A decade ago, the small town of Woodstock, Ga., began taking action against an ugly force threatening its very core: suburban sprawl, whose serpentine streets and isolating cookie-cutter homes were squeezing the edges of its historic—but outdated and quiet—downtown district.
"We didn't want that type of development," said Brian Stockton, director of Woodstock's office of economic development.
Roughly 30 miles northwest of Atlanta with a population of about 25,000, Woodstock won a planning grant in 2002 to redesign its city center, with which it eventually designated more than 30 acres of surrounding land to the building of 300 housing units, 80,000 square feet of commercial space and a series of open parks. Additional development followed a few years later.
Woodstock's friendliness to walkers, which the city says has contributed to a 17 percent growth in downtown property values over the past five years, may not be the most exciting bit of its renovation—a rooftop bar and open-air concert series lure tourists and college students from miles away.
But it does represent what a growing number of city planners, architects and futurists tout as a big piece of what can help revitalize America's dying towns in an age where the country's two largest living generations are abandoning the suburbs for urbanized city centers. It's the New Urbanism, a sustainable design movement promoting communities with a range of housing and jobs.
(Read more: 'End of suburbia' may nearly be upon us: Sam Zell)
At the heart of Woodstock's plan: a focus on making things safer and comfortable for pedestrians, which included the easing of car congestion on Main Street with two new parallel streets, the narrowing of travel lanes, and the creation of more parking, landscaping and "bulb outs"—which cut the distance needed to cross streets on foot by 20 feet.