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New Urbanism

10 Mar 2001

From the Congress for the New Urbanism:

WE STAND for the restoration of existing urban centers and towns within coherent metropolitan regions, the reconfiguration of sprawling suburbs into communities of real neighborhoods and diverse districts, the conservation of natural environments, and the preservation of our built legacy.

I’ve been thinking about community lately, particularly geographic community. One of the things I liked best about my time in Europe last semester, especially in Paris, was the distinct sense of neighborhood there. Different parts of town had different feels to them, and the infrastructure of the city (the public transportation system, the abundance of small parks, and small specialized shops rather than massive ‘convenience’ stores) lent itself to the feeling of identification with your particular neighborhood. I absolutely loved it. I loved the fact that I started to recognize people in the park down the street when I walked by, and that the owners of the bakery and the bar and the crepe stand recognized me.

But I don’t get much of that experience here. I can’t really go anywhere without driving my car (even for the handful of things that are within biking distance, the roads aren’t biker-friendly in the least). Every time I need something, I go to Target or the grocery superstore, and it’s unlikely that I would ever twice deal with the same employee. There’s certainly something nice about knowing that I’ll always be able to find what I’m looking for at Target, but nine times out of ten I’d sacrifice the convenience for just a little bit of personality. The sad thing is, I live in Lawrence, Kansas, and I consider it to be one of the best towns around for community. We have a fairly vital downtown area with locally owned small businesses, and the influence of the University helps a lot, but I still feel stifled. I have a fond memory from childhood of the time our neighbors threw a block party (does that happen anymore?) and they blocked off the street to traffic and grilled hamburgers and all the kids rode their bikes and bigwheels. I don’t think there were many events like that one on the block where I grew up, but still, everybody at least knew each other’s names. Mr. Aguirre the policeman, Mr. Groff the electrician, Mr. Fountain the nice old retired guy. It occurred to me while taking a walk the other day that I don’t know one— not one— of my neighbors. Why not? I think I’m just growing tired of the whitewashed convenience of suburban life. (Are you?)