Connectivity and Community

The importance of streets to community was articulated by Ivan Illich in his essay Silence is a Commons. Here is the excerpt:

What a difference there was between the new and the old parts of Mexico City only 20 years ago. In the old parts of the city the streets were true commons. Some people sat on the road to sell vegetables and charcoal. Others put their chairs on the road to drink coffee or tequila. Others held their meetings on the road to decide on the new headman for the neighbourhood or to determine the price of a donkey. Others drove their donkeys through the crowd, walking next to the heavily loaded beast of burden; others sat in the saddle. Children played in the gutter, and still people walking could use the road to get from one place to another.

Such roads were not built for people. Like any true commons, the street itself was the result of people living there and making that space liveable. The dwellings that lined the roads were not private homes in the modern sense - garages for the overnight deposit of workers. The threshold still separated two living spaces, one intimate and one common. But neither homes in this intimate sense nor streets as commons survived economic development.

In the new sections of Mexico City, streets are no more for people. They are now roadways for automobiles, for buses, for taxis, cars, and trucks. People are barely tolerated on the streets unless they are on their way to a bus stop. If people now sat down or stopped on the street, they would become obstacles for traffic, and traffic would be dangerous to them. The road has been degraded from a commons to a simple resource for the circulation of vehicles. People can circulate no more on their own. Traffic has displaced their mobility. They can circulate only when they are strapped down and are moved.

Forward-thinking urban planning should contain an element of appropriate reclamation of roads as a commons in the manner that Illich's thinking might suggest. For us, it seems that the issue of roads and neighborhoods should have as much to do with that elusive concept of community as it does with movement of people and our various vehicles.


I'll contribute to this thread by defending what I never thought I would defend, the type of preplanned neighborhood I now live in, Southern Village. I grew up in a house that was over 100 years old in a town of 600 people. You could, and we did, sit in the middle of the road and talk the day away. Neighbors met in their back yards to chat, and all 32 kids my age went to the park everyday to play.
When I went to college I lived in a run down old house in the woods, then for grad school I lived in a run-down shack on a spit of sand (which has unfortunately become a frou-frou rental property). I always went for the old and funky. But, when I started my family, I wanted that community feeling I had when I was growing up. We tried downtown Mebane, which has some charm, but not all the extras you find in Chapel Hill (organic groceries, schools, shops, restaurants). We tried suburbia neighborhoods in our various moves, I hated them all. Cookie cutter neighborhoods with four designs, everyone clustering in their little cul-de-sac. Yuck.

But, I love Southern Village, it isn't about hiding in your house on your little cul-de-sac...actually, there aren't any cul-de-sacs. It's about getting out of the house and meeting your neighbors, walking up to the square for lunch, movies, books, coffee, to watch the games, whatever. And, it works. I've never had a yard this small, but you know what, it forces you to get out and about. I took the kids to Scroggs playground yesterday and met another family and their boy and we all had a great time. Our doors stay unlocked, bikes sit in the front yards overnight, and many of the neighbors meet at the various parks every night at dusk to chat while their kids play. On a Friday or Saturday night the square fills up with hundreds of people watching movies on the lawn, hanging out in the streets (lots of teenagers), eating a slice at Pazzo, a gelato at La Vita Dolce, sipping wine outside of Weaver Street, or just walking. There are walking paths and green spaces and soon there will be a town park within walking distance. THAT is connectivity. Not having to get in your car to enjoy your life.

The problem with Southern Village, in my opinion, is that it is prohibitively expensive. Even the low-cost options like condos and apartments are high-cost. What Chapel Hill needs are more villages like this, but with rent control. Some option where some percent of houses NEVER go up in value, so you can buy in cheap, but you are going to sell out cheap too. A way to get low or moderate income people in HOUSES in these neighborhoods so the population won't be so homogeneous on a socioeconomic level.

Glad to hear you are so happy living in Southern Village Robert. One more thing to think about in terms of road design. There is a huge difference between the design philosophies of DOT and the towns. State-maintained roads are designed to maximize traffic flow. That means long, straight, wide streets with very few obstacles such as stop signs. Speed bumps, humps and other traffic calming measures are not allowed. The Larkspur neighborhood is not on state-maintained roads, but other neighborhoods (such as mine) are.

Robert, I think you've described, from the perspective of direct experience, the connection (sorry) between connectivity and community more eloquently than all of us wonks/theoreticians could---or have---in reams of socioeconomic analysis.

You've also identified the ongoing dilemma of what to do about the inflationary spiral in housing prices. Both local governments would probably (Carrboro, for sure), enact direct rent controls in a New York minute if we were allowed to do so, but alas, are directly prohibited from doing so by state statute.

We are having somewhat better luck in owner-occupied housing by employing a mechanism that functions in very much the way you've described: Both municipal governments,'strongly encourage' developers to include 15% of units in new developments to meet established long-term affordability criteria. We utilize the Orange Community Housing and Land Trust, which offers homes at prices far below market rate, and, in return, places a formula-based restriction on appreciation, so that the units remain affordable for the next buyer, to accomplish this. This mechanism had not been established when Southern Village was developed. Over a period of three years, 100 homes have been built and placed in the Land Trust, and we have up to another 100(in Carrboro) either permitted, or in the application process expected to add to the inventory. Moreover, the Land Trust is exploring how we may extend our presence into the rental market---That would be the mechanism by which rent-controlled units could be added.


Dan, thanks for posting this topic. As more and more people in the community are discovering, urban design matters.

Non-motorized (bike and walk) mobility is extremely cheap to produce, very environmentally friendly, and completely undependent on foreign oil.

There's a good chance these topics will be discussed tomorrow (Sept 13) when The Village Project screens The End of Suburbia at the Carrboro Century Center at 7:00 P.M.

-All are invited
-free admission
-light refreshments served
-Village Project Carolina North designs will also be on display

Thus ends the shameless plug portion of the post.

It was the lack of planning and the lack of design that made "Old Mexico's" cities streets the "true commons".

Or as Ivan said:
"Observations of the sickening effect of programmed environments show that people in them become indolent, impotent, narcissistic and apolitical. The political process breaks down, because people cease to be able to govern themselves; they demand to be managed."

Croatan is incorrect. Most of the old cities from the Spanish colonies DID derive from a planning and design philosophy, Spain's "Law of the Indes." The law of the indes has something in common with American urbanism- the grid.

One of the defining ideas of this decree from the Spanish royalty was that towns should be defined by a square of which the church was a central focus to signify its prominence in people's lives.

This is quite obvious in constitution square in Mexico City.

See the aerial photo here:

For lack of planning, please tour North Raleigh.

I agree with Illich that roadways now not for people, but for cars, trucks, buses etc. I also can relate to Rob Peterson that when my family moved to Chapel Hill, I was trying to recreate the neighborhood that I grew up in for my family. I grew up in Woodlawn,Ky which is a town of 600 people. One of the things I remember most about Woodlawn is that when the fire alarm went off at the volunteer fire station, the first person to arrive (on foot) at the station got to drive the fire truck. No kidding. Everyone knew everyone. We all got out and helped shovel snow in the winter. The children played in everyone's yards everyday. The parents would just watch whatever children happened to be playing in their yard. No one needed to schedule a "playdate."

When I read through Mr. Peterson's accounts of all the activities in Southern Village, I am a little jealous that we don't have more family friendly services within walking distance. I enjoyed very much the Sunday concerts at Southern Village this Summer. It is a nice community, no question.

Larkspur isn't trying to creat an elitist enclave (as we have been accused of doing). We do not want to live on a closed cul-de-sac sectioned off from the rest of Chapel Hill. I personally enjoy the pedestrian connection we have with Northwood and use it all the time with my one year old. We have met friends here and invite them to bring their children use Larkspur's playground - and they do. I frequently walk through Northwoods (the new one) and Parkside on my way to Homestead Park. I have also met friends in both of these neighborhoods and we meet at the park with our children. I expect to meet more nice people in the Chapel Watch Village development propsed on Eubanks.

The problem is that there are no other neighborhoods for Larkspur to connect with beyond Chapel Watch Village on Eubanks Road - nor will there be in the future. Eubanks Road from Mill House to MLK Blvd is zoned mixed use with a focus on commercial. How does being connected to Eubanks benefit my family? Will I take my son to the Landfill for the afternoon? Maybe we will go to the Town Operations Center for a picnic? Perhaps an early lesson is warehousing & distribution at the UPS site?

The only thing a vehicular connection does between Larkspur and Eubanks Road is create a collector level road for all this commercial traffic to cut through our street which was designed to be a local road. This will drastically change the quality of life in Larkspur as we pedstrians will "become an obstacle to traffic" as Illich states. I will keep my child inside the house or fence in my back yard to keep him safe.

We are asking that the Town recognize that our neighborhood sits on the northwestern corner of the city. We are happy to connect to the neighborhoods South (Parkside and Northwoods) and to the East (Northwood). There is a railroad bordering us on the Western side. Connecting us North does not enhance the quality of life for anyone in Chapel Watch Village or Larkspur, it simply creates a straight road to give businesses on Eubanks Road a faster way to get south into Chapel Hill. It also gives future Carolina North patrons a faster way to get to I-40. I suppose this is what the Town planners really want.

P.S. We have 15% of the Larkspur homes managed by the Orange County Housing & Landtrust. I think everyone would agree (except the developer who loses money on them) these are a great addition to the neighborhood on a lot of levels.

Alex and Amy,
The Orange County Housing & Land Trust sounds like a great idea for our area. I'll have to take a closer look at this organization.

The concert series is fun, the movie series is great, except that it starts so late and none of the movies are family friendly. This week was Mr. & Mrs. Smith or whatever its called. Murder-comedy.

Amy Chute states "Connecting us North does not enhance the quality of life for anyone in Chapel Watch Village or Larkspur, it simply creates a straight road to give businesses on Eubanks Road a faster way to get south into Chapel Hill."

Amy, no one is proposing that a connection be made using a STRAIGHT road, nor one without traffic calming. So the idea that this would be attractive to businesses as a faster way to get south is both false and misleading. No one that I know has ever proposed that this connector be designed to draw traffic off of MLK. Rather, it is intended for those who have time to spare and don't want to get on the MLK thruway. That is not going to be your commercial user.

Obviously, George C has not been on Old Larkspur Way. It is a straight road, so unless Old Larkspur has curves added to it, it will be a straight shot N/S. Whether it is proposed as a connector or not it would be a de facto connector. And would make pedestrian connectivity dangerous...


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