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New Urbanism offers communities hope — and a few dreams, too

The movement seeks to recapture communal life. Or rather a nostalgic vision of communal life.

Ramping up density, putting living quarters above stores and creating more room for pedestrians and bikers, as New Urbanism demands, can offer great efficiencies.
MinnPost file photo by Corey Anderson

Holding informal court most mornings at a Caribou near Lake Calhoun in Minneapolis is Richard Logan, a retired anthropology professor. Gregarious to a fault, he talks to practically everybody within reach and then makes introductions all around. At one of his gatherings Wednesday, I met, among others, a young woman who stages random-act-of-kindness “interventions,” giving out home-baked cookies and cupcakes to passers-by after bars close in Uptown; an artist named Bim, who was nervously stuffing her mouth with candy bars; and a tall, handsome cyclist whom Logan tried to set up with the interventions gal — except that it turned out she was married.

Sometimes Logan recruits people to his favorite causes. He induced the interventions lady to speak about her work at a meeting of the West Calhoun Neighborhood Council where he’s a board member. And he’s been noodging me to join Or Emet, a synagogue that blends scientific thought with the God stuff. He’s president of the congregation.  

On Wednesday, the conversation at Caribou turned to community, or rather its supposed lack thereof in modern life. Logan bemoaned the fact that people these days don’t seem to share their lives as neighbors or have a sense of themselves as public citizens. They do connect, but mostly as part of narrow interest groups, like bond traders who are Grateful Dead followers or born-again hangnail sufferers. In contrast, when he was a kid growing up in Waterbury, Vt. (population now about 5,000), people participated in open town meetings, kids were free to play unsupervised in the streets, and there seemed to be a greater sense of belongingness.

Childhood memories

I had similar recollections of my childhood in North Minneapolis (although there were no New England-style town meetings). Mothers on our block kicked their kids out of the house early in the morning (the better to get the cleaning done), and we spent the days — summer days, anyway — roving around on bikes and rollerskates, playing pick-up baseball games, transforming a playhouse into a hotel or a theater, torturing ants, scouring the grass for “magic” four-leaf clovers and spying on a “wicked witch” down by Bassett Creek — in fact, a homeless man who had built himself a shelter out of leftover wood.

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In the afternoons, mothers would visit with each other, shop for groceries (often on foot) and watch the kids play. And at night, families might stroll around the neighborhood, greeting others sitting on their porches and traveling to Plymouth Avenue for an ice-cream cone.

If you misbehaved, somebody — usually somebody else’s mother — reported the fact to your mom, and there was hell to pay. The surveillance extended beyond the immediate neighborhood. The accountant who worked at my grandfather’s factory ratted me out when I ran across the street in front of his car. (Somebody should have been watching him instead because Grandpa later discovered that the guy embezzled thousands from the business.) The neighbors were close, but not too close. After all, the advantage of living in a city, rather than a small town, is that people knew stuff about you, but not everything about you.

Civic togetherness

The desire to recapture that communal life — or rather that nostalgic vision of communal life — is the thrust of a movement called the New Urbanism. Its theory is that the historical way of designing a city — with a compact center, walkable streets and squares and plazas to gather in — was best, and that the post-World War II ascendancy of the suburb has been a disaster for civic togetherness.  

Suburbs, after all, emphasize apartness and privacy, not togetherness. “The perfect reflection of that is the prevalence of the back deck rather than the front porch,” says Logan.

Houses are now spaced as far apart as their owners can afford, and land uses are separated. No longer is the bakery and the dry cleaner’s a short walk away; stores are isolated in malls or shopping strips, requiring people to drive — and do their errands in an environment as impersonal as an airport. In suburban Westport, Conn., where I raised my kids, one-acre zoning and an absence of sidewalks made any kind of togetherness difficult and dangerous to achieve. I had to drive my kids to play dates with their friends and drive to meet up with my friends. “The car,” says Logan, “is just another kind of private space.”

I remember observing a Gymboree class for infants at a local Westport church and thinking rather scornfully, “Babies don’t need exercise” — until I realized that the classes were really for the mothers, who lived in splendid isolation in their luxurious McMansions. They wouldn’t run into each other unless they took three-mile hikes with their strollers along treacherous curving roads where cars sped by at 50 miles an hour.

Ramping up density, putting living quarters above stores and creating more room for pedestrians and bikers, as New Urbanism demands, can offer great efficiencies. People can get around without necessarily owning a car (at about $9,000 a year per vehicle, a car is a huge expense), reduces dependence on fossil fuel and saves land for production of food, timber and other commodities we need. All that good, green stuff.

But the hope of New Urbanism is also to encourage belongingness and life on a human scale. By creating so-called pedestrian sheds, neighborhoods which can be covered on foot in five minutes, planners figure that residents will be more likely to meet and greet each other on the way to pick up a half gallon of milk or become known by the local barista — instead of driving to a big box store where nobody knows their names.

And it would seem we need social interaction more than ever. Kids have historically tied neighbors together through schools, parks and play. But in 2012, the share of households comprised of married couples with children under 18 dropped to 20 percent, down from 40 percent in 1970. Twenty-seven percent of the nation’s households now consist of just one person, up from 17 percent in 1970. And most moms are no longer at home, keeping tabs on the neighborhood. Some 67 percent of mothers work outside jobs; in Minnesota the share rises to 75 percent. When parents do finally get home after exhausting commutes, they barely have the energy to cope with dinner, much less their neighbors.

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Hopeless romantics?

But can closer-together living, engineered by developers, urban planners and architects, recreate that that old neighborhood atmosphere or are New Urbanists hopeless romantics who expect the entire world to look like Copenhagen?

It’s hard to see people these days becoming more aware of each other and more communal, especially when so many of us restrict our experience of each other to Facebook, Instagram and Twitter — or use earbuds to block out human contact.  And many folks will continue to opt for the sanitized separateness of suburbia — and more power to ’em; it’s a free country.

But I do have some hope that the New Urbanism can create places where people gather, have a good time, exchange some pleasantries and have some sense of themselves as belonging to a community that’s bigger than their Wall in cyberspace.

As one example, I offer Gold Medal Park in downtown Minneapolis. Its center is a hill that resembles a Dakota burial mound, from which visitors can view St. Anthony Falls and the Mississippi. It has some pretty trees and grass. Otherwise, not much goes on there; people from my condo use it to walk their dogs, and an occasional worker sits on a bench eating lunch and reading the newspaper.

This spring, when an Izzy’s Ice Cream factory and parlor opened across the street, the park sprang into life. My neighbors complained bitterly about Izzy’s rather odd-looking building. But it has transformed a once somewhat deserted park into a place packed with people. They are probably communing mostly about the flavors they’ve chosen and complaining about the cost of the cones ($5 a pop), but at least they’re talking, and that’s something.