What Does Your Ideal Neighborhood Look Like?

Last summer, I spent a significant amount of time traversing the Twin Cities on a mission to purchase a house. I made a point to bike to most of the locations because I wanted to get a feel for the neighborhood. What was the transportation access? Where was the nearest park? Would my neighbors mind if I turned my lawn into a sprawling garden with a chicken coop? What about a mini-prairie? Can I walk to the nearest grocery store? Is there a neighborhood coffee shop?  And, most importantly, does that coffee shop have delicious espresso??

These questions made me quantify how I would define an ‘ideal’ neighborhood. I can’t speak to everyone’s definition of ‘ideal’ –and I’m glad there are a variety of opinions –but I wanted to pull together the latest thoughts and conversations I’ve had about creating neighborhood space.

To that end, I recently sat down with Steve Clark at Bike Walk Twin Cities (full disclosure, I worked at Bike Walk Twin Cities until earlier this month) to talk with him about what design elements help create thriving local neighborhoods from a transportation viewpoint. Here’s what we came up with:

Neighborhoods should:

1. Be Well Connected

There is a visual difference between a vibrant, dense urban area and a suburban neighborhood. One of the most notorious suburban designs is the cul-de-sac. Cul-de-sacs immediately present a transportation and connectivity challenge. For example, you may live just one mile as the crow flies from the nearest school but the road infrastructure forces you to travel three miles to arrive at the front door. Happily there is a growing movement across the country to secure easements from landowners to connect cul-de-sacs with a bike/pedestrian path. Even this small modification can lead to greater connectivity and encourage residents to embrace a variety of transportation options.

Does your neighborhood look like this one? (Photo credit: DC Streets Blog)

2. Contain Destinations

Connectivity on it’s own does little to create a vibrant neighborhood. For connectivity to mean something, there must be an assortment of nearby destinations.

Minneapolis and Saint Paul are both blessed to have many neighborhood business nodes that are the often the result of careful city planning. In particular, zoning and infrastructure planning can encourage the development these business nodes. As other Streets.mn bloggers have pointed out, narrow streets can also create diversity in a business area and encourage bike/pedestrian movement.

Local establishments also have a role to play. As a case in point, I’m currently sipping on a cup of Peace Coffee at Trotters Café where every Saturday night is “locals night” where customers receive 10% off their meal if they live within two miles. On top of that, you receive an additional 5% discount if you walk, bike, or bus to Trotters. Though it seems small, incentives like this encourage real mode-shift in communities while also supporting the growth of a local economy.

Local's Night at Trotters Cafe, Saint Paul

3. Have Healthy Infrastructure

Ultimately, if we want to move towards a society that encourages equality, we need to consider the equality of our streets as well. By thinking of every street as a public space, we recognize that streets are part of and not separate from the neighborhood. Streets become places to live, work, and play. Ideally, each street is designed for everybody with the least infringement on the movement of others –cars, bicyclists, and pedestrians become equal road users under this model.

Currently, streets are divided into a hierarchy of sorts. The calmer, slower neighborhood streets turn into larger collector streets. Those then become arterial roadways that feed into the highway or interstate. But this hierarchy fails to ask: what does a healthy street look like? The busier, larger streets carry much higher traffic volumes and are therefore fraught with greater air pollution. With increased pollution comes an increased incidence of health problems such as asthma. Is a neighborhood healthy if children face an increased risk of asthma or can’t safely cross the street? It sounds like a rhetorical question, but it may be one that isn’t considered often enough.

4. Encourage Neighborhood Involvement

When residents feel empowered to challenge the status quo in development and infrastructure creation, they are able to advocate for the neighborhood that best fits their ideal. The Riverlake greenway was a project driven by residents from the start. It is a challenge for an individual to envision a total change –but a group working together can make sure that all voices are heard and giving precedence. Moreover, neighborhood involvement bolsters political will to make broader policy changes at the city, state, and national level. Of course, real change always faces opposition. Understanding that, the role of conversation and compromise takes center stage. Neighborhoods can encourage real conversations that involve listening, educating, advocating, and constructively compromising to move towards a system that takes local concerns seriously. A healthy neighborhood has democracy in the process.

Another great example of neighborhood involvement in transportation planning is the work of the Stops for Us Coalition. As the stops for the Central Corridor LRT were being planned, the neighborhoods surrounding University Avenue from Snelling to Rice grouped together to advocate for additional stops to serve areas of predominantly low income and/or minority families, immigrant-owned small businesses, elders, children under 16, and persons with disabilities. Many that identify with these groups rely on public transit to take them to work, school, and daily activities. However, the initial plan for the Central Corridor proposed stations one mile apart in these neighborhoods unlike the rest of the line where stations were spaced only a half-mile apart –a much more accessible, walkable distance for many. The Stops for Us Coalition successfully advocated for a change in federal policy to enable the Central Corridor to add three additional stops at Western, Victoria, and Hamline. As a result, not only will these local neighborhoods have better transportation access, neighborhoods across the country have greater opportunity to engage and influence the planning process for major transportation projects. The Stops for Us Coalition was also awarded the 2010 National Environmental Justice Award from the Environmental Protection Agency!

A Stops For Us Rally (Photo credit: District Councils Collaborative)

What does your ideal neighborhood look like?

These are just a few of many characteristics that I would use to describe an ideal neighborhood. What do you have to add? What do you look for when choosing a place to live –both from a transportation viewpoint and others?

I look forward to hearing your thoughts!

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4 Responses to What Does Your Ideal Neighborhood Look Like?

  1. Dave Corbett January 25, 2012 at 3:45 am #

    5 Step Plan for an ideal neighborhood:

    1. Connected, narrow streets with ample bike parking. Discourages car traffic, allows neighbors to feel more in touch with one another, provides a spot for your steed.

    2. Easy access to staples/necessities. If you can't get milk or bread within about 2 miles things aren't ideal. Having at least a small commercial area within walking distance is key.

    3. Easy access to entertainment. It's always great to head across town to see a show or go to a party, but it's absolutely vital to have some closer-to-home options too. Life is a lot better when you can walk a few blocks and enjoy a fine craft beer when the mood strikes.

    4. Local, small businesses. This is related to numbers 2 and 3, but it's important enough to have be a separate requirement. Feeling a connection to the businesses in your area is an important part of generating community spirit. Contrary to their advertisements, an ideal neighborhood probably does not contain an Applebees; just sayin'.

    5. People who care. This should probably be number 1, but these aren't in any particular order anyway. Also, having the other four usually helps attract people in this catagory or convince people already there to invest more in their surroundings. It's as simple as picking up a piece of trash. People who care about their neighborhood will spend more time there and generally make it a better place to live by being friendly, courteous, respectful and by stabbing each other less.

    • Amber Collett
      Amber Collett January 25, 2012 at 10:05 am #

      Great points, Dave! I especially like that you included bike parking –very key to making a location accessible.

  2. Sam Newberg
    Sam Newberg (Joe Urb January 25, 2012 at 4:34 am #

    My favorite neighborhood I've visited recently is the West Portal neighborhood in San Francisco. Incidentally, Walkscore supports this notion. Simply type in West Portal San Francisco and you get a perfect 100 – a walkers paradise!

    But Walkscore isn't enough – one must verify, and yes, all the things you ever need are within walking distance. Multiple coffee shops and restaurants, a pharmacy, hardware store, toy stores, even a newsstand! Most importantly a grocery store. And not just one Safeway, but vegetable stands, meat markets and delis. Truly a walkers paradise. And three Muni routes converge there, so the financial district and the rest of the city is minutes away.

    When I visited, it was raining and cold, as lousy as San Francisco weather gets, but people of all ages were out. Kids coming home from school, chatting, texting and giggling, and the elderly out running (well, walking or shuffling!) errands. When young and old alike are out and about, you have a complete neighborhood. The West Portal is one. The biggest fault I'm sure is the cost of buying a home there, which is prohibitively expensive for most, but the mix of uses and scale and corresponding utilization by residents is undeniable.

  3. Steve Cotherman January 25, 2012 at 11:27 am #

    Think of the ideal neighborhood as a place that feels like a small town. Everything is within walking or biking distance. In my small town in northern Wisconsin I can walk to the grocery, a bookstore, our local arts center and history museum, a performing arts theater, a number of good restaurants, two coffee shops, the post office, city hall, the dentist, the hardware and auto parts stores, our schools, and a Lake Superior shoreline walking trail. Take that model and transfer it to a densely populated urban setting and you've got your ideal neighborhood. (Nice work Amber!)

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