The best places to live rise to the top because of where they are, who lives there and what elements are in them.
What distinguishes a great neighborhood from the merely meh? It’s a difficult question, encompassing everything from physical attributes such as good design to the right number of parks and public gathering places.
We asked urban planners, a geographer, an architect and real-estate agents to pinpoint some of the common threads that put an area on the map for buyers and visitors.
Is it a charming Main Street, good schools or an abundance of interesting shops, restaurants and other diversions? What elements conspire to create great neighborhoods such as the Pearl District in Portland, Ore., Boston’s Back Bay or Fells Point in Baltimore?
People and place
If you ask Fred Kent, founder and president of the nonprofit Project for Public Spaces, it’s people, not developers, who create the next big place.
“It’s always a bunch of individuals coming in who think the potential for their community is bigger,” Kent says. “They have this feeling that something has happened there and start to do little things that collectively add up to a big thing.”
That might include a shoe-repair shop owner sprucing up his storefront, a coin laundry adding an attached coffee shop or a resident putting in a park bench on the corner to allow people to stop and talk.
“These twists give a signal that something is going on here. Pretty soon other people put a bench on the street,” Kent says. And voilà, he says, revitalization is born.
In many areas, this urban renewal is started by artists – those who need to live cheaply to pursue their craft but want to be close to cultural and physical amenities.
Just look at the decades-old revitalization of downtown Portland, Maine, says Andrew Schiller, geographer and CEO of Location Inc., which operates the NeighborhoodScout website. Its downtown was once so empty that city officials refused to plow the snow from its streets during the winter. Then artists from the local college started moving into old warehouses along the waterfront, stringing up outdoor lights and opening their galleries to visitors. It was the beginning of a thriving city.
Ditto for once-moribund Asbury Park, N.J., with its beautiful Victorian architecture that has been turned around by creative entrepreneurs in the past decade.
Elements that encourage interaction – parks, boardwalks, public plazas and wide sidewalks – serve as people magnets, Kent says. Best of all are sidewalks on a community’s main street that run between café seating and storefront window displays, allowing people to walk dogs, greet neighbors and people watch. Add things such as weekly farmers markets, civic-association pancake breakfasts and multidimensional establishments that offer opportunities to linger, such as a coffee shop with art displays, a lively bulletin board and outdoor café seating, and you’ve got the beginnings of a great neighborhood hub.
These are the places you take friends and family when you want to show them the neighborhood, planners say.
“People attract people,” Kent says, so when businesses triangulate in one place, such as a theater, bookstore and art gallery, they give people reason to stick around.
Indeed, Kent’s group, the PPS, advocates “The Power of 10” for neighborhoods – capitalizing on the 10 most important and useful places, such as the local post office, coffee shop or park. The more things that can be clustered around these places, the PPS says, the more central and beloved a neighborhood will become.
Location, location, location
Of course, few people are going to settle in a neighborhood if it doesn’t have access to well-paying jobs, Schiller says. “The places that have the most value and that gentrified first were those closest to, or have access to, high-paying jobs. They went up the fastest and the farthest,” he says.
That, he says, is why you see neighborhoods revitalized near the subway lines into Manhattan such as Brooklyn’s Park Slope or Williamsburg districts, or those by light rail, such as South Pasadena, Calif.
Indeed, planners say access to good public transportation can turn even some suburbs into hot areas. A study released earlier this year by the American Public Transportation Association and the National Association of Realtors showed that between 2006 and 2011, home values performed 42% better on average if the homes were within a half-mile of public transportation with high-frequency service, such as subway, light rail or bus rapid transit. Residents in those areas had better access to jobs and lower transportation costs, leaving them with more money to enjoy neighborhood amenities.
Another perk: Transit stations often attract retail shops, services and dining, giving some suburbs without a real downtown a place to walk and linger.
Another study cited in the APTA report found that buyers in the suburbs of Portland, Ore., paid more for houses in neighborhoods with more connected street networks, smaller blocks and pedestrian access to commercial shops and services and light-rail stations.
Let’s not forget schools
“By and large, the highest-value home prices in America are found in school districts of very high quality,” Schiller says, preferably those with access to high-paying jobs.
These areas, such as the Boston commuter suburbs of Newton and Brookline, are the blue-chip stocks of neighborhoods, even for people without kids, because they attract people with higher levels of education, who tend to be more active in preserving community value.
Good schools and walkability are two of the biggest themes in neighborhood videos that real-estate agent Sue Adler of Short Hills, N.J., uses on her website to sell homes in her area. The videos of these commuter towns show quaint main streets and residents talking about taking a quick stroll over to parks, bars, shops and theaters in their free time.
“With millennials entering the marketplace, volatile gas prices and fringe suburban home prices in decline, the demand for walkable neighborhoods has outstripped supply in most of the U.S.,” says Christopher B. Leinberger, nonresident senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, in a survey (PDF) that ranked the walkability of America’s cities and neighborhoods.
What makes people want to pull over and walk in a neighborhood?
Reid Ewing, director of the Metropolitan Research Center at the University of Utah, says a whole host of elements serve as magnets to draw people out of their cars. Items near the top of the list are:
- Short blocks with relatively narrow streets and wide sidewalks.
- Ample windows at eye level that let you see activity or displays inside as well as entryways, courtyards and arcades.
- Human-scale lighting, benches and signs.
- Tree-lined streets that provide a sense of buffer from street traffic and a comfortable canopy overhead.
- Landmarks such as fountains, historic theaters, gazebos or clock towers.
- A complexity of architecture, building materials and color — at least on the first couple of building levels — as well as a mix of building uses.
In other words, cookie-cutter big-box stores and row after row of parking lots aren’t found in many of America’s great neighborhoods.
“A neighborhood will draw people if it’s providing the opportunity for interaction with a backdrop of design that is enjoyable to look at,” says Lauri Moffet-Fehlberg, principal with Dahlin Group Architecture Planning in Pleasanton, Calif.
And interaction is key to people’s satisfaction with their communities. If people are happy and engaged with their community, they are more involved with its activities and work harder to protect it, Moffet-Fehlberg says.
Schiller remembers visiting a friend in Jupiter, Fla., who lived in a beautiful Cape Cod-style planned development. While it looked beautiful, he said, his friends who lived there felt isolated and unhappy because it was such a long drive from employment and other social and cultural amenities.
“The streets were empty,” he says.
Can you engineer a great community?
While Kent and many other planners say that a great neighborhood usually evolves organically with its residents, Ewing says that even master-planned developments can become big draws, such as the Kentlands planned community in Gaithersburg, Md., or the Grove, a mixed retail and residential development in Los Angeles.
In these areas, complementary design, rich amenities and public spaces encourage engagement among residents and visitors with places to stroll, eat and play.
Some of the best developments, Moffet-Fehlberg says, incorporate an area’s history or topography to make them feel more real, such as the Grove’s location around L.A.’s Original Farmers Market, a historic landmark.
And it helps if the mix of amenities and activities is attractive to younger and older generations alike, Schiller says.
The next generation of great neighborhoods
Many of the best neighborhoods are yet to come, Ewing says, as cities encourage more creative development in urban areas.
“We expect that two-thirds of the development on the ground in 2050 will be built between now and then,” Ewing says. “There is a tremendous potential to redevelop certain areas differently.”
Indeed, some of tomorrow’s popular neighborhoods will likely spring from former blight.
“Communities can go from being the hero to the goat to the hero all over again,” Moffet-Fehlberg says.