Monday, March 30, 2015

The importance of private gardens

Having a backyard for the kids to play in and for the dog to run around in is one of the big reasons many people choose suburban living. A garden is a place to unwind, a little pocket of nature in an increasingly synthetic world. Countless studies have shown the benefits of nature on our psych. Unfortunately this is something many TNDs overlook, with gardens tiny or nonexistent. 

Many new developments being built in the US advertise themselves as being a TND (Traditional Neighborhood Development), a kind of catch-all acronym for a development which follows some, but not all, of the tenets of New Urbanism. I'm a supporter of New Urbanism, and I worry that the lack of gardens in some of these new developments might be detrimental to the NU movement. Too many TNDs, and some NU communities too, lack almost any kind of private outdoor space, and I don't think it should be this way. 

Now I admit to being a little biased about this as I believe having a connection with the earth is extremely important, and in my own life I have dearly missed having even a tiny sliver of a garden when I've lived in an apartment, something a balcony can never substitute for. It's why you'll never see me in support of Hong Kong-like densities. A park nearby may be somewhat viable, but only if it's very, very close, and even then it's not the same as your own piece of land. For some people, especially those like me in their 20's, living in an apartment may be ok for a while, but eventually, for many, nature calls. And that's normal.

The key is to build with the right balance, and to build sustainably. This is something that our ancestors had perfected, before the automobile arrived and threw everything off balance. That balance meant not too dense so as to alienate nature, but not so sparse so that land is wasted (i.e. most suburban sprawl). In my mind there are few things worse in development than wasting land, like those bland blank yards many people have, unused except by the riding mower. This aspect, like most others, New Urbanism understands perfectly. If only more TND developments recognized that many people want usable gardens, I think it would much more effectively compete with more conventional developments. One solution would be to build homes as 3 stories rather than two, find alternative locations for garages, better utilize the space above the garage, or have easily accessible private community gardens à la Notting Hill in London.

Of course in a big city few expect to have a garden, but in rural areas, where most New Urbanist communities are built, it seems almost odd to not have a garden, especially when these developments are competing with the rest of suburbia. For a single family home this should be almost a given, but even with rowhomes a garden shouldn't be excluded. The community-driven aspect of NU communities need not be affected by more private space.

In today's post I'll look at New Urbanist and TND (Traditional Neighborhood Development) communities and their back gardens, and compare them to historical development patterns both in the US and in the UK, which will hopefully show what's being done well and where improvements could be made. I'll avoid resort towns like Seaside and focus on those where most residents live year round.

The culprits

I'm starting with Daybreak, a suburb of Salt Lake City, Utah, one of the largest TNDs around. The developer claims 1/5th of all homes in the county are sold here. About the only concessions to New Urbanism are the narrow lots with homes closer together, small front yards, and the rear alleys. Otherwise the roads are typically suburban in their width, with far too large corner radii at intersections. The rear alleys have completely eaten up whatever backyard there might've been. The small community garden on the left is little more than a patch of grass, the kind of place you're more likely to see a "Keep off the lawn" sign than kids playing or dogs running around. 
Here's a group of homes around a sparse community garden. It's too bad it was done this way as the architectural quality of the homes is generally far above the typical suburban norm. 
One of the promises of suburbia is privacy, but look at some of these homes, they're surrounded by a sidewalk on as many as four sides! That's worse than any rowhome, and unlike most rowhomes, the ground floor windows are at eye level. 
Here we have the rear alley, where the vast majority of residents will enter their homes. Considering all the land already occupied by the "main" roads, I can't help but see this as wasted space. At least some of the garages have rooms above them.
The situation isn't much better at other developments, like Lakelands in Maryland. In fact this is significantly worse, with not even a hint towards more efficient space use. The asphalt is also uglier than the concrete in Daybreak.  
This is how they used to do it in the 19th century, an age when beauty was far more valued than it is today. This is Kynance Mews in London. A mews, if you didn't know, is where horses were kept - stables. Note as well the dramatic entrance gate. I find it deeply disappointing that cheapness seems to be our main priority now. 
More Lakelands, a rather drab looking place. There's very little greenery to speak of, except a few "shared" places (read: land nobody will use). But if not for the garages, or if the homes were 3 instead of 2 stories, there'd be plenty of land for back gardens. 
It really doesn't seem like too much thought was placed into planning the development. 
Neighbouring Kentlands, one of the first New Urbanist communities, although even from a distance a superior development, does occasionally exhibit similar issues. 
Baldwin Park, Orlando. Why do all the lots have to be the same size?
Developers like to present these TNDs as the next great thing, but are they really that different from 1970's developments like the infamous Irvine? I don't think so. Narrow lots, small front yard, back alley for the garages, it's all there.
An established neighborhood in Manhattan Beach in Los Angeles also pretty much there. 
Stapleton, a TND in Denver. Note the hint of a backyard with the homes on the left, something the rear alley makes impossible as seen on the right. Such large, sprawling homes should really be 3 stories, after which one could have a small inner courtyard.
When one first sees these townhomes in Stapleton, it's easy to think that they're really not all bad, right? 
And then you see the back... No backyard to speak of. 
Compare that with 19th century Park Slope in Brooklyn, where the rowhomes have substantial back gardens, despite this being a very dense area.
Victorian terrace housing in Bath, England with, again, plenty of garden space.
How it used to be done

Most of the new developments seem to place a high priority on being different. Small, irregular grid patterns seem to be a particular favorite. No doubt meant to evoke medieval streets, which evolved organically over hundreds of years, these are obviously arbitrary and just confuse navigation. Being lost is no recipe for walkability.  

Here are some traditional neighborhoods from around the US and UK which check all the boxes while maintaining clear, regular grid patterns. Also note abundant gardens. 

Charleston is one of the oldest cities in the US, and arguably the most beautiful. Lots come in varied sizes and shapes and the city is immensely walkable despite no large buildings some quite large city blocks. This organic nature allows some homes to have larger gardens, others small ones, but crucially none are the same. 
Despite its age, I think Charleston provides one of the best examples for future developments. It's not incredibly dense like Manhattan, which allows for good-sized gardens, but it's still dense enough to be walkable. I think it's a model that even a typical suburbanite is more than happy to live in. In fact, the city's beauty and variety makes it more likely that someone will walk. Many of the TNDs are so boring and uniform that it discourages walking.   
Possibly because it's so close to Charleston, the I'on development in Mount Pleasant, planned by DPZ, is one of the few modern developments to have such varied lot sizes, which greatly contributes to its more varied streetscape and attractiveness. 
Another example from London, these Victorian blocks in Kensington, a mix of single-family townhomes and some converted into apartments, show that it's very possible to have high levels of density in the heart of a big city and still have large gardens in the back. 
Acclaimed Notting Hill in London is very unique not just for its white stucco terrace housing and radial street pattern but also for it's private shared gardens between blocks. Some of the luckier residents, as you can see here, also have their own gardens, so it's the best of both worlds. 
Going back across the pond, this is Georgetown in Washington DC. The large blocks leave ample space for gardens, and most of the neighborhood is in easy walking distance to the commercial M Street and Wisconsin Avenue.
Alexandria, Virginia. Only thing I don't understand here are the super wide streets.
San Francisco is one of the densest cities in the country yet many of these rowhomes have gardens in the back.

I hope these images have sufficiently demonstrated that density and walkability are not independent of private gardens. That in fact some of the most loved and successful historical neighborhoods have plenty of greenery. 

Towards solutions

I'm not going to beat around the bush - it's probably quite clear that this balance is very difficult to achieve if cars, or more specifically garages, are part of the mix. Unless you're ok with having the garage in front, which some even very narrow townhomes in San Fransicsco do. Sometimes it looks ok, but never as good as it was before the transformation, and it requires a walk up to the front door. Plus as a piece of infrastructures it's much more significant than the average suburban garage, and those suburban developers really care about cost efficiency as we know.

I do think that a more advanced level of infrastructure should be expected, however, even if that means slightly higher home prices. Here in Switzerland I've seen underground parking built for a development of 4 single family homes, in a village of 700 people. Now that's clearly overkill and vastly inflates prices unnecessarily. One idea I propose, which allows for keeping the rear alley while losing much less garden space, is to sink the alley by several feet and have a garden or deck on top of the garage. It's sort of a modern evolution of the mews, as many of those are below street level as well. 

Here's a quick render of this:

One side I've shown with a garden atop, the other a deck.
This would be relatively inexpensive to build and still leaves plenty of space for gardens, so the rear alley wouldn't have to be such an ugly afterthought as it is in most developments today. Here I have it in a configuration with a semi-detached/duplex house as I think they are the most efficient home configuration. No wasted land on the sides as with most detached homes, but you still have one side free for access. 

Or it might just be easiest to go back to a tried and tested model, the garage behind the house. This configuration requires lots slightly wider to accommodate a driveway but total area is no greater as there's no need for a rear alley. There's still plenty of space for a garden, and would also be very efficient if combined with semi-detached housing. 

Pasadena, CA has a lot of homes with garages in the back and it works. Here I've photoshopped the image slightly to shorten the front yards, allowing an easier comparison with the newer TNDs

So that's all the images I have to share today. We can safely conclude that things could be done much better than they usually are, though truth be told there is no better way to bring about change than to make sure that communities are walkable. That means the ability to live your day to day life without using a car. A car should not be required. At the very least it should be rare for any one household to have more than one car which is mainly used for out of town travel. That's the truth. Maybe it's uncomfortable for some but I think most suburbanites seemly haven't experienced how liberating an average day can be when one isn't dependent on the automobile. Though I often hear "I didn't even need a car!" as a positive endorsement for a vacation in NYC or somewhere like Seaside. Not to mention the money the average family could save from ditching a car or two. 

We used to know how to do that. Beloved places like Charleston, Georgetown, and San Francisco are testament to that. We still haven't relearned the lessons from the past, which is why we keep making missteps with newer developments. 

It's simple. If we want density, walkability, gardens, and beauty, cars need to be relegated to the optional pile. Thanks for reading.