Tuesday, September 4, 2007

"New Urbanism"

Via BB, I found this article on a new type of housing development. Given the label of "new urbanism," it's really just a revival of an older style of development (which the article acknowledges).

The impulse is simple: Make it easy to interact with your neighbors, and make your neighborhood more pedestrian-friendly. How? Houses close to the street, large huge porches, parking in back, no cul-de-sacs, lots of small green spaces throughout. Oh, and provide some mixed-use areas close enough that people can walk to bars and restaurants. The article talks a lot about alcohol and reducing the need to drive in order to find a drink, which I find fascinating.

Why am I even posting on this? Because one of my pet peeves is suburbia. It's a bloody horrible way to design a neighborhood. My hometown is exploding with the worst kind of suburbs - all cul-de-sacs and houses so close together you can't get a vehicle between them; I wish they'd just give up the pretense of single-family dwellings and go to English-style housing, what I'd call duplex townhouses or something. Suburbia promotes the use of cars by making it harder to walk anywhere; setting homes back from the street with garages out front and no porches inhibits conversation with neighbors; and it's just ugly as hell. Admittedly, this new design allows for the ugly to continue (stop painting houses with the same half-dozen pastels already! Jesus!), but it is a step in the right direction from at least two standpoints:

*Puts on Policy Wonk Hat*

1) The Environment. Specifically, given population projections, we need to stop creating more suburban developments immediately and start building more high-density dwellings if we want to have any countryside left in 50 years. This move is, in policy terms, a step in the right direction. The inclusion of green space and the increased pedestrian traffic also help the environment by reducing vehicular traffic and adding carbon dioxide sinks throughout the neighborhood. They're not intentional communities, but they'll do. Now if they could just garden with their graywater, that'd be great....

2) Social Participation. Robert Putnam, author of Bowling Alone, should be pretty pleased by this. He's made a career out of noting the decreased participation in civic and social life of Americans, and suburbia is often cited as a major reason for that decrease. This new design trend, according to the article, promotes social interaction. Certainly I'd rather live in a place where I could hang out with my neighbors than have to drive across town to see people, that would be good.

Long story short, while this may be a good move, it's certainly not the best move. But given the dominant trends in public policy and planning in this country (zoning segregation, suburbia, and big box stores), this is better than I would have expected. But it's not enough.


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