May 02, 2003
New Neighborly Architecture from the USA

In my capacity as a culture blogger I was honoured with an email from 2 Blowhards alerting me to their series of interviews with this Greek Australian American guy who hates modernistical architecture starting here. Me, I'm partial to a bit of modernity, provided it isn't too nationalised, and I'm still wondering what to make of the man. Baby, bath water, etc. However, in the reading list at the end of the first posting, I came across this article about some New Neighborly Architecture which they're doing in America, and I found the arguments in favour of it more persuasive because more logical and less abusive. Nikos the GAA basically says that the Modern Movement in Architecture was started by a bunch of madmen.

As Le Corbusier, one of the madmen in question, so memorably said, a house is a machine for living in. And these New Neighborly guys think they know how to make this machine work better, by being part of a better community.

The basic argument seems to be that if you surrender a bit of real estate and put the houses closer together, and give more thought to what happens beyond the front gates of the houses, and slow the traffic down and have more local pathways from your front door to local places of importance, the place as a whole will work better and you'll get along better with your neighbours. Closeness will also make it possible to have better and more accessible public transport.

And the reason I'm talking about this article here is because of paragraphs like these:

Harbor Town resident Jim Howell says that in the conventional development where he previously lived, on the east side of Memphis, he and his wife "might have known two to three neighbors on each side of us. Here at Harbor Town, we know 50 neighbors. You live closer together, the streets are narrower, and you know so many more people because you’re out walking and things are going on. People in the afternoon are out in the yard or on their porches. They bring grills out to the garages. There’s a cocktail party in somebody’s house." After Jim’s wife, Amy, gave birth this summer, six- and seven-year-olds would come to the door and ask, "Is it convenient for me to come and see the baby now?" Jim observes, "It’s a more protective environment."

This setting benefits children at least as much as it does adults. Youngsters in a traditional neighborhood obtain a healthy degree of autonomy that’s difficult to get in cul-de-sac subdivisions. More is within easy reach because of the compactness, and there are numerous routes to most places over an extensively connected street network. Faith Kusterer, a Kentlands mother, notes that her daughter Elena walked to piano lessons she took for two years in the home of her instructor, a woman they knew within the development. "She could go to the store alone on her bike to get anything from candy to school supplies," Mrs. Kusterer added. "It’s afforded her some opportunities to be out in the community and to be independent."

James Krohe Jr., a writer who for six years lived and worked in Oak Park, Illinois, a grid-plan Chicago suburb founded in the nineteenth century and now containing 53,000 people in 4 1/2 square miles, says that in many old traditional communities, the availability of public transportation helps youngsters to explore their world and to mature. "It was not unusual for Oak Park kids 13 or 14 years old to have a relationship with the larger city—to take classes or go to private schools in the city," says Krohe, who recently moved to Portland, Oregon. "Compared to the suburbs immediately to the northwest that were not served by Els [Chicago’s elevated public transit lines] and that were less served by commuter rail, kids in Oak Park were much more comfortable moving about in the larger metropolis."

What America seems largely to have forgotten, in designing the automobile-dependent suburbs of the past half-century, is that youngsters need a modulated introduction to the world beyond their block, so that they can cope with, and learn to thrive in, a country that has never been, and never will be, entirely safe or homogeneous. The typical new suburban subdivision tries in the main to withdraw its children from the society’s difficulties, leaving them without the skills and judgment to manage unfamiliar situations. "There’s a fearfulness I find in kids in the newer suburbs," Krohe says. "They can’t mix. They can’t go anywhere without private transportation. The most horrific examples of violence I recall in the Chicago area were kids from the suburbs who got lost in the city and were raped or robbed because they weren’t prepared and didn’t know what to expect." Youngsters from Oak Park, by contrast, learn to size up situations "so they won’t be bullied so easily when they are exposed to danger," Krohe observes. "It makes them competent and confident members of a larger society."

I've always liked that Hilary Clinton slogan about child raising to the effect that "it takes a village". I just object to the fact that so many of the people who agree with this slogan think that therefore the federal government should build, finance out of taxation, be the mayor of all the damn villages, and take personal command of the children away from their parents. If these villages are so important and need to be so nice, it's all the more important that they not be a nationalised industry, I say. These Neighborly guys seem to be running their business as a business. They, or someone, is betting large sums of money that these new Neighborly places of theirs will be attractive to people looking for nice homes and a nice place to raise their kids. The enterprise is starting small, and will only expand and be influential – and be widely copied – if it is successful and if it keeps learning and improving.

When governments do stupid things, that's bad. But far worse is when they do sensible things and screw them up, a regular meme here, because that's doubly bad. A bad thing gets done and a good thing gets trampled all over.

This New Neighborliness, with all its benefits, including educational benefits, is taking a good idea out of the hands of statists and putting it in the free market where it belongs. The only politics involved is changing the system so that they are not forbidden by the government from doing it.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 03:15 PM
Category: This and that