Friday, December 12, 2008

Community Design with the Congress of Neighborhoods

Dr. Frankenstein had it easy. He knew exactly what he needed to build the perfect monster. Arms? 2. Legs? 2. Nose? 1. Brain (abnormal or otherwise)? 1. The checklist was there in Anatomy 101. Toss it all together; add a carefully timed lightning bolt and voila!

No, if you want a real challenge, try putting together the perfect neighborhood. The first thing you’d need to do is figure out what goes into such a civic construction. There is no handbook with a complete reference. In fact, bring together a group of twenty or thirty people and you’d likely get a wide variety of features.

This is just what happened last Saturday morning. Greg Carr, Frisco’s Code Enforcement Administrator, hosted the first “Congress of Neighborhoods” as a forum to explore just what makes for a good place to live. An open invitation went out to all the residents of Frisco, and thirty or so people answered the call. I was fortunate enough to participate in the event, and came away with some ideas I hadn’t originally contemplated.

So what goes into the recipe?

Right at the top of most lists is Amenities. This is good news considering the amount of money Frisco spends building dandy community parks. It’s gratifying to know that these efforts are appreciated. Of course, the challenge comes in defining what those amenities should be. If your family has two pre-schoolers, having a swing set, slide and jungle gym are a must. But older families might prefer a spray ground or basketball courts. If there are large numbers of empty nesters, then tennis courts might be desirable. Things would be much easier if a neighborhood were more homogenous, wouldn’t it?

Not so fast! It seems another desirable trait for Frisco neighborhoods (according to the folks in the Congress) is Diversity. A phrase usually reserved for ethnic distinctions, diversity also refers to having a range of age groups. Studies have shown that having this kind of age-based variety has a distinct impact on safety, as it’s less likely that everyone will be gone at the same time of day or evening. Having some retirees puttering around their gardens during the middle of the afternoon can deter ne’er-do-wells from hanging around. And as you might suspect, Safety was another feature people look for in their neighborhoods. So those two complement each other quite well.

One of the items I hadn’t considered was street design. A good neighborhood, so the theory goes, has shorter, winding streets, as opposed to long, often active thoroughfares. The latter encourages people to find a short cut through your front yard to cut a few minutes off their commute – even more if they pick up the speed a bit. And yet, this Yin has its Yang. It seems the shorter streets lead to the proliferation of “rolling stops.” For some reason, a few of my fellow Congressians found this minor traffic indiscretion akin to heroin trafficking. I’m not sure I’d put that much emphasis on it, but I can see their point from a safety perspective.

But just as Dr. Frank had to crank his creation up to capture that bolt of lightning, so too do Frisco neighborhoods need a spark to take them from being a pleasant collection of houses into a community. The consensus of the Congress of Neighborhoods seemed to be that Communication was just that catalyst. Whether it’s effective communication from the Home Owner’s Association to the residents, or just the ability to knock on your neighbor’s door, the more people can discuss things, the better the environment. Minor annoyances – a barking dog or a mis-parked car – don’t blossom into hillbilly-esque feuds. That late night party around the corner is a little more tolerable when you know that they’re celebrating their 50th wedding anniversary.

Sadly, while good communication was at the top of the desirable list, it also rose to the top of the challenges list. How do you make sure everyone knows about the latest HOA meeting? How do you get neighbors talking across the fence? I’m fortunate to live among a group that prizes these things. We get together three or four times a year for a block party. We stand and chat in our front yards. We get together for a game of cards every once in a while.

If you’re looking for a way to improve your neighborhood, perhaps you should start right next door. The next time the neighbor’s out mowing the yard, stop over and say hello. Or if she’s hauling a big load of groceries up the driveway, offer to lend a hand. Just like the wacky doctor discovered, a little spark can add some real life to a collection of parts.

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