The Gazette reports that residential real estate sales in Northampton are slow, but you wouldn’t know it if you were the seller of a certain single-family house on Bradford Street. According to the Multiple Listing Service, this home went on sale on February 8 and is now under agreement, just 12 days later. What makes it special? The first sentence in its MLS Remarks section gives us a clue:
“Sunny Colonial on dead end street with rural setting close to bike path and walk to downtown.”
It would appear this combination of amenities is highly desirable. It also happens to be threatened by elements of the new Sustainable Northampton Plan (PDF). On page 51, the Plan recommends:
Avoid creating cul-de-sacs and dead ends when possible and instead create a network of streets. Dead end streets, while desirable to some residents, add significantly to the delivery of city services and increases traffic flows to other local streets…Another objective of the Plan is to “implement ideas for maximizing density on small lots” (p.14) and “consider amending zero lot line single family home to eliminate 30′ side yard setback” (p.67). Both of these ideas may well erode the “rural setting” in neighborhoods like Bradford Street.
As discussed in the articles below, there are excellent reasons for many homebuyers to desire cul-de-sacs and leafy neighborhoods. Planners who ignore these strong (and logical) market preferences risk making sprawl worse, as some buyers may come to avoid downtown Northampton and seek these amenities in the outskirts or even out of town.
UMass Press: “Natural Land: Preserving and Funding Open Space”
Preserving areas of nature, open space, and trees and other vegetation can have psychological as well as physical health benefits for local residents. There is a growing body of research which points to the power of nature to restore people from the stress of modern life, including mental fatigue (Kaplan, Kaplan, and Ryan 1998; Frumkin 2001).
Greening Smart Growth: The Sustainable Sites Initiative
The presence of natural elements has several implications for personal and community security. Shared green spaces, particularly those with trees, provide settings for people to interact and strengthen social ties. Residential areas with green surroundings are associated with greater social cohesion in neighborhoods, and neighbors with stronger social ties are more likely to monitor local activity, intervene if problem behaviors occur, and defend their neighborhoods against crime. Residents of buildings with greater tree and grass cover report fewer incidences of vandalism, graffiti, and litter than counterparts in more barren buildings. Likewise, a study comparing police reports of crime and extent of tree and grass cover found that the greener a building’s surroundings, the fewer total crimes were reported.
…Provide pedestrian-only precincts so children and youth can move and play without concern for traffic.
Reduce speed and volume of traffic on adjacent streets as children often make use of paved areas as play space, or provide for a controlled mix of pedestrians and vehicles.
Smart Growth and Crime
…[Newman’s] 1972 book Defensible Space…showed that the safest neighborhoods maximized private space and minimized common zones. Safe areas also minimized “permeability,” that is, the ease of entry to and exit from the neighborhood or housing area. Cul-de-sacs are thus a crime-prevention device, and any breaching of cul-de-sacs will predictably increase crime…
US Department of Justice: “Closing Streets and Alleys to Reduce Crime: Should You Go Down This Road?” (PDF, 2004)
Areas with street layouts that permit easy access experience more crime than areas with restricted access and complicated street patterns…
…What if the [street] closures do not stop these criminals, but simply displace them elsewhere in your jurisdiction? What have you gained?
In fact, displacement can be advantageous if it stops the neighborhood from reaching a “tipping point,” when minor crimes build up to produce a much more serious problem (the familiar “broken windows” process). If you prevent the neighborhood from reaching this tipping point, then the savings to the city as a whole will be much greater than the costs of displacement to other neighborhoods. But try telling that to the residents of those other neighborhoods! Fortunately, you won’t need to, because research generally shows that displacement is by no means inevitable. Most research shows that if it occurs at all, the crimes displaced are far fewer in number than those prevented. This is because some neighborhoods are so attractive to criminals and so full of criminal opportunities that they actually foster crime. It is wrong to think that criminals commit only a certain restricted number of crimes in a specific time period, and stop once they reach those limits. On the contrary, criminals will commit as many crimes as they have the time and energy for, if the crimes are easy to commit, low risk, and profitable. When these conditions change and the rewards of crime decline, or the risks and effort necessary increase, criminals will lower their expectations–as we all must do when opportunities for gain are reduced. This means that street closures do not inevitably result in displacement, and that they can reduce the overall volume of crime.
The Republican: “Street closures deemed needed” (12/16/07)
The Republican: “City targets crime with street closings” (12/4/07)
Our Column in Today’s Gazette: The Hidden Risks of ‘Smart Growth’
Steven Greenhut, a columnist for the Orange County Register, is critical of [Bozeman’s] Portland-style growth controls:
Creating unattractive and high-density projects in a place awash in open space only pushes people farther out into the countryside. In Belgrade, eight miles away, one finds market-driven suburban-style subdivisions. That city does not have many restrictions, and those who cannot afford Bozeman or who want a bigger place simply move away, thus promoting the sprawl that Smart Growthers are trying to stop…Mary Riddel, “A Dynamic Approach to Estimating Hedonic Prices for Environmental Goods: An Application to Open Space Purchases”
One important outcome of the Boulder [Colorado] open space purchase program has been leapfrog development of areas outside the greenbelt. Many critics of the program maintain that development was not thwarted, but rather relocated. Our [research] results support this conclusion. In fact, commercial and residential expansion occurred because of the program.
Metro Portland’s Long Experience with Smart Growth: A Cautionary Tale
Restrictive growth policies actually caused increased suburbanization in Portland, which now has the 10th greatest suburbanization rate in U.S. As home prices went up in the site-restricted metropolitan area, families moved further out to find affordable housing. Portland actually has rates of suburbanization that are close to that in metropolitan areas with so-called “white flight” and other central city problems. This phenomenon increases vehicle miles traveled as it lengthens commutes…
Denser multi-family housing requires more costly construction techniques, further increasing the cost of housing…
The notion that potential homeowners would prefer to pay the higher cost of high-density housing as an alternative to the traditional home/yard/neighborhood environment style of raising families is wrong. The percentage of families moving to the Portland area that buy or rent within the UGB [Urban Growth Boundary] has fallen dramatically since site restrictions were implemented…
New York Times: “Vibrant Cities Find One Thing Missing: Children”
After interviewing 300 parents who had left the city, researchers at Portland State found that high housing costs and a desire for space were the top reasons…
Seeing Like a State: Planning Gone Awry in the 20th Century
Cities tend to be complex organisms, Scott observes, so planners are constantly tempted to try to simplify their task:
Once the desire for comprehensive urban planning is established, the logic of uniformity and regimentation is well-nigh inexorable. Cost effectiveness contributes to this tendency… [E]very concession to diversity is likely to entail a corresponding increase in administrative time and budgetary cost… (p.141-142)In Northampton, the simplification du jour appears to be a drive to segregate our open space to the periphery, while weakening greenspace preservation in the more urban districts where it is already scarce.