village ideal is actually inherently conservative, and a vehicle for segregation. While this critique focused on New Urbanism in the past, it might have found a more perfect case study in The Villages. 

Similarities to, and Departures From, New Urbanism

"The village, despite its explicit intentions of diversity, has proven to be a very effective tool for ethnic and economic segregation," writes Ruth Durack for Places Journal in 2001, in an article titled, tellingly, "Village Vices." When considered in context of The Villages—a place with a population far afield of the U.S. mean in age, ethnicity, and political leanings (older, whiter, and more conservative, respectively), where a man could feel comfortable yelling the words "white power" in public and be subsequently rewarded by a congratulatory retweet from the president—this critique becomes all the more relevant.

A village, by its nature, is a stable, self-perpetuating, self-sustaining entity. It has boundaries and a limited size, an internal organization that resists revision, a coherent scale and building character that protest the deviant form, and a fragile landscape that is vulnerable to growth. It builds a social network that relies on interwoven destinies, censuring the separatist, the non-participant, the transient. It is, by necessity, a fixed, complete and finished entity, whose greatest enemy is the future. Its very survival requires resistance to change, and physical and social design conspire to preserve the status quo at sometimes quite remarkable human and financial cost. 

An article published by The Economist in 2018 reiterates the resistance to change and deviance inherent in The Villages's development model. 

But creating the appearance of urbanity is not the same as making a city. Cities are supposed to be cosmopolitan and surprising; they ought to change in unpredictable ways. Mixed-use developments, by contrast, are fully-formed when they are built — and are too costly for the poor. They are not supposed to be diverse. John Hitchcox of Yoo, a design firm that has worked on Metropica and many other projects, says that mixed-use developments aim to create communities of like-minded people. Though they look like cities, they are supposed to feel like villages.

Durack backs up this thesis with a warning: "While a certain amount of stability or predictability is obviously necessary for society to function, attempting to specify the physical form and functional patterns of our future is potentially a prescription for disaster." While some of these passages doesn't apply—The Villages is not a place of limited size, for example—some hit the nail on the head almost too perfectly, especially the parts about controlling the physical form and functional patterns of development. Both The Developer (an all-powerful political and economic force, in the past described as both Wizard of Oz and Disney, as detailed in part one of this series) and an Architectural Review Committee hold a tight rein over the development and design of The Villages. "Whether you are repainting your home or villa, adding a pool enclosure, pergola, arbor, trellis, additional landscaping, painting or coloring your driveway and/or walk it may be necessary to submit a Modification/Alteration Form for approval," according to an explainer of the Architectural Review Committee's powers published by Villages-News.com in 2015.

The article in The Economist suggests that The Villages, with its incredibly restrictive design prescriptions, collapses the distinction between urban and suburban. New Urbanism, despite its ostensible purpose of retrofitting suburban areas with a more urban approach to development have been accused of achieving "New Suburbanism," as admitted in a retort to that accusation by Sage Stossel, published by The Atlantic in 2000. While they come about the effect from different angles—The Villages making almost cursory gestures of traditionalist development in commercial islands amidst a sea of sprawling residential development and New Urbanism attempting to retrofit placeless suburbs with neotraditionalist development—The Villages and New Urbanism are accused of achieving a new, amplified version of suburban by dressing up developments in the traditional concepts of urbanism and by holding too tightly to a specifically neotraditionalist design prescription. 

Another researcher, Hugh Bartling, noticed the similarities between The Villages and the forms and ideals of New Urbanism, releasing a flurry of academic inquiries on the topic in the mid-aughts that included an article published by the journal Tourism Geographies and a chapter in the book Heterotopia and the City: Public Space in a Postcivil Society, published in 2008 by Routledge. It's in the latter source that the key distinctions between The Villages and the methods of New Urbanism begin to emerge. Bartling describes The Villages as a modified New Urbanist framework. 

While the town centres exhibit at least the pedestrian-centred aspect of New urbanism, they depart from that framework in significant ways. Unlike textbook New Urbanist design, all residential development is situated in subdivisions a fair distance from the town centre, making travel from a villager's home by foot challenging. 

Jeremiah Eck also recognized the significant departures by The Villages from New Urbanism's ideals in 2017 for Common Edge, despite the affinity for traditional development apparent in both.

Interestingly enough, The Villages aren’t really villages at all in a typical sense of the word but a Florida legal entity called a Community Development District, or CDD. The dozen or so CDDs that exist are for the most part a collection of roads and house types, which are divided up into categories, including patio villas, courtyard villas, cottage-ranch homes, designer homes and premier homes, all controlled by design review. 

As I drove around, I first began to question the divergence between what I imagine as a village and what The Villages call a village. True, the amenities exist, but they’re not concentrated in what we would think of as a village. They’re spread all around the CDDs, and what we might think of as the core of a village is concentrated in three themed areas: Spanish Springs Town Square, Lake Sumter Landing Market Square and Brownwood Paddock Square (themed Southwest, small town, and cattle town respectively). Each has a collection of commercial enterprises, restaurants, playhouses, movie theaters, plenty of parking for cars and carts and a small gathering space with nightly entertainment (line dancing seemed to predominate).

The separation of uses, which is a defining characteristic of The Villages as described by both Bartling and Eck, is one of the planning outcomes that New Urbanism works most specifically and ardently to oppose, so there's ample evidence The Villages going awry from the purposes of both New Urbanism and traditional developments. The Villages has achieved something less than car-centric sprawl, but golf cart-centric sprawl is clearly not adequate to achieve New Urbanism's desired results in the cultivation of a cohesive community.

A Manufactured History

The historicism deployed by The Villages takes another bizarre turn by overlaying a completely manufactured history, starting with the potentially extra-legal and mythological powers of The Developer documented in part one of this series, but also with a myth-making of an entirely different variety.

Craig Pittman, writing in 2013, reports on some of the invented history displayed proudly around The Villages.

If you stroll around and read the historical plaques...you find that the area had a fascinating history dating back to before the Civil War, full of Native American attacks, epidemics, shipping accidents, and odd characters like the guy who built a lighthouse on a lake and insisted he be called “the Commodore.” The stories are a load of hooey, concocted over a bottle of scotch and a case of beer by its developers.

Pittman isn't the only person to notice this invented history. A journal article by Amanda M. Brian, published by Southern Cultures in its Winter 2014 issue, also tells the story of a plaque adorning the Hagen Daz building in The Villages, which claims that the building housed a business called Oscar's Bait & Tackle in the early 20th century.

The Villager learns from the plaque's author, the Lake Sumter Landing Historical Preservation League, that Oscar Feliu purchased the "small warehouse building on the waterfront" in 1906 and ran a "successful fishing equipment and bait shop for the many sportsmen who came to Lake Sumter to enjoy the outstanding fishing available in the area." There's more to the story next door. The old telegraph office, now a radio station, displays what appears to be an early-twentieth-century photograph of townsfolk--well-dressed men, women, and children--gathered outside Oscar's to glimpse record-setting fish caught in the lake.

In reality, the Hagen Daz building doesn’t even date back to the 20th century, according to Brian. The lake where Oscar’s clients supposedly fished was engineered in the 1990s. Brian credits the historical plaques erected in The Villages to Forrec Ltd., a Toronto-based firm that designs "entertainment and leisure environments worldwide."

Criticisms of all forms of historicism target the superficial or false sense of history created when something tries to appear old without actually being old. The Villages recognizes this propensity of pastiche and amplifies it. 

Proof of Concept

While The Villages proudly wears the surreal effects of Downtown Disney, the Wizard of Oz, and Caddyshack, the place still bears substantial resemblance to a vision of American community sought by many well-intentioned planners and urban designers. There's a history of criticism of neotraditional development or traditional neighborhood development as inherently conservative in its resistance to change and deviant forms of design. 

An aging white man yelling white power from a tricked out golf cart at a pro-Trump rally might be the proof of the concept. That the president of the United States felt enabled to rebroadcast that message to millions of twitter followers and the world might indicate that the threat is far more imminent than theory is capable of portraying.

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