Joe Urban | Sam Newberg, Urbanist

What is Community?

Dateline: 10:28 pm August 12, 2006 Filed under:

“The New Suburbanism: A Realist’s Guide to the American Future,” written by Joel Kotkin and The Planning Center and released in November 2005, is a publication that at its core seeks to elevate the discussion of how to improve suburban development. After all, most new housing and employment is occurring in the suburbs. I am fortunate enough to be contributing to the sequel, or update of The New Suburbanism this year. Our biggest issue is community. What is it, really, and how do we encourage it through design, funding, or other measures? Or does it just naturally happen?

A good question indeed. A recent article in one of the Twin Cities local newspapers, the Star Tribune, provided a lot of quotes from homeowners that were very satisfied with living on a cul-de-sac. Many of them indicated that not only were they nice because they don’t have through traffic, they are also conducive to forming strong bonds wiht neighbors.

I won’t deny for a moment that cul-de-sacs can create community. The problem I have with the article is it seemed to lean towards cul-de-sacs as being “the answer” to creating community. This is supported by an additional quote from the print version of the article arguing that condominiums don’t create community.

This gets at my core argument for creating community in cities and suburbs alike. Good design can provide a place for community to be created. This is critical. But it takes interdependence for true community to occur. And for that matter, it can occur on cul-de-sacs or in the community room of a condo project – hence the name.

A favorite unprintable quote by a colleague – Henry Beer of Communication Arts in Boulder – is, “anyone who thinks community can be engendered by sidewalks and front porches is out of their {expletive} mind.” Well put. That isn’t to say that sidewalks and porches don’t help, but Henry Beer added, “community comes from interdependence.” That can occur on a sidewalk, between porches, at a community center, a VFW, a coffee shop, online, or yes, even at a bowling alley. But it takes the will and desire, and perhaps the need of people for it to occur.

There are some very good examples of community being created in the suburbs. I’ll name a few.

Daybreak, in suburban Salt Lake City, Utah, is a Calthorpe-designed new urbanism community. I visited in February of this year and was quite impressed. There are small lots and narrow streets, but also pocket parks and open space, all connected by sidewalks and trails. The developer, Kennecott Land, indicates that as a result of the design of the community, parents feel much more comfortable sending their kids out to play knowing there are parks and sidewalks (in other words, places to go and a way to get there).

As well, Daybreak has an elementary school and community center that share a building, allowing more intergenerational interaction. Kids learn there by day, and community groups can meet there in evenings. Also, Daybreak has a very active homeowners association that organizes events at parks and community centers. Coupled with families that are willing to participate, this is probably the biggest reason for the creation of community at Daybreak, although the community design indeed plays a major role.

Daniel Island, another master planned community in Charleston, South Carolina, has over 40 community groups and clubs. This is what the developers call “soft side infrastructure,” for they encourage community through design (trails, parks, cafes, etc.) and created a fund to pay for certain events, but it is interested residents that have taken the initiative to run with it. 

The Woodlands, in suburban Houston, another of the case studies for the upcoming sequel to The New Suburbanism, has more community than you can shake a stick at. But it is Village Homes, in Davis California, that blends community and sustainability in many innovative ways.

Begun in the 1970s, Village Homes is a 242-unit project built on a series of cul-de-sacs with an interconnected trail system. Homes are oriented to be south-facing, and incorporate solar heating. Swales creeks and ponds provide on-site stromwater management, and a wide range of food is also grown on-site. The key to community creation is the homeowners association, which owns common areas, including the trails, community center and orchards. Furthermore, a survey of Village Homes residents revealed that residents know an average of 40 neighbors, as opposed to an average of 17 in standard developments. Credit is generally given to the shared features of the project and the frequency with which residents interact as a result.

What does this mean for The New Suburbanism? There is no single answer, and community can even be elusive. Hopefully we will elevate the discussion and not muddy it. Community can be created in a number of settings, but cannot be forced. Front porches and sidewalks are good, but cannot do it alone. Community is created when there is an overwhelming desire or need to do so, and it can happen in a number of places, from condo rooftops and cafes, to yes, even cul-de-sacs.

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