28 January 2008

'Traditional urbanism' and neighbourhoods

As an alumnus of the University of Notre Dame, I receive gratis Notre Dame Magazine, a glossy periodical that is usually not near the top of my "to read" pile. Nevertheless, the winter 2007-08 issue carries an article by John Nagy, The Once and Future Neighborhood, that is definitely worth reading. It features the ideas of Philip Bess, professor at the Notre Dame School of Architecture, who is described as a "traditional urbanist." Bess's academic interests frequently take him and his students to Cooperstown, New York, once an ordinary village, but now reshaped by the presence of the National Baseball Hall of Fame.

Bess makes urbanism relatable by talking about pizza, an analogy he borrows from the influential European architect and urban designer Leon Krier. A traditional neighborhood, Bess explains, is to a traditional city what a slice of pizza is to the whole pie, "because a slice of pizza has on it all the ingredients of the entire city." Residents can walk to schools, parks, the family doctor and the grocery store, their church and, ideally, their work: in short, the places that supply their lives with health and meaning.

Suburban development leaves us with separate piles of ingredients. Homes for the poor are in one pile; homes for the well-off somewhere else. Clusters of office buildings, public services and retail stores surrounded by oceanic parking lots crop up along congested connector roads paved at taxpayers' expense. We drive everywhere because we have no choice. As Bess says, "you can't just have a pizza; you've got to go get each little ingredient by itself."

We tagged this form of suburbia "sprawl" in the 1960s while our cities and towns hemorrhaged into never-ending subdivisions. In 1982, developed land in the United States covered 72.9 million acres. By 2003, federal data show, new construction left an Iowa-sized footprint of 35.2 million more acres -- a rate nearly double that of the growth of the population.

The problem at its deepest level is one of human nature. But it's also a byproduct of the postwar economic boom and faulty public policy. You may know the story: Public health concerns about industry set a precedent for single-use zoning codes that extend to everything, including housing by income level. Cheap, government-backed mortgages, nothing short of miraculous to a generation that had grown up in depression and war, favored new construction over renovation. Interstate highways promised swift commutes and an escape from polluted, crime-ridden cities and their failing schools. Developers, their crews and their corporate financiers benefitted from building plentifully and at low cost. They still do.

The impact on Americans and our communities, even idyllic and isolated ones like Cooperstown, has been palpable. We've lost apartments above stores and backyard coach houses -- the kind of affordable housing that doesn't come in menacing, publicly funded, cinder-block rectangles. Our streets have emptied of pedestrians as cars have become appendages rather than conveniences. In some areas, teachers, nurses and police officers can't afford to live in the communities they serve. Property taxes spike to cover the rising costs of infrastructure and basic services in far-flung areas. Children and the elderly who can't drive themselves to parks and shops have lost independence. Obesity has become a public health crisis.

While finding solutions is not a simple matter, Professor Bess does offer Ten Principles of Good Neighborhood Design. A good neighbourhood:

Has a discernible center: for example, a public square or main street bordered by civic buildings, shops and/or residences

Has a more or less discernible edge where it ends and another neighborhood or natural feature begins

Is pedestrian friendly, accommodating cars as well as those who want or need to walk

Consists of a variety of dwelling types: for example, single-family homes, apartments above stores and coach houses, which together encourage a healthy economic diversity

Has stores and offices located at and/or near its centers with enough variety of retail goods to meet weekly household needs

Has an elementary school and parks to which most young children can walk

Has small blocks with a network of through-streets (as opposed to feeder roads and cul-de-sacs), generous sidewalks and broad planter strips for trees

Places its buildings close to the street to create a stronger sense of place

Utilizes its streets for parking, rather than building lots and garages visible from the street

Reserves prominent sites for community monuments and civic buildings for education, religion, culture, sport and government, that front on public squares or terminate the ends of streets.

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