By Dom Nozzi, AICP
A friend recently asserted that a few New Urbanist neighborhoods in his town were “fake” or in other ways not to his liking. I was quite surprised, as I am extremely impressed by the quality of these new neighborhoods – particularly in comparison to every other neighborhood built in his town over the past several decades. Neighborhoods that are conventionally suburban, heavily car-dependent, sterile, unsociable, and utterly unlovable.
We went back and forth a number of times in our conversation. He pointed out the many flaws he saw. I argued that these neighborhoods were quite impressive in various ways.
Ultimately, I consolidated my thoughts. What ARE the crucial elements of an authentic, healthy neighborhood?
Here is what I came up with. My list of essential ingredients for creating a town or neighborhood…
1. First, houses need to be within a short walking or bicycling distance of the most important regular tasks of the household. Those tasks (or trips) include jobs, shops, services, culture, public meeting places (such as parks, squares or plazas) and civic institutions. The geographic size of the place is such that it is safe, convenient and pleasant to walk, bicycle, use transit or drive a car to get to
most or all of the important needs in day-to-day life.
2. Places conducive to true towns and neighborhoods provide “Third Places” (think of a neighborhood pub, or the TV show “Cheers”). Neighborhoods and towns also provide “social condensers” and other features which nurture a sense of community and sociable conviviality and neighborliness. Sidewalks – the most common form of social condenser — are therefore found on both sides of most or all streets. Each day, people interact with many others in their vicinity, and regularly enough so that a resident typically knows a large number of people on a “first name” basis. As Jane Jacobs famously noted, lowly, unpurposeful and random as they appear, sidewalk contacts are the small change from which a city’s wealth of public life must grow.
3. Neighborhoods and towns have connected streets with short block lengths, and the streets have low design speeds. Such design is essential for minimizing trip distances and maximizing travel safety, both of which are extremely important in inducing travel by foot, bicycle, and transit. By contrast, places without such street design tend to induce exceptionally high levels of car travel, which isolates people from their fellow citizen, increases travel dangers, and harms residential property values.
4. Finally, residents of real towns and neighborhoods tend to know the boundaries of their town or neighborhood, which gives their place an identity. One result is the possibility of feeling civic pride, which is essential in creating the all-important desire to protect and improve your town or neighborhood.
My friend was critical of the “plastic” nature of the new urbanist neighborhoods he disliked in his town. And the small trees. I pointed out, however, that by their nature, new neighborhoods are unable to show a pleasant, graceful “aging” that so many
of us love in older, historic neighborhoods. The building materials in new neighborhoods need time to age and show some character-building “rough edges.” Clothing manufacturers strive to show such aging in new jeans by selling “pre-stressed”
jeans. But it is much more difficult to pre-stress a new neighborhood.
As for the relatively small trees in the new urbanist neighborhoods, it is again the case that we must give newly-planted trees many years to mature into large, impressive canopy street trees.
Do the neighborhoods that my friend vigorously criticized contain the four features I list above? In my view, those neighborhoods excel in offering such design. The neighborhoods are therefore to be celebrated and used as models for other neighborhoods,
rather than ridiculed.
With time, these new urbanist neighborhoods will get better with age.
Visit my urban design website read more about what I have to say on those topics. You can also schedule me to give a speech in your community about transportation and congestion, land use development and sprawl, and improving quality of life.
Or email me at: dom[AT]walkablestreets.com
My book, The Car is the Enemy of the City (WalkableStreets, 2010), can be purchased here: http://www.lulu.com/product/paperback/the-car-is-the-enemy-of-the-city/10905607
My book, Road to Ruin, can be purchased here:
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