Sunday, September 21, 2014

Neighborhoods for the 20-minute life

December 2, 2010 |

Enterprise columnist


Every serious plan to cut back on greenhouse gas emissions includes policies and actions to reduce the number of gallons of gasoline we burn in getting ourselves around.


The three legs of this stool are the car (increase fuel efficiency), the fuel (encourage hybrid and electric vehicles) and the driver (better driving techniques and reducing the number and length of trips).


Finally, the federal government has acted to increase fuel-efficiency requirements and the state is implementing a “low carbon fuel standard.” Local governments are being asked to look for ways to make it easier for people to go about their daily business with less need for a car, reducing vehicle miles traveled.


Most of this discussion is focused on new construction; designing new neighborhoods with greater density so there are enough people to support some small-scale commercial that is near enough to walk or bike to, and incorporating convenient access to transit options.


The elephant in the room is what we are going to do with existing neighborhoods. This receives very little discussion, in part because it is a much different and more difficult problem than designing new neighborhoods. New construction, even in good times, is only about 1 percent of the total in terms of the number of buildings in the state. Changing the way we build new houses and neighborhoods will, eventually, have a significant impact on reducing greenhouse gas emissions, but in the short term increasing energy efficiency in existing buildings is where the meat of the issue lies.


One concept that has emerged is the “20-Minute Neighborhood.” The city of Portland defines these as places with “convenient, safe and pedestrian-oriented access to the places people need to go to and the services people use nearly every day: transit, shopping, quality food, school, parks and social activities.”


This is not a new idea; it is a rediscovery of an old one. Even as recently as the 1930s, before owning a car was common, practically all neighborhoods fit the “20-minute” definition. Academics talked about the “neighborhood unit” basically consisting of everything you need within a quarter-mile of where you live.


Davis is fairly unique among cities in that it, to a large degree, built itself by design. It\’s not an accident that we have a strong and vibrant commercial center and an outstanding bicycle infrastructure.


But we also jettisoned a key element of a people-oriented neighborhood. We used to have — as recently as the 1980s — a requirement that every home be within a half-mile of a neighborhood commercial center anchored by a grocery store where residents could buy groceries, take their laundry, get a cup of coffee, etc. The push for larger and larger stores eventually succeeded in repealing this requirement, but there is still a significant portion of our city that has many of the elements of a 20-minute neighborhood.


So we have a head start, but we still have a long way to go. Also, a 20-minute neighborhood may be too big. The average walking speed is about 3 miles per hour, making the radius for a 20-minute walk about a mile. This is too far to easily carry groceries and it will seem even farther in the heat of the summer and for people who are elderly or have mobility-related disabilities. Perhaps we need to think in terms of a “10-minute neighborhood.”


Efforts to make existing neighborhoods walkable or bikeable are, to a certain extent, boxed in by policy decisions of the past and invite (continuing the metaphor) thinking out of the box.


One idea is to establishing “hubs” throughout the community where residential and commercial uses are already co-existing (the downtown is one, others would be around neighborhood shopping areas) and allow increased residential density in these hubs and in concentric circles emanating out from there, gradually decreasing that density with distance from the center.


Over the years, as density increases in each of these circles, the allowed density could be further increased so that, gradually, neighborhoods would become more dense and more able to support commercial uses within walking distance. It can\’t realistically be done overnight.


Some neighborhood commercial centers are possible sites for infill development and could be re-purposed to function as a “hub” for increased density. For example, Davis Manor Shopping Center on East Eighth Street, could be a site for multi-story (think tall — at least five stories) residential with ground-level commercial. It\’s big enough that it could be designed to have minimal adverse impact on adjacent housing, it\’s on an existing transit (bus) route, and it\’s near a school site (Valley Oak). Similar opportunities exist in other parts of town.


Getting way out of the box, it would be interesting to re-think how we use parks and schools. Are there sites in parks, for example, where a small building with lockers could function as a drop-off site for grocery stores that take orders over the Internet? Are there schools that could provide existing space or new space for evening and summer neighborhood activities, perhaps even generating revenue for the schools?


Changing existing neighborhoods is not impossible; communities in Europe and elsewhere have been doing it for centuries.


— John Mott-Smith is a resident of Davis. This column appears the first and third Thursdays of each month. Send comments to




John Mott-Smith



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