Wednesday, July 7, 2010

The New Paradigm - A Call to Neighborhood Groups

Whenever I hear someone talk about the ‘inner city,’ I have to chuckle. It’s not that I disagree with helping disadvantaged people who live in cities. It’s that cities are no longer centers of poverty. Cities are being rediscoved by the middle and upper classes; and all over the country, suburbs are starting to face problems that were always considered city problems: homelessness, crime, depressed property values.

For 50 years the middle class eschewed cities to move to suburbs. And it would be logical to think that we’re now eschewing the suburbs to move to the city. But that’s not really what’s happening. We’re moving to neighborhoods that fit our needs and lifestyles. Every person is different, so no single type of neighborhood attracts everyone. In the future, we can expect to see growth that is based on the desirability of individual neighborhoods – whether they are in the city, suburbs, or exurbs. This is what I call the new paradigm.

Andrew Burleson, president of the Houston chapter of the Congress for New Urbanism, is studying what he calls the “Net Attraction Framework.” Most of Burleson’s study is given over to the same old New Urbanist re-packaging of traditional town planning. But he rightly points out that there are many things that attract people to a desirable neighborhood. Among them are a strong local economy, low crime rates and good schools, and beautiful natural and built environments. I would add that a good transportation network is also vital – especially in suburban and exurban neighborhoods.

Neighborhood groups can influence these things. We can plan for improvements to our built environment. We can market our neighborhoods as good places in which to do business. We can cooperate with police and enact citizens on patrol programs. We can volunteer at local schools and work with school boards. We can lobby local transit boards for new bus and rail routes. And, of course, we can put our time and effort into neighborhood beautification efforts.

The specifics on what these goals are, and how to get there will vary from neighborhood to neighborhood. But neighborhood groups had better do these things, because the new paradigm presents neighborhoods with great opportunities and also great risks. Houston’s future slums will be places where neighbors don’t care or have become jaded. Houston’s next ‘hot’ neighborhoods will be places that invested the time and effort to pave the way for growth.

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