There is no point in being a planner if all you do is applaud the work of developers, cuttting up the countryside into cookie-cutter rows of streets and houses.

Return with us now to those thrilling days of yesteryear when men were men and women were women, and they all lived in small towns where no one locked doors and the community was one big party line.

The Kendig Keast Collaborative, the city’s planning consultant, stresses that there is noting inherently evil about suburban subdivisions. Yet, you get the feeling these professional planners are damning this lifestyle with faint praise.

Countering all the postwar trends

Many of the firm’s guiding principles in its planning study for Murfreesboro run counter to America’s entire postwar development.

For instance, the firm’s report calls for planning that stresses walkability and less use of the auto. It wants future developments that provide a mix of single-family homes, multi-family dwellings, shops, parks, schools, businesses and jobs within the neighborhood. It says an ideal ratio is 1.5 jobs for every housing unit or one job for each employed resident of the neighborhood.

Infill development versus suburban sprawl

And, the report calls for more infill development, where streets and utilities are already in place, as opposed to suburban sprawl.

Most of all, Kendig Keast is trying to revive that sense of neighborhood that has been lost in many cities. That means neighborhoods with a diverse population and a wide range of housing types so  people of all ages can remain in the area.

Many people don’t want the suburban American dream

The firm’s chief argument is that many people who will make up Murfreesboro’s population over the next 20 years won’t want the American dream of a large-lot,single family house outside the city and long daily drives to stores and to work. Among the people who don’t share that dream are students, young, single urban professionals, and empty nesters who are downsizing. This diverse population will need a range of housing types that begins with starter homes and ends with assisted living.

“The most vibrant and economically successful cities in this country are those that are composed of strong, cohesive neighborhoods that are woven together by thriving commercial corridors and punctuated with lively town centers and entertainment districts,” Kendig Keast writes. … “There is a distinct difference between a subdivision and a neighborhood.”

A shared outlook and values

The neighborhood is a place that “people have endowed with cultural values and meaning,” the study adds. “The most successful neighborhoods fulfill the diverse housing and social needs of every stage of one’s life and provide depth and richness to living.” The aim is to keep people young and old from moving elsewhere to find the type of housing they want.

The five-minute walk

The godfather of Kendig Keast’s concept of the living neighborhood is Clarence Perry, a New York City planner in the 1920s. Perry defined the size of a neighborhood as the number of families needed to support an elementary school. He also stressed putting things like the school, workplaces and shops within a five-minute walk of where people live. Beyond five minutes, he believed, people will hunt for their car keys and turn to their autos for transportation.

Streets should connect up with each other, and cul de sacs are frowned upon in this vision of the neighborhood. This ideal neighborhood should have a focal point, whether it is a school, park, community center or church. And its boundaries should be clearly defined, about 1/4 mile from the center.

Make the blocks short

Nothing discourages walking more than long blocks. Short blocks give he walker a sense of accomplishment. Sidewalks should be wide and lined with shade trees if possible. Commercial uses are best on the edges of the neighborhood, perhaps serving one of more adjacent neighborhoods .

Finally, the ideal neighborhood should provide gathering places, like coffee shops, pubs, ice cream parlor, churches, community centers and plazas for street fairs and block parties. Good neighborhoods connect people instead of fostering a postwar lifestyle with the picturesque label “bowling alone”.

A walkability scorecard

Kerndig Keast has quantified the walkability character of neighborhoods and cities by giving them a score. Anything from 70-100 is an excellent score. Anything below 50 means a city is extremely dependent upon the auro. Murfreesboro gets a score of 23. Brentwood is 5, and even Franklin, a city I enjoy, only gets a 22.

The ideal neighborhood that Kendig Keast describes sounds attractive, but is it a myth, like the neighborhood in those old Andy Hardy movies? Actually, there are some modern versions of Andy Hardy’s neighborhood.

Austin has built such a neighborhood

Kendig Keast describes a new community in Austin, Texas, that grew out of a redevelopment plan for the muncipal airport. The community, known as Mueller, has four mixed-use neighborhoods, all within walking distance of the town center. Meuller’s 4,900 homes cover a wide range of building types and prices. At least a quarter of the homes being offered for sale or rent will come under a municipal affordable housing program.

Each neighborhood has its own small park. Overall, there are 140 acres of open space and 13 miles of hiking rails and bike lanes. The town center includes 650,000 square feet of retail space and he offices of several major employers.

The American Planning Association has tried to draw a fine line between a neighborhood and a subdivision. It concluded that it is hard to be sure when trying to label each type of development.

“Do all neighborhoods begin as subdivisions before they are endowed with some degree of social meaning and values?” the APA asked. “Or is the distinction between terms driven more by density, whereby neighborhoods are urban, and subdivisions are suburban?

“Is there a difference in design? … Neighborhoods feature small lots and pocket parks, compared to subdivisions which offer abundant green in the form of huge private front and back yards. … Though it is easy to draw the conclusion that subdivisions and neighborhoods have different cultural backgrounds, it’s nearly impossible to learn where the semantic territory of one begins and the other ends,” the APA concludes.