Tuesday, November 30, 2004


The Perfect Neighborhood? (part 1)

Is there such thing as a perfect neighborhood? Usually, when I pose this question it is frequently answered with a resounding “yes.” Which is then usually followed up with a generic supporting statement like, “my neighborhood is perfect because it is so safe,” or “this must be a great neighborhood because all the streets are clean, and all the houses and lawns are so well taken care of,” or the ultimate, “my neighborhood is perfect because I don’t have to drive that far to go shopping or to take the kids to school.”

Though safety, cleanliness, and short driving distances (shouldn't we prefer walking to transit?) represent positive aspects of neighborhoods, they are merely a small part which does not represent the whole. Thus, I fear that these types of responses signify a high tolerance for bad development, if not a completely misinformed idea of what comprises quality neighborhoods and districts. Lesson number one: No neighborhood is perfect, nor should it be. Thus, the previous question was a trick.

As Jane Jacobs says, any neighborhood worth its weight in praise should always be evolving, and evolving slowly. A neighborhood that does not evolve is static, and therefore lacks the essential mechanisms that are intrinsic to social and cultural progress. Feel free to disagree with me, but I am a hard fast Darwinist. Creationists be damned, evolution happens, which means that all organisms, natural or otherwise, need to change to improve and adapt. This is why generic single use, single income, single family suburban cul-de-sac “neighborhood” enclaves fail miserably.

Unfortunately, beauty is in the eye of the beholder, which is what concerns me. Americans have been force fed this tired “American Dream” that implores that happiness can only be obtained by owning a single family home, in an all-single family development, with an all-American car (or SUV), in an all- American suburb. Over fifty years of market proven success has fueled (pun intended) this unrealistic dream, almost to the point of no return. Luckily, there is hope. America is changing, but mostly because it has to.

When the economic catastrophe known as an energy crisis emerges from the dark shadow that has been cast by the soon to be outmoded American Dream, America will cognitively realize that suburbia has been the BIGGEST misallocation of social, political, environmental, and financial resources that human civilization has ever witnessed (Kunstler).

When this dawning takes place, America’s “leaders,” A.K.A government, will realize what a large mistake subsidizing suburbia was. Hopefully, this will elicit an “oh shit” response and the massive mis-investment of the past fifty years will shift from the wholly unsustainable paradigms of our car culture to a more prudent and intelligent allocation of resources that will encourage sound social, environmental, and social investment. What would this look like?

First of all, we would stop subsidizing the destructive disease known as sprawl by creating tax incentives for fat cat developers to reuse existing or underutilized neighborhoods. This is already happening in some places, but it needs to happen in more. Sadly, most Americans with the power to enact change don't do anything progressive, unless there is some sort of financial or personal incentive.

Second, we would stop pretending that cheap oil will fuel (literally) our economy forever. This second realization will force our unbelievably wealthy nation to focus our efforts on lifestyles that do not revolve around the automobile. We must also stop planning for the continued use of the automobile on such a large scale. Continuing to invest billions in highway expansion is like pulling out a shotgun and shooting yourself in the foot.

Third, we would stop pretending that big box stores, conventions centers, and stadiums are a panacea for economic downturn and neighborhood devolution. Real wealth is created and maintained in diverse urban, suburban, and rural enclaves that encourage economic, social, environmental, and cultural diversity. This means creating environments that are welcoming to businesses, public places, and social institutions that value the exchange of ideas. Such an exchange should function first on a local scale so as to not depend wholly on the whimsical nature of a tourism/service based economy.

As author and social critic James Howard Kunstler has said repeatedly, the energy crisis will cause globalism to go in reverse. This change of direction will hurt America a lot, especially if Americans do not change their energy sucking, land consuming, and money-squelching habits.

Nevertheless, we are lucky that good neighborhoods and districts still exist. Much thanks to the new urbanists who have not only “rediscovered” and canonized the principles of good placemaking, but also created plenty of new working models that should be read as “Good Neighborhoods for Dummies.” What this means is that we have plenty of positive models to learn from. We know how to build good blocks, neighborhoods, towns, and cities. We just need to do it more.

Fortunately, Americans know about these places, and even pay large sums of money to visit them on vacation. It’s just time that Americans realize that their own “good neighborhood” in generic anyplace U.S.A can actually be transformed into a real evolving neighborhood worth caring about. For this to happen it is essential that people demand change. Will this happen? Probably not as quickly as it should.

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