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The Neighborhood Concept

A very central concept in urban design, and a place where one can see many of the previously noted criteria applied, is the "neighborhood." Although we now take the idea of neighborhoods and of planning for neighborhoods for granted, it is actually not an old idea. One of the first clear articulations of the neighborhood concept in the United States was that by Clarence Perry done in the 1920s for RPA (see Chapter 3).8 A neighborhood is a unit that matches the daily scale of most people's lives. Traditionally, the neighborhood planning unit is the area that would contain a population sufficient to supply the pupils for one elementary school. Perry wrote in terms of 1,000 or 1,200 pupils, which in the 1920s implied a total neighborhood population of 5,000 or 6,000.

Typically, the neighborhood plan will provide for residences, a school, shopping facilities for goods that one buys frequently (grocery, drug, and stationery stores but not department stores or automobile dealers), playgrounds, and perhaps small parks. The street pattern will serve the resident population but discourage through traffic. Major thoroughfares will often serve as neighborhood boundaries. In some communities (for example, Reston, Virginia), the residents are further isolated from traffic by separate paths for pedestrians and cyclists. The well-designed neighborhood is likely to be laid out with common areas so that residents encounter each other in ways that promote social relationships. The neighborhood is thus structured to provide conveniently and safely much of what most people need and use in their daily lives.

The neighborhood concept circa the 1920s. The separate boys' and girls' playgrounds seem archaic today, but the plan otherwise has many modern features—separation of commercial and residential areas, a curvilinear street pattern to discourage through traffic, the preservation of community open space, concentration of high-density housing near public transportation. Note that the neighborhood is built around a public school.

One complaint about the planning of many suburban areas is that the separation of land uses and, in particular, the large expanses of tract housing eliminate much of what we associate with neighborhoods. One does not meet one's neighbor walking to the corner store because there is no corner store, and, given the spread-out nature of many suburbs, one is not likely to walk to many destinations. Similarly, children do not casually encounter each other walking home from the neighborhood school because there is no neighborhood school. Rather, they are bused to and from a consolidated school several miles away.

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