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Headed Back To The Village

October 9, 2005

Taken as kids to the suburbs and having raised their own children there, baby boomers are beginning to face the question of where else, if anywhere, to call home. On cue, Martin Scorsese's "No Direction Home" brings the troubadour of the boomers' youth, Bob Dylan, back front and center, and along with him the dense, diverse, cool fascination of the Greenwich Village where Dylan first made his name.

To many - and not just to boomers - Scorsese's backward glimpse of the Village neighborhood is an invitation to think forward, toward living in some place like it. That is what, at long last, is helping propel the renaissance, now in full swing, of Connecticut's center cities. In New Haven, Stamford and Hartford, it is understood and accepted that you need a concentration of many and varied kinds of people and housing to make such places happen. You need, in short, density.

Writing in the same '60s Greenwich Village, Jane Jacobs became the great advocate for the virtues of density. At the time, her books and articles were regarded as no less rebellious than Dylan's songs, because her message about the desirable density and complexity of good cities was so at cross-purposes with the country's dominant dream of the good, clean, simple life to be had in the suburbs. Dylan is now revered everywhere, but Jane Jacobs' writings have become scripture mostly in places such as Hartford that are re-densifying, bringing people back to where they were before. That will change. For all sorts of reasons, density is not just for cities anymore.

We are entering a period when suburbs and small towns will be taking up the issues of density. There is a longstanding suburban reflex of resisting "crowding" and "overdevelopment" at all costs. Blue Back Square in West Hartford, for instance, became a spectator blood sport the equal of one of those 60-round 19th-century boxing matches.

There are two things to acknowledge about density, in anticipation of other suburban development projects to come. First, increased density of various sorts is absolutely inevitable. Second, there is well-done density and badly done density, and there are reliable ways to tell them apart in advance. The only possible course of action is make sure density is well-done.

Why is higher suburban density inevitable? First and foremost, we are entering a period of rapidly increasing and fluctuating energy costs. The household costs of driving a fleet of vehicles, and of heating and cooling a house larger than you actually use, are certainly going to push for more compact living patterns and smaller, more efficient dwellings.

Second, in case anything else is needed, is demographic momentum. Not all the boomers will want to leave the Simsburys of the state to retire to a Village-like neighborhood in a city. Instead, they will want to make the Simsburys into something closer to an interesting, walkable, cool Village, and that means increasing the number and variety of housing units clustered together. The boomers' parents, no longer able to drive well, will want to be at the center of the same place. The boomers' kids, now with their own children, will be smart enough to see the pattern here, and want a house at the edge of the same thing.

Achieving density of the sort that makes attractive and lively places does not need not be at the expense of privacy, of overcrowded houses or of increases in traffic and noise. Building types and lot arrangements, though, must be chosen or invented to maintain privacy and usable outdoor space.

For example, take a typical Hartford triple-decker, originally a three-family, two-generation house. It is set between two unusable narrow side yards, which do not serve to keep the house visually or acoustically private from its neighbors. In Charleston, S.C., there is a traditional building type about the same size as the triple-decker called a sideyard house, which in effect combines the two narrow side yards into one large one, and faces all the rooms onto it. The back wall, facing the neighbor, is windowless. The result, at a density like that of the triple-decker, is vastly improved outdoor space and privacy.

The moral is, look first at the workability of the actual building design before starting to play the abstract numbers game of dwelling units per acre, lot coverage, and on and on. The numbers are meaningless without knowing the physical form of the increased density being proposed.

The other key to good density is to mix uses in as close-grained a way as possible. Good density brings interesting variety, both of people and of things to do. It is a myth, at least at the scale of the suburban town, that increased density necessitates standardization. There can and should be a variety of housing types and sizes for inhabitants of different ages, needs and incomes.

Again, exactly how buildings are conceived individually, then put together smartly, is the essential issue. For example, with more and more people working at home or telecommuting, having more houses designed as "live-work" units helps density, increases the interest of what's seen when walking down a street, and helps smooth morning and evening commuter traffic surges. How density is done is key to whether it should be done.

A little earlier than Dylan and Jane Jacobs, the "little boxes on the hillside" of Malvina Reynolds' song satirized American suburban life. In the intervening years, they have become much bigger and fancier boxes, on more land, connected by longer and wider roads. Many still see them as dreams but are increasingly aware of their drawbacks. The new suburban alternative, denser and more sophisticated, is emerging. The times, they are again a-changin'.

Patrick Pinnell is an architect and town planner in Haddam and member of the Place board of contributors.

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
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