Rebuilding the structure in your neighborhood
Michigan can get back to creating neighborhoods that are the building blocks of communities and transform subdivisions into places.
March 2, 2012 - Author: Glenn Pape, Michigan State University Extension
Neighborhoods have been the building blocks of communities for thousands of years. Neighborhoods used to be designed to meet the needs of the residents within walking distance. We can return to this level of functionality by addressing the structure of neighborhoods.
Each neighborhood should contain a balanced mix of uses, including large and small dwellings, civic spaces, retail and workplaces. Higher functioning neighborhoods would have daycare, parks and pedestrian access to local schools. All of these are important to creating authentic social networks that are the key to sustainable neighborhoods.
Neighborhoods are by definition scaled to the pedestrian. Its size corresponds to a pedestrian shed or a five minute walk from center to edge. They should have a dense center containing a main public space and retail area. Smaller public spaces and parks should be scattered throughout the neighborhood. Every household should be within a two minute walk to a park and the densest housing should be within an easy walk to the retail hub. Most pre-World War II neighborhoods are structured this way. To be sustainable newer communities should be structured this way as well. By establishing a focal center and an edge to the neighborhood functionality and social identity are enhanced giving a greater sense of place.
Modern subdivisions, such as, those found in post WWII suburbs or rural areas transitioning into urban land uses have some of the characteristics of neighborhoods but lack the complete functionality of a neighborhood. They are distinct with edges because there is not connecting roads or sidewalks. One has to resorting to an automobile to drive out to a main road and around back into the neighboring subdivision. These subdivisions often announce their presence with a sign proclaiming their territory and have no diversity in housing stock.
Some of these subdivisions may have parks and sidewalks connecting people to these parks. We can convert these subdivisions into neighborhoods through a process that restructures and connects the autocentric patterns of suburbia into complete communities based upon a neighborhood unit that is currently missing.
It is a method of re-urbanization, intensifi cation and diversification that transforms single use, auto-oriented, suburban agglomerations into balanced, mixed-use, walkable places, accommodating a diversity of income levels, building types, modes of transportation and civic spaces. We do this through the transformation of the ubiquitous McMansions into senior housing, student housing or apartments. Allow small scale infill for individual homeowners using their oversized front and back yards for expansions that serve family-run businesses or create rental outbuildings. Inject neighborhood commercial into denser areas. Above all link all of these together with a pedestrian network.
Doing these things can rebuild neighborhoods and lay the structure for community vitality. Physical solutions by themselves will not solve social and economic problems, but neither can economic vitality, community stability, and environmental health be sustained without a coherent and supportive physical framework. It all starts with a neighborhood.