Fifty years of random, unfocused development has taught us one thing -- the answer to modern sprawl can be found in the traditional municipal planning concepts of the 19th and early 20th centuries. Development has gone awry because the formula for sprawl fails to recognize that a neighborhood is much more than a random collection of houses and buildings.
In contrast, traditional community design treats a neighborhood as a diverse, carefully structured physical environment aimed at promoting healthy social and civic interaction.
Rather than focus entirely on the past, the neo-traditional planning movement has combined the lessons of our older communities with the realities of modern growth patterns to create neighborhood-friendly communities throughout North America. Several practical, interrelated aspects of traditional neighborhood design are now being applied to communities with remarkable results. They include:
Pedestrian orientation: Sprawl produces neighborhoods that cater to the automobile at the expense of the pedestrian. Wide, winding roads with few cross-streets and no sidewalks invite high-speed automobile travel, while scaring away pedestrians.
Traditional design emphasizes sidewalks, porches, on-street parking and narrow, gridded streets with more intersections. This strategy slows traffic and provides a safe and enjoyable environment for pedestrians, which, in turn, creates more opportunities for social interaction.
Mixed land uses: Zoning laws were first passed during the Industrial Revolution to separate manufacturing plants from residential areas. While admittedly a good idea, this approach has been stretched to the point where all aspects of our lives are separated into isolated pods accessible only by car. This is not a true community.
Traditional design integrates different land uses to create vibrant and diverse communities that are more people-friendly. For example, older villages locate residences within walking distance of shops, schools, offices, parks and public buildings, and even provide housing above businesses to create dynamic and viable main streets.
Similarly, a mix of housing types within a residential area can also create healthier communities. A "granny flat" for a senior citizen or a carriage house apartment occupied by a recent college graduate can exist side by side with mansions for the rich and town houses for empty-nesters. Such variety creates neighborhood diversity and teaches our children how to exist in a diverse society.
The absence of these traditional planning principles underscores one sad fact of life in modern sprawl: The public realm of our communities -- parks, town squares, front yards, sidewalks, shops -- has become completely subservient to our private space -- cars, houses, back yards. And the effect on neighborhood life is profoundly negative.
This is not to say that every place should look like a village. Rather, our challenge is to ensure that towns and cities have a healthy balance between traditional and modern neighborhood design.
It is ironic that, at the beginning of a new century, we may have to look back 100 years to solve the problems associated with sprawl. However, modern development patterns are proving to be grossly inferior to the traditional principles they were intended to replace. Recognizing and acting on this may be our best hope for quality, livable communities.
PAUL BEYER is a member of the Amherst Planning Board.
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