Friday, January 16, 2015

The overlooked truth of the mixed-use neighborhood

The electronic age has helped me manage the paper overload on my desk, but only a little. Yesterday, at the bottom of a long neglected stack of newspaper and magazine clippings, I came across an article in the Albany Times Union from a few years ago. Entitled "Long walk home," it cited a poll that found that 58 percent of Americans would like to live in neighborhoods with stores. "So why haven't they been built?" asks the article by the always dependable Chris Churchill.

The question has become a well-worn one in urban planning circles. Ditto for the answers commonly proffered: zoning laws need to be relaxed, planners and developers need to be more sensitive to the needs of citizens, yada yada yada. The first answer is true enough: we're never going to attain walkability as long as zoning codes require segregated uses, large lots, and other pedestrian-hostile features.
Credit: Philip Kamrass, Times Union
But the second answer is mostly untrue, as unintentionally demonstrated by the photographs accompanying the article. They show an older mixed-use neighborhood in Schenectady that clearly didn't come about through a formal planning and development process. The neighborhood was birthed organically, through an ad hoc process initiated and controlled by neighborhood residents themselves. The commercial uses were not planned; they came about as the citizens made their neighborhood into what they thought it needed to be. They didn't wait for developers; they did it themselves.

A formal planning and development process can give us mixed uses, but it can't give us the kind of neighborhoods we most need. It can give us contrived architecture, chain stores, and predictability, but it can't give us authenticity. Nor, I would argue, is it likely to impart local economic benefit. Formal development doesn't generate wealth for the people already living in a neighborhood; instead, it replaces them with a different group of people who acquired their wealth elsewhere. The residents who remain may have a newfound convenience of walking to a chain store, but that store sends wealth out of the community every day.

What will it take for more mixed-use neighborhoods to be built? Less zoning, fewer developers, and more mom and pop.