A Good Neighborhood, Simply

by | Sep 7, 2011 | Culture, Downtown Sarasota, Exploring the Area, Kids

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There are a million different definitions of what makes a good neighborhood, but perhaps the best ones are also the simplest. Gil Penalosa and the nonprofit organization 8-80 Cities posit that if cities are safe, accessible, and enjoyable for their youngest and oldest residents then everyone in between will also benefit. Kaid Benfield, in a post on switchboard.nrdc.org, discusses a couple of other litmus tests for a neighborhood’s (or a city’s) quality of design: the popsicle test and the halloween test. More on those below…

I had a conversation with Lars Gemzøe yesterday. He’s a senior partner at Gehl Architects, which is arguably the most influential architecture + urban planning consultancy in the world right now. The funny thing, he told me, is that an enormous gap has developed between the types of places people enjoy and the types of places that get built. Gehl Architects has become successful, in a nutshell, by simply steering developers and politicians and other decision-makers back toward urban characteristics that have proven to be livable and lovable. Characteristics such as walkability, human scale, mixed-use, etc.

In many ways, Laurel Park exemplifies these sorts of places. Sure, it could probably stand to loosen up some of its regulations in order to encourage greater diversity in terms of both demographics and functions (really, why aren’t home-based businesses allowed?), but it passes both the popsicle and the halloween tests. Kids can roam safely, elderly folks can cross the street without fear of being run down by speeding cars. Dogs are walked, cats dart from yard to yard, birds chirp, trees grow, the occasional cyclist dismounts to chat with neighbors on their front porch.

It’s not a perfect neighborhood, of course—there’s no such thing—but we enjoy many idyllic moments, and Laurel Park’s urban design has a lot to do with that. Relatively narrow streets, short blocks, some brick paving, small plots with houses built close to the sidewalk, street trees, etc. The design of the built environment has a big influence on the ways people move and interact. The basic form of traditional villages is a tough one to beat, and our little urban village, situated as it is next to downtown, is a fine place to live for the young, the old, and everyone between. It’s a fine place to stroll with a popsicle in hand, and a fine place to trick-or-treat.

The following excerpt is from a post on switchboard.nrdc.org by Kaid Benfield

In a recent post on his firm’s excellent blog, PlacesShakers and NewsMakers, Scott Doyon reminds us of the “popsicle test” of a well-designed neighborhood:  she likes the popsicle test (by: Katia Strieck, creative commons license)if an 8-year-old kid can safely go somewhere to buy a popsicle, and get back home before it melts, chances are it’s a neighborhood that works.  Note that there’s no planning jargon in there:  nothing explicitly about mixed uses, or connected streets, or sidewalks, or traffic calming, or enough density to put eyes on the street.  But, if you think about it, it’s all there.

I’m also fond of the “Halloween test”: if it’s a good neighborhood for trick-or-treating, then it’s likely to be compact and walkable.  My brother-in-law, who lives in a place that is anything but, drives his kids to the nearest traditional town center on Halloween.  Quite a few parents seem to do the same thing by driving to my neighborhood.

Scott puts it this way:

“For a child, having increasing opportunities to navigate the world around them, explore, invent, fall down, scrape knees, make decisions, screw up, get into — and solve — conflicts and, ultimately, achieve a sense of personal identity and self-sufficiency is a good thing. The right thing.

Lake Oswego, OR (by: Dan Burden, pedbikeimages.com)“But you can’t do it easily just anywhere. Place matters. It matters in the design of the streets and the things they connect to. It matters in the variety of uses, opportunities and activities. It even matters in the diversity of housing types. After all, smaller homes or accessory units end up housing people who appreciate, and want to be able to afford, the prospect of being a stay-at-home parent. Or seniors offering options for drop-off babysitting. Not because it’s their corporate value proposition and you’re paying them a thousand bucks a month but because they’re your neighbors and they care about you . . .

“Talk of how it takes a village to raise a child sounds — and feels — good but, to make it work, you need a village to start with. Which means you need politicos willing to push it, and developers willing to build it.”

Pretty good observation, that one.  If the place works for kids, chances are it works for everyone else, too (and, not coincidentally, it also works for the environment) – but as we build new places, or rebuild old ones, we need to be purposeful about it. keep reading at switchboard.nrdc.org