New Urbanism creates living communities

 

Note: This article is a sidebar to this issue's feature story.

Urban planner Jacob Brostoff lounges in a grassy common area and beams with admiration as he looks out over Orenco Station, a new development in a suburb of Portland.

"This place is nothing like traditional suburbia," he says. "I hated growing up in the suburbs. I found the isolation and monotony of that environment oppressive."

The common area is decorated with shrubbery and a gazebo, and surrounded by houses with front porches, wide, tree-lined sidewalks and bike paths. Garages are hidden behind the homes, accessible from alleys. Within walking distance are the post office, a grocery store, the dry cleaners and shops. A train station with service to Portland sits beyond the shops, a five-minute walk away.

Orenco Station, built in the past few years as part of Portland's effort to create communities around mass transit, sprang from a relatively young urban design movement called New Urbanism. The movement was created about 20 years ago by a coalition of architects, planners and citizen activists concerned with sprawl and affordable housing. "What was being built wasn't adding anything to our community or civic life," says Shelley Poticha, executive director of the Congress for the New Urbanism, based in San Francisco.

In an effort to reduce urban sprawl and foster community, New Urbanist developments such as Orenco Station provide housing, jobs, schools, services and recreation opportunities within close proximity. This type of development is particularly attractive to single people, young families and empty nesters who want to own a small home or townhouse.

The idea is catching on; there are nearly 100 projects under construction in the West alone, according to the Congress for New Urbanism. "People are attracted to neighborhoods that have great public spaces, and retail centers that are a destination for community interaction," says Poticha.

While one of New Urbanism's goals is to create affordable housing, critics say those new homes are still too expensive for most. A stroll through the alleys of Orenco Station reveals a throng of shiny and new luxury cars and SUVs. The cheapest home in Orenco Station is a 1,200-square-foot townhouse that goes for $165,900. Larger homes cost between $225,000 and $300,000. Brostoff says high prices are a result of high demand, and that as these developments become more widespread, prices will decrease.

In Oregon, public officials are encouraging that to happen. Metro, the regional government which oversees development in the area around Portland, has required city and town governments to change zoning laws that prohibit garages behind homes and narrow streets with wide sidewalks. If local governments want to use New Urbanism concepts, Metro will provide technical assistance and grant dollars.

"It has simplified my life dramatically - I don't have to deal with traffic or house or yard maintenance," says Janis Steinfeld, who used to live in a 4,200 square-foot house on 1 acre in Portland. Looking for a change, she moved into a much smaller house in Orenco Station and opened a gift shop and garden center.

"There are three restaurants, a dry cleaner, a wine store, an organic grocery, Starbucks ... Everything is here," she says. "It's a 5 minute driving distance to anything else we need."

Asked if there are any drawbacks to her new neighborhood, she pauses. "I wish I had room for a great big dog," she says. "I used to have a big yard. The big yard and dog kind of go together."

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