In the community lottery, I’ve been really lucky. I live in Glen Park, an intimately-scaled neighborhood in San Francisco, which was recently voted the country’s most walkable city by Walkscore.com, a rankings system that evaluates how easy it is to live in American cities and neighborhoods without a car. In our neighborhood, we get by with just one car and we live within 10 minutes walk of a grocery store, cafe, bookstore, public library, three playgrounds, two bus lines, a BART station, a taqueria and French bistro, and a nature preserve that’s home to hawks, owls, and the occasional coyote. Because I’m always out walking, I know, for the first time anywhere I’ve ever lived, every person on my block and am on a first-name basis with most of the merchants in our little town square. It’s truly a sustainable community.
But here’s the trick: Glen Park isn’t the product of some detailed master plan but rather something that evolved over decades, with good periods and bad, and intermittent bouts of NIMBYism as well as important examples of Herculean community efforts for the greater good (as when a group of Glen Park residents stopped the construction of an interstate through the aforementioned nature preserve back in 1958. And again in 1967.) The question remains whether this sort of organic evolution of a neighborhood can be replicated.
The fact is, it’s no easy feat to create a community from scratch. And many recent attempts at community building, whether urban, suburban, or exurban, struggle with how to integrate building types, services, and shopping in ways that feel authentic. As a result, we see varying degrees of success, and in recent years, too many failures, particularly in former boomtowns like Phoenix and Tampa.
If we’ve learned anything from the last few brutal years (and I sure hope we have), it’s that we need to design and plan using broadly defined sustainable strategies (not just environmental but economic, social, and cultural) to help promote healthier, more vital communities. The reasons for doing so are becoming ever more clear: a recent report in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine has shown that green neighborhood design can help mitigate growing childhood obesity, diabetes, asthma, and hypertension rates. It’s not entirely surprising to discover that some of the highest foreclosure rates are in the country’s exurbs, those master planned communities built farther and farther away from town centers, necessitating ever longer commutes and thus decreasing human interaction. Accordingly, we all should be thinking about our homes in relation to all the other routine yet essential details of life: can I get a cup of coffee nearby? Is there adequate public transportation? How much green space? Will I feel a sense of community? The focus—of homebuyers, renters, homebuilders, developers, planners, and lenders alike—should not be just on the features of the home (which are getting smaller and greener in the form of things like solar panels, drought-resistant landscaping, no or low-VOC paints and the like) but on what’s just beyond the front door. What public transit is available? What are the amenities and services? Is the community multi-generational? Does it have a diversity of economic and ethnic backgrounds?
As we enter into a new decade beset with millions upon millions of empty square feet, the result not only of maddening mortgage lending but also badly conceived blocks and neighborhoods, the time is right for innovation. It’s not just a good idea to rethink the way we live; it’s imperative. That’s why the Rauch Foundation’s commitment to informing, involving, and inspiring the public through its Build a Better Burb initiative is so valuable. We hope that it will give you a sense of what’s possible.