A study published in the July 2010 issue of Landscape and Urban Planning suggests that innovative neighborhood planning that incorporates qualities from suburban and traditional neighborhood plans could satisfy people who prefer to live in both types of communities

The research compares “traditional neighborhoods”--those built before WWII with “moderate density, a grid-like street pattern, a mix of residential and commercial land uses, distinct centers, and an orientation to walking and transit rather than private automobiles”--to more spread-out and economically segregated “suburban neighborhoods.” It sought to determine who wants to live in both types of neighborhoods and why they want to live there.

About 1,600 Northern California residents (891 living in four traditional neighborhoods and 791 in four nearby suburban areas) were polled about their preferences. Regardless of where they lived, respondents ranked safety and attractiveness as the most important qualities in a neighborhood.

“Our study provides some evidence that would-be suburbanites might be just as satisfied in neighborhoods with New Urbanist designs--at least if they are done right,” which means incorporating sustainable living with those aspects of the suburbs that make them desirable places to live, such as location, local schools, more space, and fresh air, said Kristin Lovejoy, a graduate student at University of California at Davis who was involved with the research.

Her point is supported by the survey, which found that those living in traditional neighborhoods tended to express more satisfaction with their surroundings. The updated version of this type of community is traditional neighborhood development (TND) or New Urbanism, which has been an ongoing trend in land planning.

“The idea of New Urbanism is popular right now--at least as a point of discussion--as an alternative to suburbia and all of its ills,” Lovejoy said, referring to typical suburbs’ dependence on automobiles and their demand on energy, land, and water uses stated in the study.

“We know that suburbia makes a lot of people happy. For the purposes of designing neighborhoods that support more sustainable lifestyles, we thought it valuable to understand the extent that particular attributes of the suburban environments make a difference,” Lovejoy said.

The study also suggested some reasons why neighborhood preferences may differ between the groups. Diversity and liveliness are most important to those in traditional neighborhoods and people in suburbs value economic homogeneity and the perception of their neighbor’s economic status.

The research project was inspired California’s Senate Bill 375, which is intended to lower greenhouse gas emissions by compacting development, using mixed-use practices, and greater street connectivity to reduce driving. Professors at UC-Davis Susan Handy and Patricia Mokhtarian were also involved with the study.

Jessica Porter is an editorial intern at BUILDER magazine.