Turning 'Scary Places' into the Great Places Where People Want to Live

Sprawl has obliterated much of our neighborhoods' and communities' social infrastructure. The challenge is finding a new economic model that could turn that around.
by | October 21, 2013
Portland, Oregon
Portland, Oregon David Kidd/Governing

In his book The Geography of Nowhere: the Rise and Decline of America's Man-Made Landscape, James Howard Kunstler describes how America has evolved from a nation of Main Streets with distinctive communities to one where every place is like no place in particular. Most of us live in or near places like these.

How did we get to what Kunstler describes as this "landscape of scary places"? It's no mystery, of course: Post-war community development in America was shaped by a car-centered transportation system. Rural countryside was converted to suburban housing sprawl, with broad roadways and shopping malls surrounded by acres of parking lots. With this transformation went much of the social infrastructure -- the town square, city hall, and local markets and businesses -- that fostered personal interaction and a sense of place.

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Yet there are communities that are exceptions to this pattern -- ones that invite us to reflect on how things could be. These are the great places, places where we'd really love to live. I have my list -- places like Washington, D.C.'s Cleveland Park, Idyllwild, Calif., and Portland, Ore. You probably have a list like that of your own.

A great neighborhood or community operates at human scale. It is comfortable and accessible. It creates its own identity by taking advantage of location, geography, history and local resources. People choose to live there because they see and experience qualities that reflect their own personal and social values. Great places are created by the people who live in them.

In short, a great place is unique, and there's the rub: It doesn't fit our existing cookie-cutter economic model. But there are a lot of people out there who think that isn't necessarily the way things have to be -- people like Mariela Alfonzo.

Alfonzo is a research assistant professor at New York University's Polytechnic Institute whose passion is walkable communities. She wrote her Ph.D. dissertation on failed malls that were under redevelopment. Between this work and attempts to convince investors to fund projects to create more walkable communities, she learned an important lesson: Regardless of social value, investors want to make money. So, as part of her quest to demonstrate and measure the economic value of walkable communities, she created "State of Place," a place-rating and walkability diagnostic tool that aims to inform economic development, guide investment and aid place branding.

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In the national capital area, the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments is using State of Place to guide its efforts to improve the region's walkability and economic performance. Community members and planners in more than 95 neighborhoods are making block-by-block assessments of some 250 features within 10 different urban design dimensions. The tool pulls existing data together and creates a profile of what's working and what makes the most sense to change.

Ideally, communities using tools like State of Place, focusing on economic performance as the key index, could foster infrastructure development and neighborhood revitalization in a way that connects and brings people together. Efforts like these could signal the end to our development of "scary places."

Bob Graves  |  Associate Director of the Governing Institute
bgraves@governing.com  | 

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