Other Voices: It’s time to look for a new kind of neighborhood
November 28, 2005
Most new neighborhoods built in this country during the last 60 years were centered around the automobile. Large attached garages facing wide streets and malls with acres of parking showed that the needs of the automobile dictated the design of new development.
Now it is clear that auto-centered development has contributed to a variety of problems, including the decline of community, sedentary lifestyles, loss of agricultural land and traffic congestion. These are all compelling reasons for re-evaluating how we build new neighborhoods to accommodate an expanding population. As a City Council member in Grass Valley, I have been speaking and voting in favor of better alternatives.
Automobile-centered thinking is well entrenched, however, and most new development proposals in western Nevada County still originate from that old paradigm, even though they may be dressed up to look like “smart growth.” But that is about to change.
Very simply, an automobile-centered lifestyle is becoming more difficult to afford. As The Union editor Pat Butler pointed out in his column of Nov. 19, we should plan on the cost of gas increasing dramatically, possibly in the near future.
Butler was reporting on a presentation by Richard Heinberg about the supply and demand for oil. I also attended the talk, and I agree with Butler that Heinberg is not a kook. His lecture was clear and his statements were well supported. I came away thinking that my role as a City Council member must be to help lead our community toward a kind of development more consistent with a world in which energy is significantly more expensive. (Thank you to APPLE, the local group that sponsored the event; their contact number is 265-3014).
Better neighborhoods, not dependent on the automobile, are not just possible, they exist around the world and in our community. One good example is the new cohousing project in Nevada City. The project is so popular that all units were sold before the completion of construction, and the waiting list of people wanting a unit became so long they stopped taking new names.
The most striking design feature of this project is that no roads intrude on the interior of the neighborhood. Residents will walk to their homes from a parking lot just off of West Broad Street. And the community is close enough to downtown Nevada City for residents to walk there. Though some people do not want to live in this kind of neighborhood, others think it is far superior to Suburbia, USA.
For one thing, the neighborhood will be relatively quiet because cars and motorcycles will not drive close to homes. Also, the garage-dominated streetscape that exists in many neighborhoods will be replaced by a beautifully landscaped setting with outdoor seating that invites neighbors to socialize and children to play safely.
Of course, the lack of interior roads is not a problem for households that do not own an automobile. According to the U.S. Census, that is 14 percent of households in Grass Valley (9 percent in California and 10 percent in the nation). For those who do own a car, but intend to drive less frequently, the extra walking distance from parking space to home is not a significant inconvenience.
I believe the demand for this type of neighborhood will grow as people discover its virtues – virtues which will become even more valued if traffic continues to degrade and the price of gas exceeds $5 a gallon.
The people in our community who move into these new neighborhoods will vacate homes in existing neighborhoods that are built around the car. So both types of homes will be available, and families can choose the type that best meets their needs.
The main virtue for the whole community is the impact of growth on traffic is minimized. We can avoid unnecessarily aggravating traffic congestion by designing new neighborhoods to be truly pedestrian-oriented and building them near existing schools, stores and job centers.
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