Rebuilding Place in the Urban Space

"A community’s physical form, rather than its land uses, is its most intrinsic and enduring characteristic." [Katz, EPA] This blog focuses on place and placemaking and all that makes it work--historic preservation, urban design, transportation, asset-based community development, arts & cultural development, commercial district revitalization, tourism & destination development, and quality of life advocacy--along with doses of civic engagement and good governance watchdogging.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Evaluating neighborhoods and the "amenityshed"

Illustration from The House Book by Keith DuQuette
Illustration from The House Book by Keith DuQuette.

I got an email from Ann Douglas promoting the blog entry, "7 Facts You Need to Know About a Neighborhood before Buying a Home”.

In thinking about her entry, and past writings of my own, I started to think of this issue a bit more expansively, and I coined a term, "amenityshed," to refer not just to the typical array of amenities present within a neighborhood, but how your access to amenities is expanded depending on whether or not you walk, bike, or use transit, and how in the city, your "amenityshed" can be expanded significantly without having to own a car, by adding bicycling to your mode options (complemented by the use of carsharing services).
Catchment area of public transit stops for pedestrians and cyclists
Catchment area of public transit stops for pedestrians and cyclists. From Planning and Design for Pedestrians and Cyclists: A Technical Guide, page 135, published by VeloQuebec.

This is an extension of the concept that I call the mobilityshed. (See "Updating the mobilityshed / mobility shed concept" from 2008.)

Ms. Douglas' entry lists the following as key questions for evaluating a neighborhood as a place to live:

(1) are the schools adequate? Are they neighborhood schools?

(2) is this house in a low to nil crime rate area?

(3) fire rating. This can make a huge difference on yearly insurance premiums, if indeed there is a source of water close by or is the house in an all-volunteer fire department area.

(4) is the Ambulance service timely and efficient for this neighborhood?

(5) church. If a family has a preference for a certain church, the availability of that church or one like it should be checked.

(6) Is there a neighborhood association or neighborhood watch. This would also bring up association fees if there are any.

(7) One thing of importance to any home owner is the appearance of the neighborhood as a whole. Are there cluttered yards? Are there rules against junk cars being parked along the street? Do people care about the appearance of their homes to passersby? Like a well groomed yard.

Are these factors important to you?

Living in the city, I take fire and emergency service for granted. And being agnostic-atheist, access to churches doesn't cross my radar, except for my appreciation of churchly architecture and stained glass windows.

But the piece reminds me that in 2007, I wrote about how local newspapers write about neighborhoods. The Washington Post has a regular feature on neighborhoods in the Saturday Real Estate section. The Examiner does a similar feature on Fridays, and the Baltimore Sun used to do this on Sundays, but they don't do it any more.

(Note that these features from past editions of newspapers are a good source of information about neighborhoods over time, and are mined by architectural historians and others for historic preservation and history information.)

Looking back at that entry makes me realize that what I wrote was inadequate. Which was pointed out in the single comment to the entry (which is attached to this entry).

The Real Estate feature in the Sunday Baltimore Sun wrote about neighborhoods in terms of the following characteristics:

• The housing stock //
• Average month's rent //
• Crime //
• Kids and schools //
• Dining in //
• Dining out //
• Recreation/outdoors //
• Nightlife //

How does your neighborhood rate on these factors? At the time I thought that was a good list. But now I realize it left a lot out.

Of course, a newspaper has to cover neighborhoods across an the entire region, and people looking to live in the suburbs probably care about different things than do people interested in living in cities and town centers. What other factors would you include?

What they call "Dining in" I might call neighborhood shopping and dining, and I would add a category concerning access to civic amenities including libraries and access to culture. Having a movie theater in your neighborhood (Cleveland Park and Chevy Chase in DC, and Downtown Alexandria has them,). I would change the Recreation/outdoors category to include parks: parks/recreation/outdoors, etc.

I think Ann Douglas' point about having a factor on community civic life (associations etc.) is an important one that I hadn't thought about.

I might even add a category on the responsiveness of local government and the quality of municipal services. And property tax rates may be an issue. Some communities in Montgomery and Prince George's Counties in Maryland have a local property tax in addition to the county property tax. And Baltimore has incredibly high property tax rates, as the tax base has diminished overall.

And of course, when it comes to choosing where to live, you ought to consider the distance to work and the time required to get there, and whether or not you have efficient options (drive alone, transit, car pool, etc.). This wasn't addressed by the Sun, because in that region, even in Baltimore City, most people drive.

Relatedly, but truly a separate factor is whether or not you have to own a car in order to be able to function, get around, and participate in your community.

In the center city, and in DC almost 40% of households don't own a car, so the ability to get around without owning a car is an important consideration for many people, including me.

That means you need access to transit, maybe to car sharing services, and key convenience good retail categories (supermarket, pharmacy, hardware + the post office maybe) would be within a comfortable walking-biking distance.

That's what the Walk Score calculation helps people to figure out--although the deeper knowledge of a neighborhood's amenities isn't able to be fully reflected in this data.

And biking distance and a willingness to shop by bike is key, and isn't reflected in the Walk Score calculation, for obvious reasons. E.g., while I live 0.80 miles to the subway station, it's about 1.25 miles to the Giant going east, and one mile to the Safeway going west. Since I happily conduct many activities, including grocery shopping, by bike, my location serves me well.

BUT, Suzanne doesn't bike. If she were responsible for grocery shopping, our life would be a lot less convenient, because carrying groceries on the bus or subway, and then walking home, can be hell (and it's not that simple carrying a 20 pound watermelon in your backpack, riding uphill, when its 90 degrees out either...).

Access to transit is a key factor, and differentiating between subway (heavy rail) service and bus service is important.

Subway service is far more reliable and frequent and faster while bus service is less reliable, slower, and faster.

On the other hand, depending on where you're going and the bus route, bus service can be the better option. The closer to a subway station is better. While 3/4 of a mile doesn't seem that far to me, many people prefer to be closer, and that is reflected in housing prices. Regardless, having access to both subway and bus service is better than having access to only one.

(Having access to relatively direct bus service to Downtown was a big bonus for Suzanne after the post-crash changes to transit service on the Red Line seriously degraded service for many months. She rode the bus instead, and fortunately, during rush periods, that bus stops within two blocks of where she works.)

Carsharing sites may not be close to where you live, unless you live by transit stations or commercial districts, where the cars are often located. But again, if you add the bicycle to your repetoire, cars even 3 miles away end up being easily accessible.

It's all about the modes you use and whether or not these modes provide efficient access to the amenities you prefer or need to consume on a regular basis.

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