Saturday, December 02, 2006

Where do YOU live?

Urban planning is one of my all-time favorite topics. My guess is that it will become much more relevant now that we are driving less, according to recent reports.

New Urbanism is a trend which began 25 years ago. New Urbanist developments feature houses with large front porches, garages in the back on allies (not facing the street), sidewalks, and modest backyards. Various building types are integrated into the neighborhood: apartments, condos and free-standing houses, workplaces, schools, post offices and stores. There is a defined neighborhood center which includes formal civic spaces and squares. It sounds like a too-good-to-be-true fantasy to me.

How can you tell if a neighborhood is truly an example of New Urbanism? See if it passes the "popsicle test." An 8-year-old should be able to safely bike from home to a store for a popsicle without risking life and limb on highway-sized streets with freeway-speed traffic. (This, to me, is unfathomable, but I do hope it really exists somewhere.)

Real neighborhoods with a true sense of community are few and far between these days. The problem is, most of us don't realize what we're missing, having never experienced it. I did experience it during my first 5 years of life- my fondest early memory is of the candy store on the corner which actually sold penny candy. By the time I was 5, my neighborhood had caught up with the rest of the country, and the little bakeries, shops and grocery stores had surrendered to the mega retailers.

What a loss. That's why I now crave urban living, in my case involving an actual downtown neighborhood as opposed to New Urbanism. I crave the option of walking rather than firing up the Honda. I want a sidewalk in front of my house, dammit.

Is New Urbanism a successful attempt to bring back the neighborhood of bygone years, or is it a contrived, forced imitation? I can't say, because I've never had the pleasure of actually seeing a New Urbanist example. I've seen half-assed versions, in which each condo features a front porch overlooking a sidewalk, but all the other elements, such as destinations to walk to on those pristine sidewalks, are noticeably absent.

As far as I know, New Urbanist neighborhoods exist in the suburbs. This makes sense, unfortunately, since the downtowns of many cities are in decay. In essense, a new (albeit fake) downtown has to be built within each New Urbanist development. I say, why not use the blighted urban downtowns which already exist, and try to create viable, vibrant neighborhoods there again?

So where do YOU live? Does your neighborhood pass the popsicle test?


Lisa said...


My neighborhood definitely passes the popsicle test, but it is losing its charm rapidly due to nothing more than basic greed.

I purchased my home 9 years ago as a single mom. I paid 1/3 of what it's worth right now. The taxes were fairly low (well, for my area, anyway...a lovely $5200/yr). My house sits on about 1/4 ac. of property, and is a charming brick and fieldstone Cape Cod. This neighborhood was spot-built; every house is different. When I moved in, there were beautiful, old homes on properties that ran up to 1/2 ac. However, now most of those houses have sold to builders who tear down the old, charming house and put up two monstrosities in it's place. And the county now collects twice as much tax on that particular parcel (since our "reassesment", my taxes went up to $8000/yr...I can only imagine what the huge colonials are paying). How greedy is that?

Then we have the urban people who come from the city, and start tearing down all of the huge, old trees that make this neighborhood the quaint one that it is. Why didn't they just stay where they were if they didn't like trees? Why do they have to ruin the charm of this old neighborhood?

My preference would be to live in the country, although if my kids were older or if it was years ago before kids, I could live in a nice brownstone in Manhattan. You know, if I made a million dollars a year. ;)

Take good care,

garnet david said...

My neighborhood does pass the test. Whew! No woder I don't want to move as much as you.

Perhaps Urban Planning is your next career??!!

Betty said...

Dear Lisa,

I am so impressed that your hood passes the popsicle test!!!!!!! It sounds like you have it made, except when the tax bill arrives, although the Manhattan brownstone sounds pretty darned appealing too!

Also, I share your outrage at having trees cut down. I fought with the electric company over the crabapple tree in front of my house when I did live in the urban neighborhood, and I won. That urban area which I want to move back to does still have trees, along with a surprising number of free-standing houses with modest-sized yards. The people who live there are powerful and outspoken, and manage to save things like brick streets and sidewalks, and trees which contribute so much character.

Hugs to you and your neighborhood trees,

Betty said...

Yes, Garnet, if I felt compelled to go back to school, urban planning would be a possible choice. I suspect that I'd be too upset too much of the time, though, if I had a career in it. From what I see so far in our country's neighborhoods, things aren't going my way.

And enjoy your popsicles!


Kacey said...

Hi Betty, First, let me say thanks for the visit to my blog. Next --- where have you been with your urban planning? I just said the exact same thing to my husband last week. When you get your act together as a certified planner --- please, head to Toledo, Ohio and turn our city into donut. We sit dead center of the Turnpike system between New York and Chicago --- and right on I-75 between Upper Michigan and Key West. We are on the St. Lawrence Seaway for shipping, on the large rail lines
and have an under used airport for air freight, but the city is dying for lack of good ideas and good brains to implement the needed changes. I really think that the world is going to have to go back to living in areas where you have housing, work, school, libraries, entertainment all within walking distance so we can stop being slaves to fossil fuels. Our downtown area is just waiting for someone like you to come along with a popsickle stick and jab them in the eye!

Betty said...

Hi Kacey- I'd love to take on Toledo! I'm on my way, armed with popsicles!


Sideways Chica said...

Excellent thought-provoking essay chica. No Popsicles for me! We live in the middle - of nowhere and somewhere! Kind of like a 50/50 bar (if you remember those half Popsicle half ice cream delights)

Someday I will make a move...until then I will make do with the 50/50 bar.

Ciao bella...may you get the Popsicle of your dreams.

Betty said...

Dear Teri,

My life would probably be a bit easier if I could just where other people with kids live (suburbs) and I certainly understand why people choose that. I bet I'd be utterly fascinated with your neighborhood.


Sideways Chica said...

Dear Betty...fascinated, yes - comfortable enough to settle in for the long haul, not so much. Too many SUVs! ;)

Ciao bella...have a great weekend. Also...I am so glad to have you back again. I missed you!

Betty said...

Dear Teri,

I should have told you what the problem was recently when I dropped off the face of the blogging world- my realtor had demanded that I move my computer back down to the basement. I hated that, and ignored the computer until I came to my senses. I hauled the computer back upstairs. If that means my house won't sell, well, I'll eat my hat. The offers weren't exactly flooding in with the computer in the basement, either.

I'm glad to be back, too!


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