What Future is Your Community Building?
As suburban sprawl continues to spread across our landscape, citizens protest against the proliferation of shopping malls, “big box” retail centers, residential subdivisions, and the loss of farmland and open spaces. Yet demonstrating against a development proposal is almost always futile. The shape and character of a community are determined long before a developer submits any plans. The future of a municipality is written into its comprehensive plan, and zoning and subdivision ordinances. The point at which citizen involvement can affect development is when ordinances are being written.
When America decided to abandon its cities during the post-war years of the 1950’s and 1960’s, it also abandoned the methods and values of town building that have shaped human civilization for thousands of years. New policies and design standards were created that inevitably led to the suburban dilemma we face today. In the past decade, a nationwide movement of planners and designers have begun to look to history and tradition to find better ways to build new neighborhoods and re-invigorate existing towns. Below is a summary of the basic elements of conventional suburban sprawl, and the principles of New Urbanism.
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Separation of Uses: Shopping, housing, and work are disconnected into separate "pods" and are thus inaccessible except by car; social groups (children, elderly) cannot mingle.
Oversized Lots: Large lawns take time and money to maintain, create excessively long roads and infrastructure that government must maintain, increasing purchase prices and taxes for homebuyers, and increase the need to drive everywhere.
Over-Adequate Parking: Duplicate parking is required for separate buildings and uses, leading to underutilized parking lots.
Oversized Roadways: Wide streets and intersections promote speeding traffic, making walking difficult and unpleasant.
Lack of Integrated Civic Institutions: Typical Subdivision development does not include public amenities. This contributes to the need to drive everywhere and to the erosion of civility and community involvement.
Lack of Coordinated Open Space: The purposes of such lands are not well defined by governments and badly executed by developers. Open spaces are typically an afterthought, not integrated into the community, and often include only land which cannot be built upon.
Limited Size: A village or neighborhood is limited to a ¼ mile radius (up to 200 acres), or a five minute walk from the center to a clearly defined edge.
Mixed Uses: The inclusion of retail and commercial activity with residential uses brings the needs of life within walking distance for all ages and social groups. A variety of housing types is a standard element, including single family, duplex, townhouses, and apartments over shops, which can bring safety and vitality to the town center.
Street Network: A traditional grid or web pattern creates a more understandable system and more choices for travel routes, which is effective for pedestrians as well as the automobile.
On-Street Parking: Helps to slow down traffic, acts as a buffer between pedestrians and moving traffic, and increases opportunities for drivers to find convenient parking.
Alleys and Lanes: Give secondary access to property for deliveries: locating parking garages, utilities and garbage collection here preserves the beauty of the streetscape.
Sidewalks and Pedestrian Paths: An emphasis on "walkability", or the needs of the pedestrian, makes destinations accessible to residents, including children and the elderly.
Town Center and Square: A central focal point for community life, providing a special place for public events, and is the appropriate place for mixing retail, civic and business life.
Shallow Setbacks: Placing buildings close to sidewalks creates a friendlier "outdoor room". Distances across streets, from building to building, do not exceed five time the building height.
Outbuildings: Secondary structures normally located at a rear alley allow for off-street parking, storage, workshop space, home offices or a rental apartment.
Porches: Create spaces for a sociable transition from the public street to the private home and provide shelter and shade.
Building Types: Designed for adaptation from one use to another, as the market dictates, emphasizing local historical style.
Open Space: A variety of types are included for specific needs, from the central plaza or square, to the neighborhood playground to a green buffer, bringing nature into the human environment.