Is there such a thing as an “urban planning nerd?” Because if there is, then that’s what I am. I have not formally studied this kind of endeavor, so all of the information and conjecture I postulate is strictly founded on the predicate that “your mileage may vary.” But that won’t stop me from telling you exactly what I think. Lucky you.
When I drive around – which I do a lot, to a lot of different places, in hopes of discovering the history of the Red River Valley – I tend to notice what towns work, and which ones do not. By work, I don’t necessarily mean that I count how many manufacturing plants or how many businesses are located inside a town, though good urban planning will definitely help a town have both. I look to see if there are people walking, and under what circumstances. Are they having to use the street to get from point A to point B, or can they use sidewalks? Are the sidewalks actually maintained, or are they pitted by ruts and dirt? Is the grocery store far away from neighborhoods, or is it close by? Are houses well maintained, or do they look like perpetual yard sales? Are the town’s parks and other respite places in walking distance, or is a car to ferry the kids around mandatory?
More than anything else, the environment in which we live has a profound impact on how we see and interact with the world. Neighborhoods that are walled and gated, for example, give the impression of fear and distrust. Strip malls that are half-empty and moated by huge parking lots (and sometimes, surrounded by ill-maintained car washes) look depressing and dangerous. Places with few or no sidewalks seem very discouraging, even suspicious, of normal human activity, such as walking and biking. This kind of atmosphere doesn’t lend itself well to enticing new enterprises to open shop, people taking success and schooling seriously, or citizens having confidence in their elected officials. While all of this may sound like common sense, I have to wonder, why is it that many towns and cities ignore these fairly basic tenets?
One reason I can deduce is that Southerners pretend not to like too much government interference. The opinion goes that no one – no neighbors, code enforcer, or some arbitrary rule – should preclude one from the enjoyment of one’s own property. And I can appreciate this, of course. But communally owned property, such as city sidewalks, business districts, parks, and streets, should be viewed not simply as necessities, but rather calling cards: “We live here and we love it here.” Compact streets in interconnected neighborhoods that are walkable, maintained, and close to what makes a place livable – such as parks, grocery stores, and libraries – give the impression of a working town. Not just working in the sense of people having jobs, but also in the ways that make life pleasant and beautiful.
Is beauty and harmony in the world a concept we should all strive for? My little, unimportant opinion is that they’re the only things that make life worth living, and the most immediate way to achieve them starts in our own neighborhoods.