New Urban Neighborhood Design
By Ward Davis
This article was originally published in the Block Street & Building edition of the The Arkansas Times, June 2, 2017
One guiding philosophy drives the design of all great neighborhoods—enhancing human interaction. Great neighborhoods are interesting, inspiring and enjoyable. They put people first and engender a great sense of community. The following elements are crucial for designers and developers to put into place the bones of a community, which the residents, shop owners and visitors then use to create a great neighborhood.
Ask pretty much anyone to name their favorite neighborhood and their answer almost always includes three elements—assortment of homes, mix of uses and variety of public spaces. This is true locally, in Arkansas, where you consistently hear The Heights and Hillcrest in Little Rock or downtown Bentonville and the Historic District in Fayetteville; or nationally, where places like historic Charleston, S.C., downtown Alexandria, Va., Beacon Hill in Boston and the Garden District in New Orleans are often mentioned.
Range of Homes
The most interesting neighborhoods have a mix of people at all stages of life. To accommodate a wide range of people, there must be a range of home choices between small and large, attached (lowmaintenance) and detached, and for-sale and for-rent.
Mix of Uses (A Place to Walk To)
It isn’t enough for a neighborhood to be “walkable.” People need destinations, particularly places where they can interact with other people or accomplish goals and tasks. Businesses such as restaurants and coffee shops serve as great locations for spending time with other people, while post offices, athletic facilities and dry cleaners are destinations for taking care of daily needs.
Variety of Public Spaces
Great neighborhoods provide a range of public spaces that allow different activities: patios for having a cup of coffee or a glass of wine with friends; retail squares for shopping, dining and neighborhood events; large parks for throwing frisbees and chasing the dog and pocket parks for taking a break during a stroll or having a quiet conversation with a neighbor.
Street design can either inhibit social interaction by focusing on automobiles, or it can encourage activity by allowing pedestrians and cyclists to feel comfortable.
Drivers respond to visual cues much more readily than arbitrary speed limit signs. Narrow streets are one of the most effective ways to signal drivers to slow down. Obviously, pedestrians are safer and more comfortable in environments with slower traffic.
Street trees also give a visual cue to drivers to slow down, while also protecting pedestrians from the sun.
Cars parked on the street provide effective barriers between pedestrians and traffic. Additionally, on-street parking has much less wasted space than parking lots.
Front porches provide a great place to relax and enjoy conversations with neighbors. Porches are much more effective if they are close to the street and elevated so that someone on the porch can comfortably talk to a person walking by on the sidewalk.
Public and Private Outdoor Space
The most livable homes have public outdoor spaces for interacting with neighbors (porches are a great example) and outdoor spaces that are more intimate and private. Great examples are courtyards and sleeping porches.
By putting the necessary but ugly parts of homes, such as garages, utility connections, trash pickup, etc. in the back, the fronts of homes are more inviting and beautiful.
While historical styles with local precedent are common within urban and New Urban communities, mainly because these styles evolved to fit exceptionally well with the design criteria listed above; it is not necessary for homes to be “traditional” in great neighborhoods. In fact, modern homes, provided they offer appropriate settings for interactions between people, fit in urban settings much more comfortably than in suburban. Many E. Fay Jones-designed homes work beautifully in historic neighborhoods in Fayetteville, while the new town of Prospect in Longmont, Colo., incorporates a wide range of modern homes.
Not coincidentally, there is a wide range of additional social and economic benefits of well-designed neighborhoods.
• Health—Enhanced physical and mental health from increased movement and enhanced social interaction.
• Safety—Increased safety through fewer car trips and slower traffic.
• Municipal Finance—Reduced municipal burden from decreased linear feet of road and public utilities.
• Environment—Improved environmental responsibility by reducing car trips and containing sprawl.
• Independence—Greater independence for young, old and disabled, since driving an automobile isn’t required to take care of daily needs or to visit neighbors and stores.
• Creativity—Heightened creativity through social interaction (think Palo Alto, Calif., in the 1980s; the Left Bank of Paris in the 1950s; the Renaissance in Florence, Italy. Brilliant Minds + Social Interaction = Amazing Results.)
Great neighborhoods do not happen by serendipity alone. By thoughtfully incorporating a mix of uses and a variety of homes, as well as beautiful public spaces and pedestrian-friendly streets, designers, developers and municipal leaders can work together to create a framework that people can then shape into a great neighborhood.