Popsicle plan for better neighborhoods

April 08, 1996|By Neal R. Peirce

AUSTIN, Texas -- The secret to better American neighborhoods is the Five-Minute Popsicle Rule, says Hal Box, former dean of the University of Texas Architecture School: ''That a child can walk safely from home to buy a Popsicle within five minutes.''

And why? To recreate, he says, the community and freedom we enjoyed before we separated every land use by rigid zoning and became totally dependent on automobiles.

As appealing as the Popsicle rule sounds, would most JTC Americans agree with Mr. Box? The real-estate industry would say ''no.'' People are still buying houses on the biggest lots they can afford, in auto-dominated suburbs.

But what if Americans really had a choice in designing their own neighborhoods, instead of being obliged to take what developers routinely produce?

In Austin, citizens are getting that chance, in a project sponsored by the University of Texas and a Citizens Planning Committee. Developers, neighborhood activists and environmentalists met to design an ''ideal'' Austin neighborhood. They listed values for the new neighborhood -- safety, convenience, affordability, shade, human scale, transit accessibility, a generational mix. The new neighborhood's houses, the Austinites decided, should be close together. They asked for small parks, narrow streets and sheltered walkways linked to shops with apartments on their upper stories. Parking would be scattered, including in alleys.

Apartments and town homes would be mixed in. Austin Urban League president Herman Lessard explained: ''Here, people are part of the community. If you live in an apartment and want to buy a home, you can remain in the community you grew up in and love.''

And young adults, the elderly or newly divorced people on tight budgets would be able to move from a house into an apartment in their own neighborhood.

Across America, would-be developers of mixed-income neighborhoods similar to those built before World War II face leery lenders and rigid building codes and zoning laws written for today's suburbs.

''Pioneering is very hard,'' says Memphis developer Henry Turley. Today's home buyers often look to housing for investment as much as shelter. They fear uncertainty and ''different'' neighbors; many have lost their architectural literacy after decades in faceless suburbs.

Still, Mr. Turley's Harbor Town, 130 acres of densely packed turn-of-the-century-style houses with porches and what he calls ''Southern waterfront imagery,'' is a commercial success and has created a strong community on an island site in the Mississippi River, adjacent to downtown Memphis.

''Futurescape 96''

Efforts to give citizens a say, providing alternatives to dulling and wasteful sprawl development, are spreading. ''Futurescape 96,'' is a project of the planning commission in Chattanooga/Hamilton County, Tennessee. A survey devised by urban designer Anton Nelessen shows slides of single-family housing, apartments, stores, signs, streets and public places. Citizens are asked to grade each view on a minus-10 to plus-10 scale, picking urban forms they prefer and believe fit Chattanooga best. They might be shown a grocery store -- first standing alone, then in a strip mall, then with other buildings around it, finally with second-story apartments and landscaping along the street.

Chattanooga Area Chamber of Commerce president James Vaughan says the survey ''will be used as the basis for changing building codes and local planning ordinances so that we get the kind of community we want.''

Chattanoogans may register their preferences at community meetings or through frequent cable and public-TV showings and easy video rentals of the taped choices with answer sheets to fill out and send in.

The pendulum of American taste and preference is swinging back to tradition. Take the Disney Corp.'s Celebration, Florida -- a new city being constructed beside the strip-mall jungle around the Magic Kingdom, designed to grow from zero to some 20,000 people. The Disney crew sampled extensively and found what people wanted: a sociable town center with people living above the shops and streets designed for strolling, compact village form, paths and trails, ''timeless'' architecture. Celebration houses and apartments have proved so popular that Disney has been obliged to hold a raffle to see who gets in.

In some areas, NIMBY (''not-in-my-backyard'') opposition from uninformed neighboring communities, or misguided folks who still believe density is a four-letter word, may block the new experiments. But democratize development, give people visual choices including compact development, and the Popsicle's likely to win.

Neal R. Peirce writes a column on state and urban affairs.

Pub Date: 4/08/96

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