The two most significant innovations in suburban development in the twentieth century—the Garden City movement of the 1920s and 1930s and the New Urbanism movement beginning in the 1980s—have long seemed at odds, with the former advocating superblocks, single-use zoning, and cul-de-sacs, and the latter urban grids, mixed uses, and through streets. Jackson Meadow, a 145-acre development in Marine on St. Croix, Minnesota, brilliantly combines both to create something entirely new. Designed by Minneapolis landscape architects Shane Coen and his former partner, Jon Stumpf, with houses by Duluth architect David Salmela, Jackson Meadow separates vehicular and pedestrian circulation and provides extensive open space like a garden city, with a core of gable-roofed houses in a tight urban grid like new urbanism communities.
Initially planned as a conventional, large-lot suburban development, Jackson Meadow arose when the residents of Marine on St. Croix used legal means to stop those plans. The community then established a cluster housing code that required new developments to preserve at least fifty percent of the land as open space and to approach their design and layout as a whole, rather than as individual lots. Working with the community in over forty planning meetings, the design and development team evolved a plan that has core of narrow rectangular lots, with houses that echo the scale and proportion of historic houses in the community and a wetland system that allows for the elimination of curbs, gutters, and storm sewers.
The core of the community echoes new urbanism principles, consisting of quarter- and half-acre lots in a rectangular layout, with narrow streets providing access to freestanding garages and with pedestrian paths, which the houses face. A curvilinear road wraps this urban cluster of houses and outbuildings, connecting larger lots with houses that more freely interpret the architectural aesthetics of the community.
A wetland with walking paths lies between the two parts of the community. An extensive network of trails continue around the perimeter of the development, allowing residents to experience the seventy percent of the land that will remain in its natural state as a protected conservation area. The paths also provide a way for residents to walk down the hill into the center of Marine on St Croix. The number of awards the development has won from both the architecture and landscape architecture community indicates the groundbreaking nature of this site design.
The same level of recognition has gone to Jackson Meadow’s architecture. David Salmela sought to challenge the superficial variety that characterizes most suburban tract residential developments, in which different facade treatments and material choices, mainly on the facades facing the street, give the appearance of variety despite the fact that most of the houses are nearly identical in plan and price point. Instead, he drew inspiration from vernacular architecture, as well as some of the historic houses in Marine on St. Croix, in creating a consistent architectural vocabulary within which real diversity can occur.
In all of the houses at Jackson Meadow, Salmela used a standard material palette of white-painted wood cladding and standing-seam metal roofs, a standard proportional system with structures no more than 24 feet wide and with roofs having the same 12-over-12 pitch, and a standard site layout of separate garages and outbuildings, as well as front doors that face pedestrian paths in the center of the development. That kit-of-parts approach allows for great individual variety within an overall visual continuity.
With the custom-designed houses in large-lot suburban fringe, many of which went up after those in the urban core, Salmela has taken a somewhat freer interpretation of the development’s aesthetic. In one multi-car garage, he clusters the gable roofs into a saw-tooth configuration; in another, he extends the outbuildings into a long, wall-like structure that provides visual privacy for the house behind it; and in yet another, he extends the gable-roof form into two tower-like structures with a glass link between them.
The same kit-of-parts approach occurs inside the houses. While all different in plan depending on their location and functional requirements, the houses all have similar elements including the same types of windows and doors, the same prevalence of hardwood floors and simple wood detailing, and the same open floor plans that connect living, dining, and kitchen areas. Other elements that appear in many of the houses include brick fireplaces and screened porches—a response to the Minnesota climate of cold winters and buggy summers—as well as white walls and wood-slat stair enclosures, which recall the Finnish modernism that Salmela has so brilliantly re-interpreted for an American clientele.
Coen’s design of the landscape immediately around the houses echoes that simplicity and clarity. Although the development occupies former farmland, cleared of much of its tree canopy, Coen has covered most of the residential lots in prairie grass native to the area, with small areas of mowed grass immediately adjacent to the houses and outbuildings. He has also designed white picket fences, stone walls, gravel walks, and tree rows in a way that reinforce Salmela’s architectural vocabulary as well as the landscape of Marine on St. Croix, one of the earliest settlements in Minnesota. Coen arranges these landscape features much as Salmela does the interiors of the houses, in a fluid, free-plan-like way, with fences, walls, and trees suggesting exterior spaces without fully enclosing them.
Although Jackson Meadow flies in the face of the conventional wisdom about suburban residential development, it has suffered from some of the same challenges that many outlying suburbs have encountered since the recession of the first decade of the twenty-first century. After the first group of houses in the core of the development went up, the pace of construction there slowed, and the designers and developers have devised more moderately priced models to address the new economic realities of many families. At the same time, larger lots have sold and the construction of more expensive custom houses along the community’s suburban edge has continued, a reflection of the development’s appeal to a relatively affluent population.
How the community will ultimately fill out remains to be seen. Jackson Meadow’s distance from the Twin Cities makes for a long commute on a daily basis, but for those who have reached retirement age, who can work from home at least part time, or who want a second house away from the city, this community remains one of the most architecturally significant and environmentally impressive twenty-first-century suburban developments in America.
Fisher, Thomas. Salmela Architect. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2005.
Fisher, Thomas. The Invisible Element of Place: The Architecture of David Salmela. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2011.