Think about your childhood, your college years, your first apartment…your first love. Of course people make the memory but wouldn’t you say the “place”…the neighborhood in which these hings occurred is integral to your experience and memories? That warm sense of “place” is a vital aspect of new urbanism that for me resonates most with people – even if they only have a vague notion of what new urbanism even means.
Where there are parks to relieve you from pavement dreariness, nearby neighborhood cafes to pop into with a good friend or homes with welcoming windows to bring cheer to a snowy night…you have a place and a neighborhood built for people to live.
Of course there’s so much more that makes a neighborhood comfortable and liveable for a variety of people, but the few examples I’ve listed touch on the ways design and place can make a difference in everyday living.
That level of comfort is exactly what we enjoyed when we lived in the Cleveland suburb of Shaker Heights. Settled in 1822 by a community of Shakers (the celibate religious community known for their communal lifestyle and awesome furniture!), this 6.3 acre parcel of land was eventually purchased by brothers M.J. and O.P. Van Sweringen. Together these brothers envisioned Ohio’s first “garden-style suburb.”
That vision became the award winning Shaker Heights community established in 1912. In addition to the beautiful single family homes, duplexes, apartment buildings and shops, this community consists of several artificial lakes, including a few that were created by dams constructed by the Shakers.
Located roughly 1,050 above sea level, Shaker Heights is deserving of it’s name as it provides scenic views from its highest points and rolling landscape that have made this inner-ring or “first-suburb” of Greater Cleveland a beautiful and truly pastoral place to live only a 5-minute drive from the urban core of Cleveland.
The fact that Shaker Heights is directly adjacent to gritty urban Cleveland yet includes within its borders, lakes, walking trails, community schools, vibrant community shopping – including one of the nation’s most recognized and oldest functioning town squares (Shaker Square) is a testament to the value and relevance of new urbanism.
Shaker Heights is a living, breathing urban neighborhood that embraced the principles of new urbanism – long before the founders of the new urbanism movement today (Andrés Duany and Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk) released their vision for healthy and esthetic urban living.
I don’t say this to take away from the brilliant planners and designers of the current movement but for me, as a non-expert on this matter and only a mere resident, new urbanism is much more about common sense living than an esoteric green-living movement for the few people who “get” it.
And really, for environmentally friendly living trends to thrive regular folk have to buy-into the concept. I mean this both in the literal and figurative sense. Recent graduates, single moms, empty-nest couples, young families and other strong demographic groups in our economy have to make the decision to buy or rent homes that reflect sound, green-living/new urbanism principles.
Not only do they need to consciously make choices that support developers and cities that build this way, but they need to push companies and cities to create urban and suburban communities that are walkable, that support employment close to home, that offer a good mix of green spaces and cultural amenities to inspire and nurture the mind, body and spirit.
Only with more wide-spread buy-in to the goals and principles of new urbanism can we improve our efforts at protecting our environment and rejuvenating our cities and economies for the benefit of generations to come.
So for those who really can’t fathom why I’d choose to travel to Cleveland versus some Caribbean island or even a more glamorous city in the U.S. for our 25th wedding anniversary, all I can say is that first impressions are powerful…and lasting.