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The Re-Villaging of America

by Todd W. Mansfield

May 7,2008

Let’s face it, it’s part of our human nature: we need each other. We all come pre-programmed with a need for connection. Our human interactions define how we interpret our human experience, how we relate and even how we perceive ourselves. We literally spend our lives cycling through episodic quests for connection – we seek community. 

It’s alarming, if not ironic, that the places we call “home” are often designed to be the very domains which isolate and detach us from the connectivity and community we crave. Tragically, in many places we’ve lost our ‘sense of place.’ We’ve become increasingly unplugged from friends, family and society. In the age where emails are replacing conversations, internet blogs eliminate handshakes, and discussion is trumped by the privacy of ipods, the call for community is perhaps more important now than ever. Community is not some abstract or indefinable ideal; it is places in which we interact with people in the comfort of shared values. Our neighborhoods can create – or destroy – a sense of community.

So when and how were the Saturday Evening Post neighborhoods of barbershop banter and park bench communion replaced with McMansions on a concrete conveyer belt? World War II returned a generation desiring to settle down and start the Baby Boom. These new young families migrated to the suburbs for a piece of America to call their own, where housing lots were affordable. That pattern produced ring after ring of the same; the era of suburban sprawl was born. Instead of strolling to the friendly corner grocer, we now move from the privacy of our homes through secluded garages to our SUVs, so we can drive miles to stand in line for milk and butter. Our communities fell prey, unintended perhaps, to a set of circumstances most aptly described as ‘a lack of design’ and America is taking notice.

Beginning in the 1980s, and gaining momentum in the 1990s and 2000s, a resurgent craving for community motivated a cadre of designers, architects, and developers to respond to the nostalgic demand for pre-war social connectivity. This movement produced ‘New Urbanism,’ which sought to reinvent communities with concepts like the ‘Traditional Neighborhood Developments’ (TNDs) and the ‘New Village.’ New Villages embraced ‘community’ and designed living spaces around people by replacing garages and driveways with porches and more sidewalks. In the town of Celebration, a master-planned community outside Orlando, my company at the time, worked with a dedicated team of designers and developers who wanted communities that encouraged social engagement instead of stifling it. In Celebration, kids riding their bikes to school and bumping into neighbors is an everyday experience. We learned it actually takes a village to make a village, and the concept is catching on.

Urban Futures research fellow Chris Fiscelli believes that ultimately New Village-type neighborhoods will become the norm for American living in the 21st century: “While planners and environmentalists have wrung their hands, a small number of developers have recognized a need for community in North America. A need is another word for a market.” And a market is exactly what is being created at the intersection of those hungry for community and those able to supply it. These New Village-type neighborhoods are walkable communities designed around people, not cars. Ideally, they have connectivity to transit systems, and they mix land uses by putting shops and work places in closer proximity to homes. They encourage a diversity of socio-economic classes to live among each other by offering a wider and denser range of housing product. Since land is used more effectively, more land can be conserved therefore promoting sustainable practices.

This concept of New Villages doesn’t recommend the abandonment of suburbia – rather, it proposes a radically different kind of suburbia. Development happens on the fringe, and in spite of our recent urban renaissance, that trend will continue to accommodate our growing population. But how we define the future of suburbia is up to us. Can we put the ‘community’ back in our suburbs? The greatest obstacle to regaining this community is complacency – leaning on old familiar ways or crouching behind antiquated zoning regulations and past practices. It’s up to us to eliminate such complacency and demand our communities back – it’s up to us to re-village America. Fortunately, it is happening.

Todd W. Mansfield is co-author of Craving Community: The New American Dream

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