What Makes the Best Neighborhoods?
Like all cities, Spokane has a variety of neighborhoods with varying degrees of magnetism. Spokane’s Best Neighborhoods, like all the Best Neighborhoods, share the same critical elements. This article will identify and define them (in no particular order).
An Identifiable Center
Individual neighborhoods are like small towns within your city. Like all traditional small towns, there is a center. A common occurrence within larger cities is a classic “Main Street” environment that anchor older neighborhoods. In most cases these little Main Streets developed as separate towns until their mother city grew and enveloped them. In Spokane, there are two great examples of this, the Garland Neighborhood and the Hillyard Neighborhood.
Neighborhoods developed during the latter part of the century tend to be anchored by what retail developers (ironically) call “neighborhood centers,” otherwise known as a standard strip mall anchored by a large grocery store.
But a neighborhood center doesn’t necessarily need to be a commercial hub. Centers can be parks or schools or even a great street. Taken together, neighborhood centers create a nested economic hierarchy within your city — the size of your neighborhood center is directly proportionate to the market it serves. Downtown, at least traditionally, serves the entire market for the region and thereby is the largest neighborhood center.
The best neighborhoods have boundaries. Boundaries may be distinct, such as a creek or natural area or big busy street, or they may be more subtle. As one travels further and further from a neighborhood center, you feel the neighborhood start to change as you approach the gravitational pull of an adjacent neighborhood center. Whether the boundaries are subtle or dramatic, residents and visitors should sense and feel when they are transitioning into or out of a neighborhood.
A Front Door
I debated with myself about whether this element is foundational to help create the best neighborhoods. The good news is, I won. Perhaps the least important ingredient on the list, a front door can create a solid impression for visitors venturing into a neighborhood, nonetheless.
Front doors need not be spectacularly ornate (although it helps), sometimes simple signage on the primary thoroughfare into the neighborhood is enough. You’ll often see more creative front doors in older neighborhoods. Many of Spokane’s original neighborhoods have roughly 10 foot tall basalt-built towers marking your entry into them. Newer neighborhoods may have a large round-a-bout with gateway signage and landscaping. Whatever it may be, a formal front door into a neighborhood firmly establishes its sense of place.
Mixed Land Uses
Mixing residential, commercial, governmental, and recreational land uses adds significantly to a neighborhood. The lack of mixed land uses is most pronounced in more contemporary McMansion subdivisions, whereby row after row of strip housing dominates. A neighborhood dominated by single family housing isn’t a bad thing, necessarily, but what matters is direct, walkable access to something other than another single family home. Can you walk to the park from your house? Can your kids walk or ride a bike to school? Can you walk to a pub for a beer? What about bakeries, coffee shops, and grocery stores? How about the nearest transit stop?
How this mix of land uses is put together also matters but the finer details of urban design shall be saved for a different article. For the purposes of this discussion, to create the best neighborhoods, mix up those land uses.
A common critique of neighborhoods built after about World War II is there lack of architectural diversity. All the homes look the same. The neighborhoods feel dull and bland. There’s nothing really unique to feast your eyes upon. Block after block of sameness. Prior to World War II, real estate developers took much more pride into adding unique architectural elements into the homes and structures they built into new neighborhoods. The good news is that philosophy has comeback a bit as many of today’s better real estate developers recognize the marketability of creating landscapes that speak to the unique tastes of each individual buyer, and the buyers take pride in knowing they aren’t living in a standard, shotgun subdivision.
Buildings that Address the Street
This ingredient is kinda’ wonky and pretentious architectural lingo but the thrust of the definition is best described as whether or not homes and other structures are built and situated in a manner that speaks to the street. Distance matters. Front porches matter. Alley-fed garages matter. Is your local neighborhood Starbucks in a strip mall or is it in a building that abuts directly to the sidewalk and offers sidewalk seating? Diverse architecture is immensely important. Equally, how those diverse structures are situated, arranged, and organized within a neighborhood dictates whether or not the collective puzzle pieces fit together in a manner that helps create the best neighborhoods.
Streets that Generally Connect
The best neighborhoods have streets that generally connect. In the old days, cities and towns were built on a simple grid street pattern. Any number of streets will lead you toward your destination and travelers had choices about which route worked best for them. About 50 years ago, developers discovered they could squeeze more salable lots into their subdivisions by incorporating cul-de-sacs — the less streets connect, the more land is available to sell homes.
There is much to dislike about cul-de-sacs. Ever wonder why traffic is so bad? As cul-de-sac driven subdivisions evolved, traffic engineers entered the fray and began dictating a hierarchy of streets based on traffic capacity. Much like a series of streams coming down a mountain, collecting into larger creeks, and those creeks eventually feeding one large river, the same holds true for cul-de-sac oriented subdivisions. The traffic flows like water coming down the mountain, all leading to one place – the congested arterial that provides the only access into and out of a subdivision. Connecting streets provides alternatives for vehicles, bike riders, and walkers to get to where they need to go utilizing the most direct route possible, traffic is more dispersed, and residents aren’t all forced onto congested thoroughfares to sit in traffic for 20 minutes just to grab a carton of milk.
Sidewalks are good, sidewalks detached from the street are better. Sometimes referred to as a tree-lawn, the grassy space between the street and the sidewalk provides for many amenities, street trees being the most obvious. From an urban design standpoint, there’s nothing like a neighborhood street that is lined with a mature tree canopy. Market studies and focus groups have repeatedly shown a buyer’s preference to buy a home on a tree-lined street over the exact same home without the tree-lined street.
Detached sidewalks also provide a safety buffer between vehicles on the street and pedestrians on the sidewalk.
In contemporary developments that include detached sidewalks, storm water engineers have come to realize that the tree lawn is a great place to capture storm water runoff and allow it to percolate into the soil, thereby providing a natural cleaning mechanism prior to draining into your region’s waterways. Not only that, but it’s a great way to water those trees, too.
You saw this one coming. Tree-lined streets add character in many ways to the best neighborhoods. For starters, a sense of shelter and shade for pedestrians and even those in vehicles creates a feeling of security. A generally uniform canopy adds, you guessed it, uniformity and symmetry to the streetscape. The visual aesthetic is worth waiting about 30-years for a row of street trees to come to maturity. Finally, and perhaps somewhat of an irrelevant point when it comes to the purpose of this article, but mature urban trees add a variety of environmental values to the urban arena, including: cleaning water run-off, filtering the air, and mitigating urban heat islands. Here’s a full post on the value of street-trees.
Walkability is the overriding theme for all ingredients that make the best neighborhoods. To create a walkable environment that is safe and provides easy (walkable) access to many of your everyday needs requires incorporating six of the ingredients on this list.
Generally speaking, neighborhood development patterns since World War II envisioned strictly residential landscapes geared specifically to accommodate vehicle travel. Developers discovered they’ll make more money by constructing shotgun subdivisions out on the urban frontier wired together with a mesh of cul-de-sacs. Trees and sidewalks were an additional cost burden many developers were not interested in pursuing. Many cities, for their part, wistfully approved these very same subdivisions. Folks wanted to leave the older neighborhoods of the city for quieter suburban surroundings (AKA white flight). Municipalities institutionalized suburban, subdivision oriented development patterns via zoning codes that required a strict separation of land uses. Traffic engineers insisted on bigger and wider roads to accommodate all that increased traffic. Local chambers of commerce endorsed freeway building as good “economic development.” Strip malls, acres of surface parking, stop light after stop light just to grab a gallon of milk.
In the 1960s, new urban thinkers started to challenge suburban development patterns and, in doing so, identified the qualities that make pre-World War II neighborhoods so livable. Thirty years of debate and momentum later, in the early 1990s, municipalities, real estate developers and the tenants they seek to fill their space (be them residential or commercial) began to experiment with “traditional development patterns.” Today, 25 years after that, the real estate development sector firmly understands the value (and marketability) of developing projects that incorporate all of the elements above – the most important being walkability.