What Makes a Neighborhood Great

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Mike Dwyer

Mike Dwyer is a former writer and contributor at Ordinary Times.

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  1. Avatar Damon
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    I live in a community such as this, albeit significantly larger, that’s several decades old. Some comments:

    We had/have village centers where of shops anchored by a grocery store, with dry cleaning, gas, churches. All the things you might want. Mixed type housing as well. The grocery stores were small and they now cannot compete with the larger ones; ones built in newer communities or on the fringes of the original concept developments. The stores in the village centers are dying. Everyone can go just a few miles down the road to bigger better nicer stores and still get “one stop shopping”.

    Apartments were created around the village centers. Row homes further out and then single family houses. The lower cost housing, the apartments, are where the subsidized housing was primarily placed before HUD changes, and has attracted a certain “element”. “Dudes on the corner” so to speak. There’s been a recent rash of assaults of women running/walking by these areas. Now, the crime is not bad by any measure-mainly break ins and property crime. However, there are often muggings with weapons and the infrequent death/murder. Crime seems to be predominantly located in certain areas and the mall.

    Because of the desirable geographical location, wealthier people don’t leave the area, they just move to a newer/better area. It’s essentially “white flight” but replace city / suburban with suburban / suburban. This of course is not limited to whites. The area has a large middle and upper class percentage of minorities, and is racially, and sexual orientation, friendly/embracing.
    What’s the point of all this? I guess I could have just said “these places have the same problems faced by other communities too”. So while you are enjoying all the new benefits of this style of living, remember, 20 years later, you’ll still have these same problem. This type of living doesn’t solve them.Report

    • Avatar Kim in reply to Damon
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      says:

      Suburban living tends to create problems that city living doesn’t. Essentially, you build cheap and fairly crappy stuff (which is currently falling apart), and keep “low taxes” — know what low taxes means? It means that you can’t really support a graying population.

      I’m not nearly as familiar with mixed-income suburbs. I know my neighborhood really works hard to keep its community shops running.Report

      • Avatar Damon in reply to Kim
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        says:

        Actually, the crappy housing I lived in was in my current city, the one described above. It was only when I went farther out and got a single family house, that I found quality. I’m sure there were quality single family in my area when we were looking to trade up but we couldn’t afford it.Report

      • Avatar Kim in reply to Kim
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        says:

        Damon,
        How do you define quality?
        I define quality not by the number of bathrooms, or by the size of the dwelling, but by how long it’s likely to last, under conditions of decent maintenance.

        American housing has been decreasing in quality since the 1930’s-40’s or so. I think we’re at housing that has severe issues within 10 years in some places (rewire the entire house sort of issues — that’s upwards of $50,000 or so).Report

      • Avatar Damon in reply to Kim
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        says:

        @kim
        Well, quality is NOT:
        1) a 3 foot wall that is one inch out of square
        2) a hole in the drywall (hidden behind the mirror) almost the exact same size as the mirror.
        3) no insulation between the drywall (which is missing, see #2 above) and the exterior wall.
        ETC.

        I can’t speak for the quality of houses from the 30s and 40s since I wasn’t around then.Report

      • Avatar Kim in reply to Kim
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        says:

        Damon,
        surprisingly, lack of insulation is better than crummy insulation, if you mean to reinsulate the joint (as we just got done doing — saves a bundle on utilities!).

        Lack of drywall behind mirror–Yikes!Report

      • Avatar Damon in reply to Kim
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        says:

        @kim We weren’t remodeling, just painting. The house was “ok” but given the price paid for the, now revealed, shoddy workmanship, it really cheesed me off. Of course, folks who had older homes, and slate roofs, told me they dropped 40k on new roofs. I dropped 4k so I guess it’s a matter of perspective. 🙂Report

      • Avatar Kolohe in reply to Kim
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        says:

        Kim, the problem with your characterization is definitely survivorship bias.

        Good housing from pre-WW2 is still around because it is fairly well constructed housing. Far more common in that era (and earlier) was housing that was little more than shacks in the country, and housing that was either shacks or tenements (or both) in the cities. However, almost all that sort of housing are gone – fallen apart in the country (and/or replaced with suburban construction) and razed in the city from the 50s through the 70s.

        ‘Levittown’ type construction may be inferior to manor houses and brownstones, and may even be inferior to Sears Craftsman homes, but was far more sturdy than the ‘affordable’ housing of its then-recent predecessors.

        (In any case, everything built before 1960 that hasn’t been already remodelled has lotsa lead and asbestos- which isn’t a problem *until* one remodels)Report

      • Avatar Kim in reply to Kim
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        says:

        K,
        Pittsburgh still has tons of workmen housing (not tenement, so much, but rowhomes, and other things that are qualitatively pretty crappy). Little asbestos up here, I figure — coal was cheap.

        Yes, there is some survivor bias (more in pittsburgh, where subsidence is a real issue).

        But still, it’s not like we’re building even “good” homes if they come in within 5 years with an additional pricetag of $90,000 for rewiring.Report

  2. Avatar Xepenn
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    says:

    In my experience, the communal spirit has more to do with a lack of diversity than anything to do with the layout or organization of a neighborhood. Immigrant communities in the past never lacked a sense of community whether they were packed liked sardines in apartment buildings or part of a migrant workers camp. In reality many features and regulation of good neighborhood are really there just to price out and repel the wrong kind of people rather than to attract the right people. Kind of like a gated community that regulates the height of grass, charges high HOA fees to pay for a community center, and makes rules against pit bulls.Report

  3. Avatar LeeEsq
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    says:

    I really don’t think that the physical geography of a neighborhood has much to do with whether or not it has a communal spirit or not for the most part. You can have good or poor commuanl spirit in a traditional city neighborhood, in a post-WWII automobile suburb, or a new urbanist suburb. What reallly gives a neighborhood communal spirit is whether or not people have a reason to get together on certain occassions. Immigrant neighborhoods had high levels of communal spirit because people got together to celebrate traditional celebrations, practice their religion, support each other in hard times, help with chores, etc. Modern post-war suburbs seem to lack communal spirit because life is more autonomous now than it was in the past. You can design a neighborhood in whatever you like but its not going to have communal spirit without a need for communalism in its inhabitants.Report

    • Avatar Kim in reply to LeeEsq
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      says:

      I don’t think this is the case. You can have a lot of informal relationships built around “going to the grocery store” or “going to the post office” or “sitting in the library” or “drinking some coffee at the coffee shop”.Report

    • Avatar Xepenn in reply to LeeEsq
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      says:

      Practicing and celebrating common holidays and traditions is the result of people having these things in common. If your neighbors hold foreign values then you are less likely to interact with them. Living autonomous lives doesn’t prevent people from interacting with others for social and religious reasons.Report

  4. Avatar j r
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    says:

    Thanks for this. Urban planning is the sort of thing that I always think about tangentially, but no very little about as a proper field of study. I would be curious to hear more about how urban planners deal with the tension between the sorts of things that planners think is ideal in a neighborhood and the sorts of choices that individual people tend to make.

    For instance, number 3:

    There are a variety of dwelling types — usually houses, rowhouses, and apartments — so that younger and older people, singles and families, the poor and the wealthy may find places to live.

    I like the idea of this, but is it practical? Lots of people seem to judge a neighborhood great exactly to the extent that it insulates them from the poor. Is it right to try and force people out of that behavior? And even if it is right, is it practical? And let’s say there are enough people who don’t want to flee cities for gated communities and sterile suburbs, that creates its own problem. Then you have a bunch of relatively wealthy people bidding up the cost of living in a particular community, so how do you keep it affordable for those who aren’t wealthy?Report

    • Avatar Mike Dwyer in reply to j r
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      says:

      JR,

      You make a good point there. In my experience with the community I discuss in the OP there is no low-income housing. To be more exact, there is very little middle class housing. It is primarily an upper class neighborhood. There are some apartment buildings scattered throughout the development, which could maybe work for lower incomes, but they would have to be heavily subsidized to make rent affordable. In appearance though, they were well-designed. We walked by them for over a year before we realized they weren’t single family dwellings.Report

    • Avatar Will Truman in reply to j r
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      says:

      I like the idea of this, but is it practical? Lots of people seem to judge a neighborhood great exactly to the extent that it insulates them from the poor. Is it right to try and force people out of that behavior? And even if it is right, is it practical?

      This is where I get all lefty. The ability of a group of people to insulate themselves from the poor is not an overall societal positive. Nor is it neutral, in my opinion. It’s people outside the economically segregated communities who tend to have to deal with the negative consequences of said segregation. So I have no moral problem with it.

      Practically speaking? That’s a tougher question because it depends in part of what the aims are.

      To leave the left and get back to libertarian-land, somewhat, I am willing to let the market sort it out. That includes, though, preventing locales from using zoning to prevent multi-family housing.Report

    • Avatar Chris in reply to j r
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      says:

      Here in Austin a community much like the one Mike describes has been built at the site of the old airport. The city required that it be a mixed income neighborhood, so that it has Section 8 housing and upper middle class housing, often within sight of each other. The housing costs here are skyrocketing, so the only way it remains mixed is through Section 8 and other subsidies, and it’s looking more and more like the people who won’t be able to live there in the long run are the middle class, the people who don’t qualify for subsidies but can’t afford a three quarters of a million dollar 3 bedroom.Report

      • Avatar Saul DeGraw in reply to Chris
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        says:

        San Francisco and Brooklyn also had this problem.

        In y old neighborhood in Brooklyn, I lived between two major streets. One street and trendy boutiques, bars, and restaurants. The other had a huge housing project. The rest of the neighborhood were trendy and desirable Brownstones that probably sold for well over a million dollars though some to most were broken up into apartments, it was hard to tell how many were. The middle class people were largely old-timers. People who bought when the neighborhood was a working class ethnic enclave (largely Italian-Catholic, there are still some old-time Italian restaurants and bakeries.) or bought in during the 1960s-early 80s as really early Jane Jacobs settlers/gentrifers.

        I lived in the neighborhood from 2006-2008 and it has become even more gentrified and it was pretty gentrified when I lived there. There are upscale department stores like Barney’s on Atlantic Avenue. A huge Whole Foods on the Gowanus Canal (a former superfund site!), a Trader Joe’s etc. Though luckily there is still the cheaper movie theatre with the wonderfully 80s opening segment before each movie.Report

      • Avatar Chris in reply to Chris
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        says:

        Here’s a photo of part of the neighborhood:

        http://designmind.frogdesign.com/files/u70/pecanstreet-main2.jpg

        Note how the control tower is still there.

        On one end, there are two shopping centers, one with a supermarket (HEB) ,and one with stores like Old Navy and Best Buy, along fast food or fast-food adjacent restaurants. They’re building a large theater in there somewhere, too, and there’s a children’s hospital. It’s got some great walking.Report

      • Avatar Saul DeGraw in reply to Chris
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        says:

        @chris

        That is a lot more planned than any community I have ever lived in.Report

    • Avatar Kazzy in reply to j r
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      says:

      “Lots of people seem to judge a neighborhood great exactly to the extent that it insulates them from the poor.”
      @j-r

      I would say this behavior is problematic insofar of the assumptions it makes about “the poor”. Could I understand wanting to live in neighborhoods that have lower crime rates or bigger lawns or which are better maintained? Absolutely. And I wouldn’t say it is necessarily problematic if doing so means people trend toward folks with higher incomes because of the relationship between those things and income/wealth levels. But to presume that every person who makes below a certain income level is thereby undesirable to be around… that I find highly problematic. It is prejudicial and biased in a way that we should consider unacceptable.Report

    • Avatar dragonfrog in reply to j r
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      says:

      One of the things I really like about where we’re living is how much of a mixed neighbourhood it is – economically (there are apartments and houses in various price ranges) and demographically (there are some retirement homes, lots of young families, a fair bit of ethnic diversity).

      Of the main things I don’t like about it, one of them is specific to the much-less-diverse, rich end of area where some horrible person has put out mini-bear traps to catch cats. Technically it’s a different neighbourhood, but the boundary is just a block from our house.

      The other, much bigger, problem is there have been three attempts to kidnap small children out of a park near our house, and they still haven’t caught the guy.Report

  5. Avatar Jonathan McLeod
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    says:

    Mike, the life you describe sounds lovely. It’s absolutely true that urban/suburban planning can’t force people to live in community. All it can do is facilitate community.

    My city is going through a lot trials in terms of this right now. There are some major new developments, including one that plans to create a new urban village in an established (and old) urban neighbourhood (which just happens to be my neighbourhood). Ottawa hasn’t embraced New Urbanism, sadly, but they are, piece by piece, adopting some of the spirit of it.

    In Ottawa, the trend to NU is definitely a good thing. You are correct that we *can* build community anywhere, but that doesn’t mean we will. A few years back, I lived in the suburbs. We were in a townhouse in close proximity to others, with a number of communal green spaces (they were small, but they were there). We were also close to two major roads and another road that served as a major artery for the neighbourhood. Bus service was ok, but not great. The major roads (Innes and Tenth Line for Ottawa folk) were heavy-traffic roads. The artery was wide and the speed limit merely a suggestion. Blocks were long and intersections were unregulated.

    The neighbourhood took on a massive car-centric character (even though there was a lovely creek with baseball fields adjacent running through the centre of it). Pedestrians just weren’t seen. The shops along the major roads had massive parking lots in front of them and no clear, safe way to walk through them. Drivers ignored pedestrians (because most rarely walked farther than their car or a bus stop). It was ridiculously dangerous and inconvenient to walk or bike anywhere.

    As a result, no one was on the street. I grew up in a suburban-type area (we were on the cusp of non-urban areas, so I don’t really know what category the neighbourhood fell in). Streets were quiet, and parks and greenspace was in abundance. We were all on the street a lot because we could be.

    Most of the suburbs in Ottawa (Kanata, Orleans, parts of Gloucester, Barrhaven) do not have that life–that community–on the streets. The streets are designed for cars, not for people. As much as there are community events, there is not the same aspect of community.

    Contrast with my current neighbourhood, and the difference is shocking. Because people can and do walk (there are crosswalks, shops in walking distance, a lack of sprawling parking lots buffering pedestrians from stores), we see a lot more people. We go to stores that are staffed and owned by neighbours. We actually get to know each other.

    So, yes, community building is done by people. And, no, not every aspect of NU is going to be right for every city/burb/community, but development will have a significant impact on how people use their neighbourhoods and how that will allow them to interact with their neighbours.Report

    • Avatar Dan Miller in reply to Jonathan McLeod
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      says:

      Well put. I think that car-centric design kills neighborhood feeling more than anything else (and contributes to a related development, namely parents being too afraid to let their kids be independent–see the excellent Free Range Kids for more on this). It’s a damn shame.Report

      • Avatar Will Truman in reply to Dan Miller
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        says:

        I think this has more to do with parenting than it does car-centricity. I grew up in a car-centric neighborhood and had relatively free range between the major parkways and the water). That meant access to at least a couple of parks, the pool, and a large number of cohorts. (There were some commercial interests within the specified parameters, which was helpful though not necessary.) I’m not sure what more I needed than that.

        A whole lot of the fear is chosen, rather than being a product of housing design.Report

      • Avatar Kim in reply to Dan Miller
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        says:

        Will,
        Homeowners associations have been known to ban kids playing outdoors.Report

  6. Avatar Saul DeGraw
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    says:

    I am a big fan of being able to walk to restaurants, bars, grocery stores, and other shops instead of getting into a car. It is wonderful to think “I need some ice cream” and be able to walk a block and get a pint or a cone instead of it being a whole production of getting into a car, etc. There is something really nice about seeing everyone out at the local Farmer’s market every Sunday and seeing people doing their grocery shopping or just hanging out a the coffee shops, etc.

    If I lived in a suburb, I like the older ones with a central town that are built on the English Village model.Report

  7. Avatar Kazzy
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    says:

    When I lived in Maryland, Montgomery County was just coming off having built several brand new “town centres”. It was an interesting phenomenon to bear witness to. When we first visited the one closest to us — in Bethesda — we were impressed. Roads closed to pedestrian traffic, fun shops, cool restaurants, families out and about, everything well maintained. Then we visited the one the next town up, in Rockville, and it was almost identical. Not every detail, but the feel was the same. Suddenly, it all felt so manufactured… so fake. Spending more time in these spaces, the feeling only got worse. It seemed they were built to attract new, “more desirable” people rather than serve the people already living in these communities. People drove in, parked in a garage, did their business, and then went back to their own neighborhoods. No community was actually established.

    Maybe things changed over time. We weren’t there long. What was weird was that these weren’t empty tracts of land but communities with minor downtowns of their own. Both Bethesda and Rockville were on Metro lines, albeit were somewhat different from one another. I assumed the “town centres” were built to combat the miles of strip malls that lay between the two towns and to tap into wealthier areas nearby (particularly Chevy Chase).

    As we grow frustrated with our current town because of a decided lack of community, we are thinking hard about where we stop next. The towns we love to spend time in are those that grew more organically, that grew in response to people’s needs and wants rather than hoping that supply would cause demand.Report

    • Avatar Jonathan McLeod in reply to Kazzy
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      says:

      “As we grow frustrated with our current town because of a decided lack of community, we are thinking hard about where we stop next. The towns we love to spend time in are those that grew more organically, that grew in response to people’s needs and wants rather than hoping that supply would cause demand.”

      This is a good perspective. One of the critiques of urbanism and NU (which aren’t totally synonymous–and the “town centres” you describe sound kind of horrible in their artificialness) is that it tries to impose a particular development model on people.

      This is a good critique, as far as it goes. And, honestly, it doesn’t usually go all that far. Critics of urbanism claim that people want the suburban life, and policies devoted to urbanism go against that.

      It’s true that people may “want” suburban living, but for most of the 20th C (and still today), suburban living is highly subsidized. The costs of road development, public transit, the use of public space for roads and parking–these are subsidies that are generally not reflected in the price of suburban homes.

      Further, the Wonder Years-esque suburban dream is highly reliant on zoning keeping certain types of development (commercial, industrial, certain dwellings) out of the neighbourhood.

      I’m not arguing against suburbs here, per se (I don’t want to live there anymore, but to each their own). But the notion that people really want to live in the suburbs, that they sprout up organically, and that they don’t rely on market-distorting subsidies (of land, money, environmental decay, etc) and regulations is a bit of a fallacy.

      (This isn’t really a critique of you, Kazzy. I’m not saying you said this. I’m just sort of jumping off your comment, which was a good comment.)Report

      • Avatar LeeEsq in reply to Jonathan McLeod
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        I think its complicated. Its true that car-oriented and highly zoned suburbs were subsidized in the United States and Canada and to a lesser extent Australia, New Zealand, and even the UK in a way that more urban areas were not, people still fled to them in droves after World War II. The prototype of the post-war suburb appeared in Los Angeles and the New York metropolitan area during the 1920s and 1930s. They were more than a little popular. The idea of a house with a yard surrounded by nothing more than other houses with yards wouldn’t be subsidized so heavily if they weren’t seen as desirable.

        I think that even without the subsidies suburban living would be popular after World War II and more traditional cities would have declined. The decline might not have been as steep but it would still be there.Report

      • Sure, it is what some people want. However, the notion that demand is so great and so organic (not affected by subsidies, incentives or regulations that, last century, often gutted the cores of cities) is hogwash*.

        In my city, there are a lot of condos being developed in the city core (I imagine Ottawa will soon reach peak-condo). A lot of the pushback against condos is that no one wants to live in them. And yet they still sell.

        Granted, some get preferable deals from the city, but a lot are a reaction to the demand to live in the city’s central neighbourhoods. I think it’s clear that more people (at least in Ottawa, but I’m sure other North American cities, as well) would choose urban living if it were available, if the deck wasn’t stacked against it, and if suburban life wasn’t highly subsidized.

        If we can get some balance in zoning laws (and try to find ways to fold externalities back in), we’ll probably see people’s true preferences come out.

        *I don’t think I’ve ever written that word here before.Report

      • Avatar LeeEsq in reply to Jonathan McLeod
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        says:

        Jonathan, I think your right about urban living in the present. A lot of people only choose suburban living because its artifically cheaper because of subsidies. In the immediate post war period, I’m not so sure. At least in the United States, there was something about suburban living that spoke to the parents of the baby boomer. Granted, there were a lot of subsidies and Hollywood propaganda behind the suburbs but the house/yard/car trio seemed to be really be genuinely popular. At the same time, most rust belt cities hit their peak population in 1960 and mass suburbinzation only took off at this point so what do I know.Report

      • Avatar Kazzy in reply to Jonathan McLeod
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        says:

        @jonathan-mcleod

        You are absolutely right that describing the process by which the towns we like evolved was far from “organic”. It was just much more organic than the very deliberately constructed venues. The town we love most will likely be one we never live in, even temporarily: the homes are too expensive and the apartments wouldn’t meet our needs as a family with young child(ren). All of the apartments are much older, meaning they tend toward the small side and usually lack such amenities as elevators and in-unit washer/dryers. During a recent trip for lunch, we saw a lawn sign pushing people to vote against a new high rise project… the sort of high rise that likely would have been perfect for us but which would have been a marked departure from the single-family houses and garden apartments you found throughout the rest of town. “I guess they don’t want our kind here,” my wife and I quasi-joked.

        Ignoring the legitimacy of whatever steps the town’s residents might have taken to stop the project, the fact that a project there was theoretically demand for could be stopped speaks directly to your point and to the way in which other controls were/are still key to those towns taking shape.

        For us personally, we want to find a place where people are committed to their community. It is less important (especially for me) what shape and size the dwellings are and more important that people take pride in where they live, are eager to connect with their neighbors, and generally share a similar lifestyle. I’d probably be equally happy in a brownstone in Jersey City, in a high rise in Hoboken, or a single-family house in Ridgewood, NJ (the previously described town) — despite these all having very different structures, feels, demographics, and levels of urbanization*.

        * They are closer together than they are far apart in the grand scheme, but for towns located within 30 minutes of one another, they represent a pretty decent spread.Report

      • Avatar Kazzy in reply to Jonathan McLeod
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        says:

        “In my city, there are a lot of condos being developed in the city core (I imagine Ottawa will soon reach peak-condo). A lot of the pushback against condos is that no one wants to live in them. And yet they still sell.”

        I imagine the people who are saying that “no one” wants to live in them really mean “no one who is the right kind of someone”. Or “no one like me”. Or simply “I”. Something therein, I’d bet.Report

      • @kazzy Yes, it’s often a judgement on the type of people. Right now, there’s a lot of pushback against “student” housing. There are some legitimate gripes about the way some development goes, and the stress it can put on infrastructure, but a lot of it is just maintaining the right socio-economic demographic.

        Most irritatingly, people seem reflexively to just use urban condo development as a means to bash hipsters. In Ottawa.*

        *We could not be described as having a hipster problem.**

        **The very notion of a hipster “problem” is rather crass.Report

      • Avatar Kazzy in reply to Jonathan McLeod
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        says:

        Does a “hipster problem” qualify as First World Problem?

        “The African continent was laid waste to by European colonialism.”
        “Yea, man, I feel you. Brooklyn was so much better before the hipsters showed up.”Report

      • Avatar Kim in reply to Jonathan McLeod
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        says:

        Jon and Kazzy,
        I’m pretty sure that there are quality of life issues in nearly all the condos that I’ve seen in pittsburgh. (Please note: we’re talking condos that cost the same to rent as a full house (in a “swanky” neighborhood) a 30-minute bus ride from downtown, with a secondary downtown within 15 minutes). Mostly noise issues — it seems no one builds in the proper insulation.

        That said, a lot of people would live in apartments in order to be in the “right neighborhood”Report

      • Valid point, Kim, but those issues would seem to relate as much to building codes as to urbanism (though the types of dwellings in different developments might require tweaks to building codes, so they’re certainly linked).Report

      • Avatar Kazzy in reply to Jonathan McLeod
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        says:

        And those issues would only seem to impact the condo-dwellers themselves. The guy in the tony SFH two blocks away isn’t going to be dealing with the too-loud TV in 2A of the south tower.

        I don’t reject that different dwelling types present different pros and cons to the broader neighborhood. But my point is that people’s resistance to such changes are usually grounded more in “people” issues than in infrastructure, logistics, and the like.

        The residents of Ridgewood who were opposing high rises because of the dramatic shift they would have on the aesthetic of the town are on solid footing to make that argument (whether those concerns are legitimate to halt construction is another matter). Were they to maintain that objection if/when the developer agrees not to break the tree line, we’ve moved into a different area altogether.Report

  8. Avatar zic
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    says:

    This is a great topic, @mike-dwyer

    I read it before any comments, and decided to wait to comment, wanting to see which direction things went in.

    I’ve worked on planning projects as a citizen volunteer for many years; beginning with two neighborhood parks in my old neighborhood; one in front of my house. They were ramshackle, and we wanted to reclaim them. A woman in the neighborhood had begun an effort to revitalize them years before (not coincidentally when her own children were small), and had moved the project enough that there was community interest and some commitment from the town. But her children were older when we moved in, and she was tired. So I took over, and oversaw the project to completion. From there, I took a seat on the local green space alliance board, and helped use this project as a model for engaging resident input in planning projects. I moved on to a project redoing the streets, pedestrian walking paths, and park spaces around our school, the town offices, and library, which all sat in the same triangle of land, where I was the citizen representative on the planning committee. As this project was wrapping up, we moved to Maine, so I looked for similar volunteer opportunities here.

    And that was an eye opener — going from an urban environment (Brookline, MA) to a rural town with a small urban core. People here were much more suspicious of planning and zoning in general. There is a deeply held perception that any zoning laws take away property value, which amuses me for several reasons. First, people who hold that view rarely examine how zoning also protects value. Second, they have some disconnect from zoning and property tax; always wanting their land taxed at its lowest value but unrestricted to maximize its highest potential value, and any infringement on that value gap is considered a taking. Maine requires towns to have a 10-year comprehensive plan, which isn’t so much a plan in the building sense as it is an inventory and goals and guidelines. These are bitterly fought documents, and I’ve seen the same clauses in used to uphold opposing arguments. Their biggest use seems to be in forcing reviews of zoning laws to help keep them updated and in grant applications, particularly for federal block-grant money through CDBG and DOT.

    The places I’ve lived have been old and established, but I’ve spent a good deal of time in AZ, watching Phoenix sprawl. When I first went there, some 30+ years ago, you drove an hour from the airport through the desert to my in-laws home; now you drive 45 minutes through planned towns to a park, the only desert left on the route, and to my in-laws town in a planned community on the other side. From watching these communities develop, there are a few other things I’ve learned of value.

    First, most planned communities have restrictive covenants, intended to maintain property values and stop eyesores and blight within the neighborhood. I don’t like such laws when the prohibit things like rain barrels, compost bins, solar panels, and house-mounted antennas. Sometimes, they prevent home vegetable gardens. I do like planned communities that have central spaces for public gatherings. I love it when a patch of land is set aside for a community victory garden; and in water-short areas, when there’s a method for recycling water for gardening. I’m always happy when some thought is given to native landscape so that the food source for birds is available. I love it when covenants ban the Scott Lawn phenomena (really, do you want to let your kid roll around on that?)

    But what most intrigues me here is the same thing we see when it comes to taxation — the local planning, ordinance, control and level of cooperation often takes the blame for frustration at problems that stem from larger governing bodies, be it the town that’s home to the neighborhood association, the county that hosts the town, the state that hosts the county, or the feds. Our ire up often gets directed down, because that’s the place where we can assert ourselves.

    Cannot say enough for traffic calming. Here, we tend to let our roads got to potholes — not to big — to that end. It’s always based on the cost; but every town meeting where the road repairs are discussed, keeping the traffic slowed is always part of the conversation.

    You might be interested to read about Smart Growth; wikipedia is a good place to start there. There’s also a non-profit foundation, Main Street Center which has been very successful in communities reclaim their main streets.Report

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