New urbanists have long condemned the cul-de-sac community and championed high-density, multiple use, walkable neighborhoods as an answer to heavy automobile dependence, sedentary lifestyles, and social isolation.
However, until now, they didn’t have any empirical evidence to prove their assertions. But a recent study by sociology professor Bruce Podobnik of Lewis and Clark College in Portland, Ore., suggests that new urbanists might be right in two out of the three cases.
Residents surveyed in the new urbanist community Orenco Station in Hillsboro, Ore., said their community is friendlier and offers more of a sense of community than other places they have lived, that they walk more often to the store, and occasionally use public transportation.
“Overall, this study lends support to the assertion that new urbanist communities can foster more socially cohesive and healthier lifestyles within urban environments,” Podobnik said in introducing his study, "Assessing the Social and Environmental Achievements of New Urbanism: Evidence from Portland, Ore."
However, it’s clear that even Orenco Station residents are nowhere near giving up their cars for public transit to any great degree.
“At the same time, if Orenco Station wants to be judged as being a true environmental success, then more significant changes in commuting behavior will need to be achieved,” Podobnik noted.
Over five years Podobnik surveyed the residents of Orenco Station as well as three other Portland neighborhoods. Two of the neighborhoods were urban, one poor and long-established; and the other middle-class and also well-established, but hilly and lacking in sidewalks. The third studied was a suburban middle-class development of cul-de-sacs. The fourth was Orenco Station.
Half the residents of Orenco Station, where sidewalks are plentiful and shops are close, said they walk to stores to shop five or more times a week. That compared to 5% in the cul-de-sac neighborhood where sidewalks were spotty.
And, chances are, Orenco Station residents are walking to socialize as well. Fifty-nine percent of those surveyed in the award-winning development said they participate in various social groups in the community, 65% said they felt more of a sense of community there than in other places they lived, and 58% said residents were friendlier.
The percentage of residents of the three other neighborhoods studied came nowhere close to saying they were as sociable and community-oriented as those in Orenco Station.
However, while the new urbanist residents said they walk to shop, they don’t take public transportation to work. About 64% said they drive alone to work in their own cars. Of the folks surveyed in the cul-de-sac neighborhood, 75% use their own cars for the commute.
Still, 65% of the Orenco residents, who have access to a light rail station in their community, say they use mass transportation more since they moved to the community.
Podobnik has surveyed the residents of Orenco twice, in 2002 and five years later in 2007. In addition to asking about their social activities and how they got around, he asked them what they liked best about their community. Four of the things they said they liked in 2002 were still on the top five list in 2007. The design of the neighborhood, the location in the city, close to mass transit, and the community feeling all made the top five list.
The majority of the residents surveyed also seemed to be pleased with their community, even though they said they paid more for their homes than they would have for comparably sized homes elsewhere.
“The high satisfaction ratings given by Orenco residents to their community’s physical design shows that high-density developments are capable of competing against more traditional, diffuse suburban designs,” Podobnik wrote.
Teresa Burney is a senior editor at BUILDER and BIG BUILDER magazines.