Friday, January 16, 2015

The overlooked truth of the mixed-use neighborhood

The electronic age has helped me manage the paper overload on my desk, but only a little. Yesterday, at the bottom of a long neglected stack of newspaper and magazine clippings, I came across an article in the Albany Times Union from a few years ago. Entitled "Long walk home," it cited a poll that found that 58 percent of Americans would like to live in neighborhoods with stores within walking distance. "So why haven't they been built?" asks the article by the always dependable Chris Churchill.

The question has become a well-worn one in urban planning circles. Ditto for the answers commonly proffered: zoning laws need to be more accommodating, planners and developers need to be more sensitive to the needs of citizens, and a number of others. The first answer is true enough: we're never going to attain walkability as long as zoning codes require segregated uses, large lots, and other pedestrian-hostile features.
Credit: Philip Kamrass, Times Union
But the second answer is mostly untrue, as unintentionally demonstrated by the photographs accompanying the article. They show an older mixed-use neighborhood in Schenectady that clearly didn't come about through a formal planning and development process. Rather, the mixed uses were birthed organically, through an ad hoc process initiated and controlled by neighborhood residents themselves. Note that the businesses pictured were created after the fact in buildings originally intended to be homes. The commercial uses were created as citizens actively made their neighborhood into what they thought it needed to be. They didn't wait for developers; they did it themselves.

A formalized planning and development process can give us mixed uses, but it can't give us the kind of neighborhoods we most need. It can give us contrived architecture, chain stores, and predictability, but it can't give us authenticity. Nor is it likely to impart local economic benefit. Formal development rarely generates wealth for the people already living in a neighborhood; instead, it tends to replace them with a different group of people who gained  their wealth elsewhere. The residents remaining from the old days of the neighborhood may appreciate the convenience of having a new chain store nearby, but that store sends wealth out of the community every day.

What will it take for more mixed-use, economically and culturally viable neighborhoods to be built? Less zoning, fewer developers, and more mom and pop.

Thursday, January 8, 2015

At the top of the Alps

This is from last year. Today, I can't even see out the window.

Christ Episcopal Church, Union Street, Hudson
(Background right: St Mary's Catholic Church)