Looking at paleo-urbanism

There’s plenty of talk about New Urbanism in city planning circles nowadays. But Eric Jacobsen (pictured), author of the great book “Sidewalks in the Kingdom,” makes a valid point about how the impact of New Urbanism may remain isolated.

After a discussion and critique of the New Urbanist town of Seaside, Florida, Jacobsen turns his attention to where the rest of us live:

Only a small percentage of the North American populace falls in the category of new home buyer. Furthermore, many North Americans are living in apartments or homes in older established parts of town. For most of these people whether the percentage of new home starts shifts towards New Urbanism and away from suburban will have very little impact on the quality of their lives.

Thus the wonderful term “paleo-urbanist” — what we used to call actual cities. The trick is, can we apply the principles of good cities and neighborhoods to places that are already built?

Many of these neighborhoods are in need of private capital investment, improved infrastructure, and better schools. But they have “good bones” from an urbanist perspective. The success of New Urbanism will be measured not by how many new developments they can start in any particular year, but by how the momentum generated in these developments spills over into the existing urban fabric of North America.

Making sure we don’t built more bland suburbs is one thing. But reforming the neighborhoods we have is another.

You can read his article here at Comment magazine.

Related slideshow at Slate: The model town of Seaside, 25 years later.

Front porches vs. ‘American Idol’

1435352816_166e3f2654.jpgTonight I’m sitting out on the front porch of our 100-year-old rental house in a paleo-urbanistic neighborhood, and I’m quite enjoying myself. The porch light is on, my pipe is lighted, my legs are propped up on the balustrade, and a slight chill is in the air. Though dark outside, the old-fashioned street lamps allow me to see clearly up and down the street and notice the wonderful rhythm of other houses with similar front porches. Quickly, however, the charming atmosphere so much promoted by New Urbanists begins to fade as I notice that I’m the only one actually outside on my front porch. Well, you say, maybe it’s because this is the coldest night so far this fall. Not true, however. This has pretty much been the same as every other night: for all practical purposes, no one is ever out on their front porch!

So what’s the problem? Aren’t front porches supposed to encourage neighborhood interaction? Aren’t they supposed to make it easier to meet and connect with those living mere feet away? Clearly when the houses on this street were built, that seemed to be the reality. Why not now? Well, it didn’t take me more than a couple times walking up and down the block to realize the problem: instead of sitting out on the front porch, everyone is inside watching TV! Indeed, even if the street lights went out, it wouldn’t be pitch black because of the neon glare emanating from the front windows and doors!

It seems to me we can build better houses and streets and neighborhoods and cities until we’re blue in the face and never make a dent in the fragmentation and disconnectedness of society if we don’t deal with the real, underlying problems. As long as the TV is on 8.14 hours a day, no amount of front porches will ever allow neighbors to meet, let alone engage with and care for one another.

Architecture can certainly help. But it can only go so far. As much as design needs to change, behaviors and habits need to change even more if we’re ever going to experience real community.

PS: after I wrote this post, I stumbled upon this post. Well said, even if he is not as critical of TV as I am.

Difference should not be a barrier

Skeeter’s Branch Newsies: 1910In calling Christians — or anybody else — to consider remaining in or returning to live in the city, one of the objections often raised is how unsafe and unhealthy it would be to expose their kids to the degradation and depravity typically associated with urban life. Mere differences are also routinely raised as a sticking point. While those conditions certainly tend to be true, is their existence really a threat to raising healthy children?

Noel Piper thinks not. When her husband accepted a call over twenty-five years ago to pastor Bethlehem Baptist Church, an old urban church in Minneapolis, they committed to live within walking distance of the church. Twenty-five years ago, that was not a normal or easy thing for a middle-class white family to do. At that time, those type people were fleeing the apparent dangers of the city for the supposed safety of the suburbs. But they bucked the American trend and raised five children in a small, decades old foursquare house in the middle of and old, urban neighborhood. They did it for many reasons, but one of them was so that their children would be exposed to the very elements of society that so many others found frightening. Noel explains:

“We have purposely fostered the assumption that many people are different from us. Over the years in our downtown neighborhood, our children played with children from welfare families and others who attended private schools. One best friend was Vietnamese and others were of mixed races. Cross-cultural ministry and experience do not have to be in another country. Are there international students or refugees or American Indians or elderly eastern Europeans in your vicinity? Nor does a cross-cultural experience have to be only with foreigners. Let’s say you live in a somewhat isolated setting and have to make an effort to gather playmates for your child. Who are the children you’ll invite? A migrant farm worker’s child? Someone who is a different color than you? The poorly dressed little guy with the runny nose? Continuous contact with people of other cultures and circumstances prepares our children to be open to and comfortable with people anywhere. A child’s world is broadened when the doorbell rings at 2:00 am and an intoxicated acquaintance wants a ride home, or a lonely man who drools and weeps is invited home for Sunday dinner, or a Cameroonian family of five spends Christmas. We assume aloud that many people don’t know God. In every place we’ve lived – suburbs or city – our children have had playmates with unmarried parents living together. They have learned early that many people don’t go to church and many get drunk and smear God’s name.”

Oh, that more Christians would fear less and risk more. Our children’s souls, along with those of many others, depend on it.

photo by Lewis Wickes Hines

The battle of Water Song addition

Water Song

If a developer told you he was going to build a gas station on the property behind your house, after you were told by the home builder that the property’s zoned for an office park, what would you do?

Some residents of Water Song addition near the corner of Coldwater and Union Chapel roads want to fight it tooth and nail. Resident Donald Bengel, in a letter to the editor in The News-Sentinel, says he may be willing to go to court over the matter. (You can read his letter on the continuation page.)

But it’s very difficult for any government to kill a new business in cold blood, especially one on a busy corner. It’s likely the challenge would go nowhere.

Instead, why not consider the long-term needs of the neighborhood, and fight for that?

Like most carved-from-the-cornfield developments, Water Song is 100 percent residential, cut off from any business or service. Perhaps there are sidewalks, but there are precious few reasons to walk them.

Run out of milk? Drive to the store. Want a cup of coffee? Drive to a coffee shop.

But if the developer of the gas station is encouraged to serve the neighborhood it borders, he could do the following:

  • Build a sidewalk between the neighborhood and store, for walking, biking and skateboarding — and include a bike rack.
  • Point the outdoor lights downward.
  • Stock essentials, such as milk, bread, butter and batteries.
  • Construct the side of the gas station facing the neighborhood not as a blank wall, but with a nice little coffee house with plenty of windows, such as a Higher Grounds.
  • Be sure there isn’t a drive-through lane or any other traffic between the store and the neighborhood, for safety.

Come at the developer as enemies, and you’ll get a losing battle. But come at him as potential customers, and he very well may build a place that would serve your neighborhood rather than injure it.

Photo of Water Song addition from Google Maps. See the jump for the full text of the letter to the editor referenced.

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