Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Living Out New Urbanism

Since moving last May, my family has been amidst the "New Urbanism" surrounding us in our new community.  We have drugstores, supermarkets, and our local library within minutes of our home.  A walk through the neighborhood delivers us to doctors' offices, churches, and preschools galore.  But is the idea of New Urbanism all its cracked up to be?

One of the primary tenants of New Urbanism is "walkability" (living within 10 minutes of necessities), which we lived out fully today.  Big Blue, our beloved 10+-year-old minivan, headed to the shop for the second time in two weeks.  What was a mother to do about her children's 10:30am doctor's appointment??  We put New Urbanism to the test.  

At 10am two boys hopped in the double stroller and mom strapped herself with infant in Bjorn and off we went, hoofing it 20 minutes to the doctor's office.  We crossed the street to the adjacent neighborhood, hung a second left turn, and there we were amidst corporate bliss.  Our walk finished with a stroll around the corporate lake with two child-cheering fountains and beautiful landscaping.  We arrived a few minutes ahead of schedule, better than had we raced over in the car (a 3-minute trip on average).  I was encouraged by the exercise, the boys were happy due to the fresh air, and the baby was sleeping because of all the Bjorn jostling.  Excellent--a point for New Urbanism.

Last week I went on a jog with the youngest two, stopping at the local CVS to pick up photos and at the Food Lion to fetch the remainder of our week's groceries.  All in a day's run.  Excellent--a point for New Urbanism.

Two nights ago the local Team In Training held an informational meeting at the library down the street.  I had the time wrong.  The meeting was really at 6:30pm, not at 7 like I thought.  No problem--my husband arrived home early and I raced there in 2 minutes to be *right on time* to the meeting.  Little gas wasted; a lot of stress avoided.  Excellent--a point for New Urbanism.

So far, 3 points New Urbanism, 0 points suburbs.  
I'm becoming more and more of a fan with each passing day.


Gail said...

At my last two homes I could walk to a grocery store or corner market, church, the library and a park. Not so much at our newest abode, and I miss it.

Juris Mater said...

B-mama, great post. I also LOVE our "new urban" village here just beyond the city limits. We're constantly out and about but rarely use our car. MAJOR savings on gas, lots of fresh air and exercise, and minimal torture for my car-hating children. They have no idea what it's like to have car trips be a necessity, and I think they're spoiled (a 15 minute drive is always a huge production with a three-way meltdown), but it's also really natural. We're four blocks or less from: our parish, our village downtown with everything from hardware stores to second-hand kids clothing shops; our library; two popular playgrounds and several big green spaces with lakes or streams; an outdoor mall with Old Navy and a big chain grocery store; and countless medical professionals. With three small kids, how could it get better than being just a brief stroller + bjorn ride away from anything we could possibly need? Another thing I LOVE is that we see the same faces regularly, because people are out and about on foot and centered around our village--it's an antisocial reality of suburban life to have to slip into your car, drive to where you're going, run in, get your stuff, duck back into your car, and return home. I'm SO thankful for the layout of our neighborhood--what a blessing!--and I do hope that we can always find great places like this one.

Jessica Anderson said...

this is great! you are experiencing a taste of why i love living in cities. cambridge is not boston, but where we live is totally pedestrian. i keep forgetting that we have a car in the garage as that is still a novelty. as we've discussed in the past, new york takes getting used to, but if you embrace public transport & walk as much as possible, it's really wonderful, and so healthy, and helps you be in contact with more people - which can give you opportunities to build stronger community ties if you are willing! i hope you continue to enjoy it!

Stephanie said...

This is why we miss living in Europe. Even if you lived in the stix, a short drive took you to a nice village or city, you parked on the outer limits and walked to the square. You could spend the whole day walking around doing what you needed. The U.S. should continue to develop this.

Alex said...

Yes, this "new" urbanism in the US is old-hat in Europe, where public spaces, pedestrian streets and walkability is common to all but the most rural communities. (That is the case in Spain, at least, where we are currently living.) I have always lamented this fundamental difference between the US and its European counterparts, and am excited to hear that the idea seems to be catching on. As has been stated, the difference in the sense of community that is fostered when everyone walks common paths to get their groceries/go to the library/take children to school/go to the doctor, etc, as opposed to driving everwhere, is profound. And with everyone walking the streets, the enviable sidewalk cafes and benches of European fame inevitably spring up and keep people outside together, which would mollify much of that intense privatism reinforced by the design of most of our US suburban communities.

AWOL Mommy said...

Hey, "Alex" welcome back to the Building Cathedrals family, now with an infant of your own to test out all this crazy mom-talk
advice on!
For everyone else out there, Alex is my dearest friend and Princeton roommate. She is currently enjoying two years off in between her third and fourth year of med school with her husband in Northern Spain. She plans to become our resident free-medical advice giver on the blog, right Friend?

Jennifer in MN said...

I enjoyed the walkablity of Ann Arbor when we lived there. Now we live in a smaller town, but not a suburb (well some people consider all of outstate Minnesota a suburb of the Twin Cities, but I digress). The US is just so big, I don't know how you make the European model work on such a scale. I also don't think that community is lacking in places where you have to drive. We have a lovely community and our neighborhood is great, even though we have to drive most places. But maybe you do have to work a bit harder at it. I dunno. I don't enjoy big city living, but it would be nice to be able to walk to the store again.

Jennifer in MN said...

Wanted to add-- it would be nice to walk to the store again--when it's not snowing and -20 degrees. MN makes it a bit more difficult, as well, to totally forsake your car for a pedestrian lifestyle!

Kat said...

I also miss living in places where we were able to walk out the front door and into town! It was so nice not to have to strap the children into car-seats or deal with traffic...Although I must agree with Jennifer in MN, that it is possible to foster a strong community life even when you don't live in a "walk-able" community. We must remember that most people in the US live in such places! Our neighborhood has a very close-knit feel, and even though we can't walk to stores or playgrounds, we can walk or ride bikes within the neighborhood.

Glad you're enjoying life in your new city, B-Mama!!

Anonymous said...

I live in a small town in New Jersey (the most densely populated state in the country) that is exactly as you describe. My kids even walk to public school (from
1st grade on). We have no busing and all the schools are neighborhood schools. But, the thing is, it's great to be able to do all those things on foot. But it's also a blessing to have a functioning car. There is something so American about being able to get in your car and go. I like having it BOTH ways myself.

Alex said...

Thanks for the intro AM! I will happy to be the future free medical-advice-giver but fear that my counseling will be worth little more than the fee :) (It is amazing how quickly lots of that medical info flees the mind once one is outside of the medical school/hospital. I have some major reviewing to do before I go back...)

I agree with Kat and J in MN that it is possible--and critical to make the effort-- to have a lovely, tight-knit community even when you have to drive to get to most places. I myself grew up in such communities and enjoyed abundant bike-riding, block parties and "capture the flag" playing with neighbors. It was just a different nature (or quantity?) of social interaction than what I am experiencing and observing while living in a more pedestrian-based town.

I was especially interested by Anonymous' comment about it being so American to "get in your car and go." I agree, especially when thinking of our country in decades past where the sense of what "America" was was more static, I think, and was partially defined and grown by the novelty of the accessibility of owning a car and the ensuing drive-in restaurant/movie phenomenon (I think I remember reading about there having been drive-in masses, even! Red, I know that you read Fast Food Nation--am I making this up, or was it mentioned there?) Either way, this lifestyle, which was and--for better or for worse--continues to be such a part of what it is to live in America seems to be partially founded on the assumption of there being limitless resources (esp. fuel) and should likely be re-thought in the context of today's circumstances.
(Don't get me wrong, though, Anon., I too love to drive.)

Anonymous said...

What I was talking about was the optomistic American attitude that one can just go. If I want to go to Target and buy Tide, I just get in my car and go. I don't have to shlub to the corner, wait for a bus, slog through traffic, get off at a stop, walk to the store and then do it all backwards with a huge box of Tide powder. Likewise, if I want to take my kids to see the battlefields of Gettysburg during their break from school, I just pack them in and off we go. We just did that. It was glorious. A car gives you freedom. All you need is a destination.

The Nichols said...

I have been a fan of this blog for awhile, but haven't felt compelled to post, primarily since I have only met one of the builders a handful of times. This post, however, strikes a chord with me. My master's thesis was about new "sub"urbanism in which new towns spring up under the guise of new urbanism, but without the necessary services (stores, schools, etc). I am excited to see that so many of you live in communities that aren't these cheap knock-offs, but actually provide you with the ability to rely less on your car (and unstable countries), model healthy behaviors to your children (like walking, being friendly to neighbors), and hopefully give you a better sense of belonging.

My DH and I live in the predecessor to new urbanism. We live on the third floor of an historic downtown building in a beautiful small college town. We use our car once a week on average (to go to our co-ed softball games or to go clothes shopping) and walk to work everyday. Most everything we need is right here, however, and it is comforting to know that it is a choice to go to the big-box stores, not a requirement. We shop at our farmer's market (a block away), get milk and necessities at the Ben Franklin and bakery, and have great restaurants to choose from on the nights I don't feel like cooking (and, because it's a college town, they are easy on our wallet).

I am glad that there is enough demand for this style of living in our country to make land-use developers "see the light". Also, thanks for bringing up a topic that is near and dear to my heart.

PS - I found this amazing blog through Texas Mommy (she's married to my cousin).

Mary Ellen Barrett said...

I'm so jealous. I love walking and urban living. I am a city girl at heart stuck in the suburbs. You can't find too many apartments that can accommodate eight children.

Kate E. said...

I find this fascinating. I too live in a small town in NJ (like anon I think). We can walk to our school, and walk to our parks, and walk to our downtown. However this is not a "new" development, this is a centuries old farming community. The downtown used to be full of stores that were supported by the surrounding houses but as mass retail moved into our area (but not into our town) many of those "useful" local resources have had to shut down. We still have a coffee shop, a pharmacy, and the library where I work. But gone are the grocery store and the hardware store. What a huge difference just having those two in walking distance would make in my life.

Luckily for me, our next closest grocery store is still an independent one and in the same town there is a small hardware store. I think our town would be able to support both those businesses if people were mindful of where they shopped.

So, as a plug to all those independent stores still out there, please support them and doing your shopping there. They are the real backbone of your community whether you can drive or walk to them.

texas mommy said...

This post makes me miss living in Rome soooo much! I loved being able to walk everywhere. Texas is a far cry from this! I drive to get anywhere other than our neighborhood park. It takes me 15-20 minutes in a car to get to a real grocery store. However, I also like having more space and being more in the "country". Hard to have it both ways, I guess.

Christina--So glad you posted a comment!

Julia A said...

Wait'll your kids get older, and you'll love it even more! When you run out of milk, you can have *them* go get it! And you won't have to shlep them to friends' houses, because they can get there on their own.

We're not New Urban, but plain old urban. We don't own a car. In fact, my husband has never even had a driver's license. The one thing my kids hate when we go visiting in the 'burbs or country is all the car time.

Anonymous said...

I'm up in Bergen County and I live in a fairly old community (our little town was established in the late 1700s). I do support our local stores, however, they have to be worth it to support. What irks me about all the complaining about "big box" stores and department stores, is that those stores are supplying something that the vast majority of people want, whether it be convenience, price points, selection, accessible parking spaces, child friendly layout, etc. It becomes very difficult to support your local xyz store if your town doesn't have ample parking spaces (not everybody is going to walk all the time). If I'm going to have to circle around the block for fifteen minutes trying to find a space, then I'd rather drive to Rt. 17 and locate my convenient big box store with plenty of parking.

What I've noticed over the past 15 yrs that I've lived in my town is that the stores that make it, usually do so because they offer better service or some other type of convenience. For example, the family owned pharmacy is more expensive than CVS, however, they offer free delivery and when my kiddos were small, that service made up for the extra cost. Heck, I used to have my diapers delivered when I was in a crunch.

But that seems to be the exception, rather than the rule. If the owner of the business is cranky, cheap or out of touch with what people want or need, that store isn't going to make it. I can't feel sorry for those people.