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Bringing Back The Neighborhood


August 19, 2007

Many of the cars that drive down my street go too fast. I'd like them to slow down. I asked town officials some years ago about painting a crosswalk to calm the traffic, but they didn't do it. Why didn't I think of giant bunnies?

In Midland, Mich., someone put large inflatable rabbits alongside a street, proving the point that striking visual elements will cause cars to slow down. So will street trees. And slower auto traffic makes for a more pleasant neighborhood.

These insights come courtesy of "The Great Neighborhood Book - A Do-it-Yourself Guide to Placemaking" (New Society Publishers), a new book by Jay Walljasper written in conjunction with the Project for Public Spaces. It is a Baedeker and how-to manual for neighborhood activists of all stripes.

The book cites examples from across the country and around the world of good and sensible ways to make friendlier, safer and more interesting places. To read it is to be encouraged; we've made some progress.

Handing over the country to the highway industrial complex after World War II was an abject disaster. The auto-powered postwar suburbanization eviscerated our great cities in favor of spirit-deadening sprawl and loss of civic places.

But thanks to organizations such as Project for Public Spaces, founded in 1975 on the theories of visionaries William H. Whyte and Jane Jacobs, we are relearning how to make neighborhoods and town centers that are alive and healthy.

The book describes a few of the better-known revival stories, such as the remarkable turnaround of Dudley Street in the impoverished Roxbury section of Boston. New Haven's Chapel Street revival and Providence's WaterFire attraction are also noted. The book mentions some of the activities - community gardens, book groups, bike trails, neighborhood e-mail lists, farmers markets - already gaining popularity in Connecticut. Here's an array of others we might want to consider:

Switch many stoplights to four-way stop signs. Though some highway engineers don't like them, stop signs are safer than stoplights in many cases, Walljasper reports. He cites data from Philadelphia, where engineers replaced 800 stoplights with four-way stops and saw a 49 percent decrease in pedestrian accidents.

Bocce. Residents of San Rafael, Calif., revived a derelict downtown park by installing public bocce courts, something the park had once had. Now the park is attracting more than 1,000 league players a week, and many more casual players and friends. As a nice touch, a delegation from the town's sister city, Lonate Pozzolo, Italy, came with dirt to mix into the soil beneath the six bocce courts.

Reclaim cemeteries as public places. Cemeteries often occupy the loveliest settings in town, Walljasper rightly reports, yet don't welcome the living to enjoy them. Cemeteries ought to be parks, picnic areas, tourist attractions - and they are in cities such as New Orleans and Savannah. Though cemetery preservationist Ruth Shapleigh-Brown has made this point, and a couple of cemeteries have opened the gates, Connecticut has a way to go on this one. "Cemeteries, like funerals, are for the living," Walljasper observes.

Public restrooms. If the demand for public restrooms greatly exceeds supply, people will go elsewhere, so to speak. The business improvement district in downtown Santa Barbara, Calif., solved this problem by finding local establishments willing to let people off the street use their bathrooms, and putting signs up in front of these businesses. Most businesses were reluctant to sign up, but some - bookstores and pubs, notably - realized that the increased foot traffic would mean new customers. They were right, to the relief of everyone involved.

Slow cities. The "slow cities" idea began in Italy, associated with the "slow food" movement, and now is a league of more than 100 cities committed to the idea that life lived well is life unhurried.

Members pledge to restrain racing traffic, encourage long lunches, promote local food and culinary traditions, and curtail noise pollution and visual blight.

There are a bunch of other ideas in "Great Neighborhood," though a number of them are summed up on a T-shirt Walljasper found in Littleton, N.H. It is titled "Recipe For An American Renaissance" and has five steps:

Eat in diners.

Ride trains.

Put a porch on your house.

Shop on Main Street.

Live in a walkable community.

That, and giant bunnies.

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
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