August 19, 2008

Dense development: OK for vacations but not at home?

"After fighting density at public meetings throughout the year, even NIMBYs need a vacation. When the weather is right and they feel like escaping their one dwelling-unit-per-acre suburban subdivisions for some rest and relaxation, these neighborhood activists often head for places like the Jersey Shore," writes planner Matt Wanamaker for Next American City. The irony, he notes, is that "a good deal of the vibrancy in resort towns like those at 'The Shore' may be attributed to something that many visitors would claim revulsion to in their hometowns: density."

Interesting point. While certainly some suburbanites who deplore any increase in density back home head off to rural oases like New Hampshire's White Mountains, many also do head to places like Wildwood Crest, N.J. - "where even the quietest blocks have a typical residential density of around 12 dwelling-units-per-acre." For some reason, what's not OK at home seems worth traveling to for vacation,=, Wanamaker notes:
"Parents who fight ordinances permitting 'dangerous' alleys at home let their children ride bikes alone through them at The Shore. Every block has a sidewalk used for short walks to shops, schools, churches, and of course the ocean. . . . Single-family homes sit snugly next to each other or next to townhomes, which often sit close to lowrise hotels. Sandwich shops without dedicated parking spaces are full of patrons all day. Most homes have porches and families wind down the day by sitting in them and waving to anyone who walks by. . . . They are things that planners struggle to convince towns to allow, yet are often denied by citizen groups who protest, citing concerns including…reduced quality of life."

Is this a case of what some people used to say about another tourist magnet, New York City: A nice place to visit but I wouldn't want to live there? Or is this a case where people really do enjoy traditional, more densely developed walkable communities without realizing it?

There's a difference between wanting to maintain a certain level of space and quiet in your community, because that's how it was when you moved there and that's the lifestyle you're hoping to maintain; and arguing that increased density will "destroy" quality of life, lower property values and cause all sorts of other problems. Personally, I'd like to live close to density but have quiet on my own block; who wouldn't? But density doesn't necessarily kill off property values. Beacon Hill is a lot more densely developed than, say, Hopedale, but it's pretty obvious which place has higher housing costs. Yes, there can be value in density, if done right.

1 comment:

  1. This really hit home for me, because my family and I rented a house in downtown Bar Harbor, Maine, for a week in July. Talk about pedestrian heaven. What a pleasant dream! Within a block of the house there were stores, restaurants, a movie theatre, oceanfront walking paths, parks, pubs, bakeries, everything you could want. And a free bus service to other towns and attractions on the island like Acadia National Park. We could have gone the entire week without getting in the car if we chose.

    I don't think it's coincidental that people flock to vacation spots like Bar Harbor. A small town like this appeals to some strong yearning many of us who live in suburbia have for a truly walkable living environment.

    We had two teenagers along and there was no need to drive them anywhere. Back at home in the Ham it doesn't seem like the weekend's complete if I'm not doing a teen shuttle to the mall, movie theatre, or Shopper's World. They loved the freedom and independence. I told them, this is what life was like for me when I was your age (I grew up in Quincy)! Walk everywhere, no need for the parental taxi (they probably wouldn't have done it if we asked!).

    Then the week and the dream ended and we came back to suburbia. :-(