Thursday, December 24, 2009

Little Boxes on the Hillside

My commute to and from Baldwinsville takes me past one of the most egregious sub-divisions I have ever seen, remarkable for the bland uniformity of its housing, the ugliness of its setting, and, as always with these "communities," its stark lack of trees. Malvina Reynolds wrote "Little Boxes on the Hillside" in 1962—her black pastoral on the subject of suburban sprawl—yet I guarantee the sub-division she describes looked more appealing than the one I drive past.

In fact, so do some British "council housing estates"—a form of "projects" found in most towns in the country of my birth. A good friend of mine lived for a couple of years in a council estate outside of Brighton, England, when he and his family were starting out. These hurriedly, sometimes shoddily, built communities have bad reputations—the houses are never well-built, cars are stolen—yet even they are platted with small parks, schools, and little shops all within walking distance. Sidewalks are a given and trees are planted. Some estates even have easy access to "allotments" (community gardens).

American-style sub-divisions (I say American-style because this un-walkable, non-communal sub-division model is found in England now) weren't always as poorly planned as they are now. In fact, I live in a sub-division: Indian Springs, just outside the village of Baldwinsville. Built in the 1970s, there are three or four distinct models of houses in Indian Spring, as well as backyards are full of old trees and interconnected streets—no cul-de-sacs here. But some bad development habits had begun to creep in by the time Indian Springs was platted: there are no sidewalks, no parks, no shops. Thankfully, the streets are wide enough for joggers and dog-walkers, but to access a park or shops, you need a car.

The US Green Building Council wants to halt the deterioration of neighborhood planning with its LEED-Neighborhood Development designation, recently awarded to Syracuse's Near Westside Initiative. It's an excellent achievement for the NWSI, putting it well on its way to becoming a shining example of sustainable urban re-development. But at the same time, the criteria for LEED-ND in the general category of "Neighborhood Pattern and Design" show just how far from sensible neighborhood development we've come.

Honestly, some of these criteria really should be in the "duh" category for a neighborhood: walkable streets, street networks, tree-lined streets, access to recreation, local food production, neighborhood schools ...

An old-fashioned (i.e. 19th century) village-within-a-city, the Near Westside has all of the above, and more (mixed-use buildings, access to civic centers). My neighborhood—Indian Springs—has some, but not many. The nameless subdivision I commute past, none whatsoever. Nineteenth century planning, mid-20th century, 21st century ... it's a slippery slope. What will it take for the green movement to convince mayors, trustees, developers, builders, and house-buyers to return to values of community and self-reliance and make our communities "liveable" once more?

—Martin Walls, Syracuse Center of Excellence

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