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New Traditional Neighborhoods Are Destined to Age Well

By Rick Kos

Within the span of three short weeks in April, I packed up all of my belongings, sold my home in the new traditional town of Vermillion, N.C., and drove across the continent. An Internet career change and life in my new home of Alameda, Calif., awaited me. The experience has proven to me that neighborhoods modeled upon the time-tested principles of traditional town planning are fated to age gracefully and hold their value.

Since Alameda was designed over a century ago, I have gone through a "time warp" of sorts, leaping from my brand new townhome in Vermillion to a 1920s Tudor in the middle of Alameda's historic district. Living in these two communities makes it abundantly clear how newly-planned traditional towns are surely to evolve, since the same sound design fundamentals have been carefully applied in both. If you've made the choice to live in a new traditional town, rest assured. Your neighborhood is destined to age much more gracefully than its conventional subdivision counterpart.

Renewed appreciation for traditional design was evident during my two-week trek across the United States. I spent time each day in a variety of large cities and smaller towns, navigating to the historic center of each. Happily, a surprising majority of new and renovated structures displayed the design and street orientation qualities which new urbanists tick off as essential to long-term neighborhood vitality.

For example, there were few, if any, 1970s-era, windswept plazas in the making. Larger buildings were not turning blank walls to the street as much as they used to, but were welcoming pedestrians with street-level retail shops. Even bank branches -- notorious for chilly, fortress-like architecture -- seemed to be leaning toward more human-scaled designs.

To be certain, there were plenty of examples of truly hostile design in the making. Enough thoughtful planning was evident, however, to suggest that many established towns may be abandoning their fondness for brutally 'modern' buildings and the pillaging of historic resources and entering a new era in which neighborhoods are reclaimed in a manner compatible with the people who will inhabit them for generations. I suspect that the tireless education efforts of new urbanists and preservationists are beginning to bear some fruit in national discourse.

Alameda offers an excellent case study on the staying power of proper urban design and mixed-use planning techniques. More housing is appearing above street-level shops, there are attractive options for public transit and civic gathering, and an active citizenry fights tirelessly for transit improvements and the success of independent shop owners. The island of 80,000 is essentially flat, accommodating a rectilinear pattern of connected streets broken only by the water channels that infiltrate from San Francisco Bay.

The fundamental town design principles of center, edge and connectivity are evident, ripened and matured by the passage of decades. Specifically, there is a clear center in the form of a thriving downtown, a wonderful sense of enclosure by virtue of the surrounding water, and linkages created by the connected streets, shoreline and bike paths. The town is a joy to explore by bicycle, and the dedicated bike lanes help tremendously. There are over 3,000 pre-1900 homes arranged comfortably along wide sidewalks, enhancing the pedestrian experience. As icing on the cake, a decommissioned U.S. naval base is slowly being handed back to Alameda, creating an unprecedented opportunity to shape new development patterns on hundreds of vacant acres.

Now that I have successfully moved from a wonderful village in the making to a town that has been settled since the 1860s, it is clear to me that the passage of time will be kind to any neighborhood modeled upon the principles of traditional town planning. It is understandably difficult at times to see past the construction trailers, ubiquitous dust and mud to the finished product in a new development. During my short stay in Vermillion, it was easy to become overly eager for its faster evolution, knowing that it would become more refined with each new home, park, and shop. Living in Alameda, however, has proven that patience is indeed a virtue. The small trees in a neighborhood just coming off the drawing boards will soon shade the streets completely. Homeowners will add quirky touches to their homes, fostering individuality and contributing to the reward of walking down a lively street. The sidewalks will take on a charm of their own by cracking and buckling a bit, and neighborhood friendships and tra ditions will take root.

To those readers living in a new traditional town that seems like a permanent construction site, take heart: I know what you are going though. I have been able to put matters in perspective by "fast forwarding" a few decades ahead of where your community now sits on the timeline of neighborhood evolution. It is absolutely worth your while to wait it out. The dust and bulldozers will soon be gone and your new neighborhood will be the sort of beautiful place that people will deliberately seek out to visit.