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Walkable communities a pedestrian dream

For those who long for the connectivity of small-town life, yet don't want to give up the conveniences of urban living, neotraditional communities provide an alternative.

Designed to include everything within easy walking distance -- from the corner grocery to the school, and perhaps even the office -- they appeal to die-hard pedestrians. Advocates say the traditional neighborhood design, or TND, concept, which has been around since the mid-1980s, is picking up steam.

But don't be blinded by the label. Critics say not everything claiming to be a "traditional" neighborhood lives up to its billing. And while a pedestrian lifestyle can cut down on trips to the gas station and maybe even the number of cars a family needs, detractors say those financial gains might not offset the higher costs of TND homes.

TND grew out of the new urbanism movement, a response to suburban sprawl and a growing dependence on automobiles, says John O. Norquist, president and CEO of the Congress for the New Urbanism and a former mayor of Milwaukee.

Norquist cites three factors that historically combined to create the current American landscape of disparate neighborhoods. One was zoning practices that segregated commercial and retail districts from residential neighborhoods. Another was the overbuilding of highways. Finally, the secondary mortgage market, until recently, favored separately zoned, single-family homes.

"Together," says Norquist, "they created a situation where people and their activities are spread over the landscape in separate pods. The new urbanism is all about undoing that."

Unlike the long, undifferentiated sprawl of cookie-cutter developments that characterize much of suburbia now, he says, neotraditional neighborhoods must have a discernible center and edge. In that center, where a project's density is greatest, there should be ample public space in the form of a town square or urban park.

A pedestrian's paradise
Getting people out of their cars is among the new urbanists' major objectives. A maxim of TND is that almost everything residents need should be no more than a 10-minute walk away.

According to Marie York, chair of the American Planning Association's New Urbanism Design Division, living in a neighborhood designed with the pedestrian in mind could save a family enough in transportation costs to cover the mortgage.

"In a two-income household," she says, "if one person can get by without having a car for transit, that's an average savings of $680 a month, which in turn can translate into the possibility of homeownership. So it's a huge economic benefit."

York says new urbanists have given a lot of thought to how roads are designed. They seek high levels of connectivity in street grids to disperse auto traffic and make neighborhoods pedestrian-friendly. To achieve that kind of walkability, TND supports zoning laws that allow for a mix of shops, offices and homes within the same area, the same block or even the same building.

Next: "What do people like about small towns?"
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