What Makes a Neighborhood Great
Just across the road from where we live is a very large planned community that is about 50% complete in its present state. We have been watching it slowly take shape over the last 10 years and it has been an interesting example of suburban development. The neighborhood itself is beautiful, incorporating modern versions of historical Louisville architecture and also including retail space. There are many small shops, restaurants and a collection of business offices. They have also thoughtfully included parks, pools and a large amphitheater where they plan to host summer concerts. What is more important for us in the big picture is that the presence of this neighborhood has made our property values go up and brought increased attention on our area from other developers. Since we moved to the area we have gained two new hospitals, a medical plaza, a Lowes and my favorite, a Cabelas. Our local roads have been greatly improved to deal with the traffic flow and more development is on the way.
The primary goal of this and other similar communities is an attempt to help people reconnect in a local setting. The neighborhoods are classified under the school of New Urbanism which began in the 1980s. It espouses 13 core tenets:
- The neighborhood has a discernible center. This is often a square or a green and sometimes a busy or memorable street corner.
- Most of the dwellings are within a five-minute walk of the center.
- 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.
- At the edge of the neighborhood, there are shops and offices of sufficiently varied types to supply the weekly needs of a household.
- A small ancillary building or garage apartment is permitted within the backyard of each house.
- An elementary school is close enough so that most children can walk from their home.
- There are small playgrounds accessible to every dwelling.
- Streets within the neighborhood form a connected network, which disperses traffic by providing a variety of pedestrian and vehicular routes to any destination.
- The streets are relatively narrow and shaded by rows of trees. This slows traffic, creating an environment suitable for pedestrians and bicycles.
- Buildings in the neighborhood center are placed close to the street, creating a well-defined outdoor room.
- Parking lots and garage doors rarely front the street. Parking is relegated to the rear of buildings, usually accessed by alleys.
- Certain prominent sites at the termination of street vistas or in the neighborhood center are reserved for civic buildings.
- The neighborhood is organized to be self-governing.
Our local model follows many of these rules, although they have chosen to mix retail within the living spaces, many with live-above residents which goes back to a trend that was very common in most cities well into the 20th century. Additionally, the elementary school hasn’t been built yet though it is on the very near horizon as the number of local children has nearly reached critical mass.
I first became aware of planned communities in the early 90s when the town of Celebration, FL was created. For those unfamiliar, Celebration was founded by the Disney company and based on principles advocated by Walt Disney himself. EPCOT is actually an acronym for Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow. Celebration was not the first major planned community in the U.S. but it drew a great deal of attention for obvious reasons. When it came about it was jeered by some for its connection to Disney and comparisons were made to the Stepford Wives. Twenty years later it has proven to be a workable concept.
Today we have a romantic view of what life was like decades ago. We want to believe that everyone knew their neighbors and that there was a real sense of community. The truth is that this image is not undeserved. Older neighborhoods were often more walkable and did include the amenities necessary for people to spend more time close to home. My family hails from an area of Louisville called Germantown and in that neighborhood there were once grocers, clothing stores and lots of corner bars. Busing hadn’t come about and kids went to school within walking distance of home. Neighborhood lots hosted both organized and spontaneous sports. There was also enough local industry that many people made a good living within minutes of home. My older relatives will tell you it was a great place to grow up.
With the decline of small, family owned businesses and the centralization of industry into large business centers, residents had to travel outside their neighborhoods more frequently. Busing also meant that some children no longer went to school within their neighborhoods. New neighborhoods failed to incorporate the communal spaces that once brought families together. The question is, at what cost did these changes come? Michael Strain, writing for The Atlantic talks about tradition, and its link with an idealized version of conservatism:
Conservatism, properly understood, has long championed the essential role played by the mediating institutions of civil society — Edmund Burke’s “little platoons” — the churches, the schools, the men’s and women’s clubs, soup kitchens, scout troops, youth sports leagues, and neighborhood associations. It is here that we learn how to interact with each other. It is here that a healthy dependence of mutual obligation is formed. It is here — enmeshed in a layered, vibrant web of social interactions and commitments — that manners are learned, habits of virtue are cultivated, tradition is discovered and appreciated, and young people are taught who they are and how to live.
I agree with Strain on the importance of these civic institutions, but none of these things went away. They are all alive and well. I grew up in a neighborhood that was the exact opposite of what New Urbanism advocates. It was poorly planned, had few sidewalks, no parks or central hub. And yet the kids still found each other. There was a basketball goal in most driveways and it’s amazing how kids will adapt a football game to fit inside the confines of a backyard. We all had bikes and while it would have been safer to have sidewalks we never let that stop us from traveling as far as we were allowed. Within a quick bike ride was the baseball field where my youth league played and the firehouse where my Scout troop met weekly. We could walk to our parish church and this was also where I attended school.
Even without intense planning, modern neighborhoods are still doing better than in the past. My current neighborhood is about 15 years old. It does not have the central hub or driveways in the rear (to get people closer to the street) but we do have plenty of sidewalks and there is a real sense of community. If we are on the front porch on a pleasant day, we do a lot of talking to the neighbors and waving to friends as they walk by with their kids. This is a stark contrast to our previous neighborhood. It was equally walkable, and yet no one ever interacted with one another. We didn’t know our neighbors. No one welcomed us when we moved in.
My favorite story from our time here is from a close friend. He and his wife lived here before us and as they have had financial success there is always a temptation to move to a more upscale location. He told me they were considering putting out a For Sale sign and then one night they were attending a backyard movie night at a neighbor’s house. He counted 16 children, all close in age, sitting on blankets. The parents were having drinks and making small talk. “You can’t buy this,” he said to himself.
What we have learned by watching the planned community near us slowly come to life is that the most important factor in building relationships and a sense of community is simply desire. If the residents are invested in the success of the community, it will flourish. Yes, thoughtful design can certainly play a part and I will tell you that we often see our neighbors walking in the new planned neighborhood and enjoying its parks. But that is only because we have adopted it as an extension of our own community. We are rooting for its success because it brings all of us together. At the end of day, that’s the thing that seems to matter most.
Mike Dwyer is a freelance writer in Louisville, KY. He writes about culture, the outdoors and whatever else strikes his fancy. His personal site can be found at www.mikedwyerwrites.com. He is also active on Facebook and Twitter. Mike is one of several Kentucky authors featured in the book This I Believe: Kentucky.