According to neo-traditionalists, quality of life in the majority of suburbs is being hindered by poor design that places too much emphasis on the technology that made them possible in the first place- the automobile. Most are laid out as “pods” branching out from a single street where traffic converges inefficiently. In addition, design features intended to speed up the flow of traffic such as rounded turns and wide roads discourage pedestrian activity. Individuals like Andres Duany believe that bringing buildings closer to the street and connecting roads to encourage walking could solve these problems. Another neo-traditionalist, Peter Calthorpe, emphasize public transportation, with high-density areas situated around transit spots and a stable downtown to support the system. (Levy, 187-193) Both of these development plans may be difficult for existent towns to achieve, but suburbs have definitely been making adjustments to try to move closer to these types of arrangements. In my own hometown of Hillsborough, New Jersey plans have been in place for years to make new developments, yet time and again there have been problems with fully realizing the potential of new ideas.
The most salient goal of Hillsborough’s master plan from 2005 is the creation of a livelier town center built off of the section of Route 206 that runs through the town. Other large plans include a Route 206 bypass, a transit-oriented village, increased pedestrian networks, and a consideration in the zoning ordinances for affordable housing, something that the town has struggled with in the past. The plans, drafted by experts as well as from resident feedback, would do wonders for improving walkability in the town and reducing the heavy traffic that builds up along 206, as well as adding to the town’s aesthetic and value in general. However, so far only a small, fairly purposeless section of the Bypass has been built and even the landscape architect originally involved with the new master plan has expressed doubts about the success of the Downtown. Hillsborough has been working on these plans for decades, and although urban design is a long-term process, residents question whether they’ll ever come to fruition.
In answer to the question of whether such development can be achieved, we have the almost-perfect example of the Indianapolis suburb Carmel, which has received recognition for carrying out exactly the type of redevelopment, albeit at probably a grander scale, that Hillsborough is trying to achieve. For the past twenty years the town has seen a program come to fruition that has increased the amount of land designated for park space, created a free flowing parkway with roundabouts to reduce traffic, and repurposed the town center as a multi-story, mixed use Main Street. The results have been high economic and demographic performance for Carmel, which has led to the city being named in 2012 as the best city to live in. Yet the town has drawn criticism as well: the project created $900 million in debt, and it was also carried out in a town located in a favored quarter of the Indianapolis region, making it an upscale residential and business area with the 14th highest median household income of municipalities of its kind in the state. When using it as an example of success, it’s necessary to take into account these factors.
If there’s one lesson I can find in the examples above, it’s the importance of doing everything possible to stay true to the ideas for development initially laid out by planners and residents. Carmel went into debt to achieve what they did, but in doing so they improved the performance of their town significantly. Hillsborough, in contrast, has made major compromises as far as their town center and the bypass, which may end up using funding for ineffective additions, adding to the cluttered amount of roads, and increasing the cost of maintenance. When a town has a chance to invest in its future, failing to take advantage of it could make improvements even more difficult later on.