The sorry state of neighbourhood design in America: a mother writes

After my last blog post about German children having more everyday freedom than their English peers, Andrea – a German-born woman who now lives in the USA – got in touch to leave a comment. She had some revealing things to say about the differences between her home and adopted countries, and has agreed to let me share them more prominently. She paints a depressing picture of car-dependence and isolation: a stark comparison with her experiences in Germany. Here is her story.

Road near Bailey School, Minnesota.

Woodbury, MN. Source: Strongtowns.org

I am German, have lived in the US for 18 years and have raised three children here. I very much miss the German way of being able to let my child go outside by himself, or walk anywhere from our home. I find the infrastructure very car oriented. Distances, as well as property sizes are considerably larger, thus there is hardly any bike paths, but 80% large roads. Hey, even a small town has double the width roads that you would find in any German town, so traffic is much more unpleasant. The sight is usually anything but inviting if I compare it to bike paths I know from back home. Same for distances, with everything just soooo stretched out.

I do see very gratefully a movement here in the US by architects, trying to rethink communities and how to build them more “inhabitants friendly.” Car joy is not everything. Community is built by people passing each other in the streets, by NEIGHBORhoods, not “stranger”hoods. I never felt so disconnected from other people as I do here in my life in the US. And I do believe the way communities are built plays a BIG role in this.

Also having more green spaces everywhere, planting trees along roads (the green lung has always been a respected issue in German city planning), reducing distances between people, or at least creating social areas within any of these neighborhoods. Also, how about a playground, WITH nature: shrubs, trees, boulders, tree stumps, etc – not only school playgrounds – incorporated in all those estranged neighborhoods? It would draw people back out and together, and help overcome the hurdle of keeping your children from going by themselves into the “unknown”.

Andrea subsequently emailed me, and added these closing thoughts:

I am very deeply concerned and also convinced about these issues. Living in Alaska for 15 years, and raising 3 girls here, made me very much aware of what difference it makes in children’s lives. Whilst living in Germany and having grown up there, we are so spoilt, we did not even see how one could NOT build like this: the playgrounds, the social interactive life and such.

It is intriguing that Andrea does not even mention the apparent American fixation with personal safety and security. Rather, her comments shine a light on the impact that planners and politicians have on the places where we live and the choices that are open to us (and our children).

My own view (influenced by the work of Jane Jacobs) is that parental fear of crime and abduction are more symptoms than causes: they are understandable reactions to living in places where it is rare to see many people out and about in the streets. For another illustration of how poor planning deprives children of everyday freedoms, read this blog post on how school location and neighbourhood design make it all but impossible for children to walk or cycle to school.

Screengrab of Richard Florida articleIntriguingly, the climate in America may be improving. There is a lively ongoing debate about the potential for good town planning, urban design and public transport investment to improve people’s lives. What is more, it appears that Americans – especially younger Americans – are falling out of love with the car, as influential urbanist Richard Florida noted last year.

If you want to follow these debates, here are a few ideas. Some readers will be aware of Mike Lanza’s pioneering Playborhood blog and book, and the longstanding non-profit organization the Project for Public Spaces. I can also recommend the Placemakers blog, Kaid Benfield’s blog at the Natural Resources Defense Council, and the Atlantic Cities website for lively, informed, progressive discussion.

Of course, poor neighbourhood design is not just an American problem. I am sure that Australian readers will recognise the pattern. My recent visit to Moscow showed a picture that, while different in its detail, was just as depressing. While perhaps not so extreme, we in the UK have plenty of examples of town planning that places too much emphasis on the needs of car drivers.

I’d welcome your reactions to Andrea’s thoughts, as ever. Also:  if you share my interest in urbanism, town planning and transport policy, which writers, bloggers and websites do you read? I’d love to hear your suggestions.

Update 23 Jan 2013 09:00 GMT: This post was picked up by the Hacker News pages of Ycombinator.com, a tech startup site. It has so far generated 140 comments there, including some useful references as well as lively debate.

38 responses to “The sorry state of neighbourhood design in America: a mother writes

  1. Pingback: The sorry state of neighbourhood design in America: a mother writes | My Daily Feeds

  2. You might want to check out Kunstler’s “The Geography of Nowhere”. It’s a witty, funny and very revealing look at this exact issue.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Geography_of_Nowhere

  3. Hi Tim, I highly recommend looking into the Chicago Wilderness project and in particular Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning’s GoTo 2040 Regional Plan. Both have significant emphases on “community”, sense of place, and making development choices that make communities great places to live.

  4. In a lot of cities in US we don’t even have side walks. And even if you have sidewalks, as author(s) mentioned, you can’t use them. For example if you live in suburb bakery store can be in 4 miles (~6 km) from your house, for average person it will take 1 hour to walk one way and 2 hours round trip, it is obvious that nobody is going to walk or ride a bike.

    Everything is designed around cars. This is one of the main contributors to obesity.

    In conjunction with mass usage of fast food, genetically modified foods, pollution from cars, lack of playgrounds for children (especially in low income neighborhoods), low levels of education (especially in low income neighborhoods), mass usage of antidepressants, leads to very big social issues.

    We are the most entertained and less informed nation in the world.

  5. I agree American suburbia is quite disconnecting and rather lonesome. Even in a neighborhood where there are lots of houses around (Long Island), people rarely even know the names of their neighbors.

    The phenomenon seems to be a deeper than what it seems to be like on the surface. I think one of the questions we need to answer is: Why are people socializing less with even their next-door neighbors?

    At my college, I had a talk with one of the people who worked there (who was in his 40s or 50s); and he told me how when he grew up in Brooklyn, you knew all of your neighbors and as a little kid you played with your neighbors’ children. He moved to LI so that he could live in a better school district and his kids would have a better school to go to, but he mentioned how, once when a ambulance came into a neighbor’s house; no one, not even a single neighbor bothered go over and inquire or even offer help.

  6. I guess this is another thing Texas has over the rest of the US. We live in a very large suburban neighborhood of Houston and our subdivision is TOTALLY interconnected with bike paths. Our kids can go to the ponds to fish, go to the pool, or go to the tennis courts (or friend’s houses) without ever leaving the bike paths.

    All told I hear there are over 65 miles of bike paths in our neighborhood. I know each of my neighbors by name and our kids can pretty consistently be found outside playing together.

    My guess is the “neighbor”ishness of your neighborhoods depend much more on how much effort you are putting into knowing your neighbors (rather than chasing dollars) and much less about the designs.

    • I’m not sure if you’re talking about life in the Woodlands or somewhere else. I lived in Friendswood for 2 yrs when I moved to the area with my two teen daughters. My girls had to convince other teens, and their parents, that it was ok to play outside, and then teach the other children HOW to play outside. It was stunning and ridiculous to me. These kids hadn’t ever thought of passing a ball in the back yard because someone might break a window if they missed. They hadn’t ever climbed a tree because they might fall out and break an arm or a leg. It took a while, but the girls finally convinced everyone that kids playing out of doors was not a bad idea.

      • Not the Woodlands – we are in a subdivision in Cypress. Lots of kids, lots of adults, very busy outside most of the time – biking, skating, fishing, ball playing, etc.

  7. I think “knowing your neighbor” is a regional situation. I lived in Rochester, NY for 12 years and knew all of my neighbors; we would talk and socialize. When I moved to the Midwest, my direct next-door neighbors introduced themselves, and that was it. We wave at each other, but almost none of the cross-the-street neighbors have said anything to me. The one that did mentioned they were a “pretty private bunch” and no one else has ever made any overture. I didn’t feel comfortable doing that myself.

    It’s been four years.

  8. It’s interesting that the comparative sizes of American cities, and of America itself, doesn’t seem to play into her comparison. The fact that ALL of Europe can fit WITHIN the territorial boundaries of the U.S. would explain why U.S. cities and neighborhoods are so spread out. We have more room to spread out. Look at cities that are bounded by geographical constraints, like NYC, San Francisco, and Seattle, and you see more public transportation, bikes, and people walking. Because everything is crammed together. When you look at states like Texas and Kansas, the cities tend to be more spread out because they have room.
    Would it be nice to have a bakery, skating rink, school, grocer, and other goods and services located within walking distance? Yes.

    • I love this comment because I think it so neatly summarizes a popular misconception, but in the final sentence also gives away a universal truth.

      American cities are not, as Skoon suggests, spread out because there’s lots of land. Even if the land is so abundant as to be vanishingly cheap, infrastructure isn’t free. Paving, sewers, electricity networks have to be built and the more sprawling, the more expensive that all gets per taxpayer. Not to mention the individual costs of everyone buying and maintaining a car.

      Instead, most of Europe is walkable because most of Europe was built before cars, and specifically before engineering and planning policies that assumed a future of cars. Much of the US was built following world war two, and under policies – specifically Euclidean single-use zoning codes, and AASHTO’s Green Book – that inevitably sprawl. The most beautiful places in the US – the kinds of places people pay money to visit – are illegal under these codes.

      If the US had different policies – literally if her municipalities followed a different set of guidelines from Euclidean zoning and the Green Book – then US cities would look very different. Skoon could walk to daily services. One alternative set of guidelines, adopted by many cities is called (annoyingly smugly) the “smart code”: http://www.transect.org/codes.html

      America is not built sprawlingly because it’s big, or because Americans love their cars or houses. It’s built sprawlingly because unelected bureaucrat engineers and planners are following faulty 1950s guidebooks.

      Everyone loves houses: that’s why Transects T1-3 include them. Everyone loves driving the open road: that’s why cities should be made of compact car-last streets, and the open road should be free of intersections, stripmalls and traffic. (Mixing streets and roads gives you a str-oad, the futon of thoroughfares.)

  9. There are a few walkable cities in the U.S., but it also varies between neighborhoods. Check out some of the walkability maps from http://www.walkscore.com/rankings/ to get a better idea of the current state.

    • our home actually has a really high walkability score according to that website and in my opinion it’s not that walkable, I wish there were less cars zooming around :( it would be so much easier to walk with kids then.

      simpleinseattle.com

  10. Thanks for all the comments. I see the post has been picked up by some US websites. One quick response: neighbourhoods are different, of course – but I liked the way Andrea picked up on some important features of many areas, and brought home their implications.

  11. Her experience was exactly like mine. I spent a part of my childhood growing up near Seoul in Korea before moving to a Cleveland suburb. The novelty of a house with a yard wore off quick after I realized that I couldn’t get anywhere or do anything without my parents, who was busy working like 11 hours a day, and it stayed like that until I reached driving age. It was miserable and there’s no way I’m going to let my kids go through that.

  12. While I agree with your post in spirit, you are conjecturing out the wazoo. Cars are one of the main causes of obesity? Piffle. GMO foods are causing social ills? You may be incapable of critical analysis.

  13. I am a composite opposite of Andrea, an American who has lived in Germany for 14 years. I also originally come from Texas, a state where, as another comment-writer pointed out, there is a lot of room to spread out.

    I currently reside in a Stuttgart suburb and can walk to each of the following services. They all lie within 150 meters of my apartment. If you keep count you will be astounded. Here goes: Library, Community College, Italian, Turkish, Greek, and Chinese restaurants, a bank, a hair cutting salon, a bakery, a travel agency, shoe repair service, a jeweler, florist (okay, maybe that is 300 meters) gift shop, farmer’s market, grocery store, church, cemetery, butcher, clothing boutique, optician’s, pharmacy, city hall, book store, and town center. Not only that, but within the same distance is a bus stop, U-Bahn (local train) stop, and S-Bahn (regional train) stop, all of which connect to anywhere I might need to go. I literally do not need my car to live and I know many, many families who live quite easily and happily without an automobile. As one friend said, “If I need a car I’ll hire a car.” Car sharing is also easy, the pick-up point is just around the corner in the parking lot of the train station :-)

    I spent last summer in Houston, perhaps the biggest spread of asphalt in the continental U.S. I took public transport for my commute, but only after a ten mile drive to get to the Park & Ride. The car culture compromised my lifestyle as it does the lives of every single American who jumps in a car, either by choice or necessity, every day. Think about what life would be without the car Here is where that thought leads me:

    a) People would be healthier because they would get more exercise. It is common in Germany to see elderly citizens out for their daily walk to the market. Older folks, younger folks, everyone moves more. There is far less obesity in Germany and the reason is not hard to discern.
    b) Our country would be much less dependent on foreign oil imports. It is staggering to think what our politics would look like if oil consumption, both foreign and domestic, were to be slashed by a reduction in consumer use.
    c) There would be more time, much more time, for home, family, and neighbors.

    I plan to repatriate soon and I’m looking forward to coming home. However, my family has teased me about my need to move back to “Mayberry.” Having lived in Germany for 14 years, they’re not far off the mark. Smaller, village life is so cozy, not to mention convenient and economical – I wish that every American could experience it for him or herself. The world we build in the U.S. would certainly look different and our lives would be indescribably better if we could eliminate our car culture.

  14. I’ve recently moved to a suburb of Atlanta, GA from a smallish Vermont town. I’ve been absolutely shocked by the utter lack of sidewalks, shoulders, and bikepaths. This is a fairly new neighborhood which has doubled in population since the year 2000, so I figured there’d be some progressive planning. I was wrong. I live a 2 mile drive from my workplace. I say “drive” because there are less than 1000 feet of sidewalk and about the same in terms of anything you’d want to ride a bike on in the two miles to get there. To add insult to injury, every intersection has a crosswalk with stop/walk lights, however, there’s typically no sidewalk on either side of the road.

  15. It’s easy to leave important issues out of discussions like this. Much of England is more like Germany than the US, primarily due to its population density. Yes, the roads are narrower and less intimidating. At the same time the UK is known, with good reason, as ‘rip-off Britain': many goods and services are way more expensive in the UK than in the US, largely because so many businesses (including especially private schools) are local monopolies, due to the fact that it’s so hard to get around. This doesn’t matter much to the affluent who have time to most of the pontificating about urban planning issues, but it makes a huge difference to the standard of living of ordinary people.

  16. I totally agree with Andrea. I live in Lexington KY where we have a shortage of sidewalks and bike paths. Walking and biking are *not* safe here. it’s something I bring to the attention of our mayor as often as I can without seeming rude – and he agrees with me.

    For example, the block I live on houses 5,000 people thereabouts. It’s a large triangle. Only one side has a sidewalk – and it’s not on or the main thoroughfare.

    If I want to ride my bicycle, I ask permission from the mega-church behind my apartment complex to ride on their parking lot. Either that or I take the bus (and take a transfer) across town to get to a certain YMCA. From there, there’s a brand new, broad walking, biking, skating, whatever paved path that reaches all the way out to the Kentucky Horse Park. It’s gorgeous.

    But we need more than just that one!

    Out of curiosity, I went to the Walk Score website, and my neighborhood somehow scored a 46%. I don’t believe it’s that high.

    • a Walk Score of 46 means that there are a couple of amenities nearby (maybe some green space marked as a “park”, etc.), but not from enough different categories. One needs a score of at least 50 to be ranked “Somewhat Walkable”, so 46 is pretty bad :)

  17. This is exactly why I might move to San Francisco, cause there social life is so much fun, outside always lots of people jogging, biking, in parks lots of people hanging out together, having picnics or playing different outdoor activities. City is so lively there, I love it there. I refuse to live in small cities in US. I don’t drive and don’t plan in learning it, cause we can’t afford the 2nd car in addition to husband’s car already. More car means more debt, more petrol, more insurance, it is too much to pay. I lived in China in one city with 10 million people and it was no big deal for me, now I live in US with no people outside, it scares me, so no, I don’t plan to live in small cities in US.

  18. I’d be curious to know what part of the US Andrea lives in. Cycling friendly-ness varies widely in this country. I lived in the SE US for a short time and was horrified by how car-centric life was.

  19. Thanks again for the comments. As I have noted in an update above the line, this post was picked up here and has provoked a lively debate, with 140 comments so far.

  20. Pingback: Quote of the Day: Andrea — The Brooks Review

  21. Thanks for the in-depth post, Tim. I’ve lived in many parts of the country over my life (CA, NJ, PA, NY, OK) and I can agree about the issues Andrea talks about. Whether it’s lack of bike paths in Newark or no sidewalks in OK, it’s just frustrating to get anywhere without a car (which I can’t operate) or some system of buses and trains, which are spotty all over the country.

  22. Pingback: Friday Fun Day OR BUST: January 25, 2012 | Traversing Tulip Lane

  23. thanks for the post, I’ve been thinking about the same things lately and it’s good to see that others have too. I’m in the seattle area and we are considered one of the most bike friendly and trail friendly areas but I still think we could do so much better!

    http://www.simpleinseattle.com

    • Thanks for the feedback – and I was interested to read your blog posts about how child-friendly Switzerland is. I have heard this from others too, as I mentioned here.

  24. This topic is fascinating to me, as I live it every day. I have two children, ages 10 and 5, and I am adamant about having them out and about. I’ve only lived in the suburbs in the US, and I’ve been increasingly frustrated by the lack of amenities to encourage families to move about without cars. We live less than half a mile from my daughter’s school, yet she isn’t allowed to walk or bike there by herself (their rule, not mine).

    We recently decided that we wanted to move, mainly for space reasons, but a huge factor in deciding where we would live was the community and livability of a neighborhood. For the first time, we prioritized how we might live on the outside over many inside features of a home. We found a neighborhood that was full of younger families with lots of community activities, both indoors and out. We spent time observing the neighborhood on afternoons and weekends to see how active children were outside. And then we waited for a house to become available in that neighborhood. It’s an unorthodox way of buying a home in the US, but we’re so glad we finally realized what our kids were missing and we able to do something about it. Our house is surrounded by mature trees, sits on a cul-de-sac so kids can roam about freely, and resides in an area where we can ride bikes safely to a few shops, library, farmer’s market, etc.

    Unfortunately this is not something the average American can do – sell and buy a home just for this “luxury.” However I hope as more families demand this kind of living as a priority in their purchasing factor, no matter where they live or what their price range, developers and city planners will take notice.

  25. Angie and Lisa – thanks for the comment. Your story about moving house is interesting. I suspect more families will start to think about where they live in the way that you do. Love your blog by the way – just started following it (cannot think why I haven’t before).

  26. I live in the suburb shown in the article. I know only a few people on my street. The houses are just as bland as the people living around me. It seems like everyone in Woodbury resents one another. We do have community gatherings in the summer, but in the winter, we all hibernate in our neo-colonial homes waiting to switch from our furnace to the AC. I’ve gone down the road shown many times. On the left there’s an elementary school that looks just like three others in the district. On the right there’s a mile by mile patch of twisty streets, green lawns, and three different decades worth of two story homes. There are a few farms left in my suburb, but many of them will be replaced this summer as over 400 new dwellings will replace the sweet corn farms that supplied my local grocers.

    Everyone here thinks the moment you step over the city line into St. Paul, a group of Somali thugs is going to beat you to a pulp for the few dollars in your wallet. I go to Woodbury High School, where 1600+ rowdy teenagers spend all day on their phones and ignore their peers. I really hope to get out of this town someday. It will be hard without a car, even with over 160 miles of walking trails, it’s not like they connect to bus stops to the city.

    Here, come tour around my little paradise:

  27. Thanks for your comment Randy – a depressing portrait of how some suburbs look and feel from the inside.

  28. I hardly know my neighbors but that does not bother me. Lack of sidewalks or even shoulders on roads laid out in 1750 does bother me. I held my breath the first time I let my son and his friend ride his bike a mile or two on such a road.

  29. Pingback: The concept of neighborhood barely exists in the USA | Smash Company

  30. Pingback: A century of rethinking childhood | Rethinking Childhood

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