Picture, if you will, walking in two contrasting neighborhoods: Neighborhood A has a mixture of housing types – rowhouses, Katrina cottages, and single-family homes both large and small. The homes are mostly multi-story and close to each other and the street, and each has a front porch or stoop, so while walking down the sidewalk, it's very likely you would come into contact with residents. Notably absent are garages and driveways, which are behind the houses and accessible by an alley. A house might have an art gallery, law office, or ice cream shop on the ground floor, with living space above. At the end of some streets would be a noteworthy, visually-appealing building, perhaps a church or clock tower. Mingled among the residences could be a small grocery store, bank, or school.
Neighborhood B is one you might be much more familiar with, being the typical American suburban neighborhood. There might not be a sidewalk, so you'd walk on the road. The houses, similar in size, are islands in a sea of green. The likelihood of personal contact is reduced because you'd pass fewer houses, they being distant from each other, and because, being set back from the street, they would be further from you. Your most likely interaction with a resident is waving as he drives past, or as he cuts his grass. Perhaps you would pass a park, but you wouldn't pass any commercial buildings.
Of course I've given away my bias, but indulge me by considering these questions.
Promotes community by encouraging interaction among its residents? Contact is necessary for friendship, and neighborhood A promotes contact between neighbors, and thus friendship, in a myriad of ways, while B promotes privacy.
Lessens dependence on the car?
With its high density and mixed-use zoning, neighborhood A is walkable, with friends, stores, and jobs within easy distance – a car is not a necessity. Neighborhood B, with its low density housing and single-use zoning (residential, commercial, educational, etc strictly separated), was designed with the car in mind, and residents of these neighborhoods find them indispensable.
In 2002, a study found that the US was losing 2 acres of farmland to development every minute. If these were high-density developments, a large percentage of that acreage would be saved. Taking another tack, how many hours a year do you spend in the car doing errands or commuting to work? Wouldn't you rather spend that time doing something else? Mixed use makes this possible.
Is more sustainable?
Because of its high density, neighborhood A needs less land and infrastructure. Because of its mixed-use zoning, it requires less energy for transportation. When it comes to sustainability, less is more.
Would you rather live in?
Of course this is an individual choice, but we should make informed decisions.
As you've undoubtedly guessed, neighborhood A is a New Urban neighborhood.
Upon seeing a New Urban community for the first time, one person said “It looks like a movie set.” Indeed, the Jim Carrey movie The Truman Show was filmed in Seaside, Florida, a New Urban town, because it evokes thoughts of small-town America, with its simple, yet durable virtues. I never thought I'd get excited about urban planning, but New Urbanism did the trick.
Please come hear Tim Busse, an expert on New Urbanism, give a talk on the subject as part of Town & Country's Green Speaker Series. Tim is a member of the Congress for the New Urbanism and the American Institute of Architects, and is Town Architect for The New Town at St. Charles, a local New Urban community. The talk will be Thursday, June 21st. For more details on the talk, look here.