The Smart Neighborhood Initiative

When we invest in mass transportation what are we getting for our money? What is the return on investment on the purchase of a bus? In creating density? Is the only consideration in hard dollars? Or there other things, stuff, we get that we can’t put a price on? Since density predicts the market for public transportation, creating density is a goal. Density can mean several things. It can mean opportunities for economic growth and we will get to that. Density can refer to the number of people in a location. We can densify a section of town without increasing population in the region. But creating density can also mean something even more valuable. It means creating community. If we create community we also have a sense of belonging, real human connection. 

One of the best examples of a strong community is found in the study of The Roseto Effect. Italian immigrants founded the town of Roseto PA in 1912. They built a village where everything was within walking distance. All the houses faced the street with large front porches. The homes had large back yards filled with vegetable gardens, and a pig or a cow. If you were hungry a neighbor would gladly share some food with you. There was no social anxiety because friends and family took care of you when you got old. Most everyone worked in the local granite quarry. In Italy their parents ate plenty of vegetables, fruits, nuts, and seafood. In Roseto seafood wasn’t available so they replaced seafood with pork. When one of them walked home from church, or school or work, they passed front porches fulled with friends and family. They invited each other up on the porch to shared a glass of wine. The adults smoked unfiltered cigars and cigarettes. Then they went home to eat large amounts of food cooked in lard. 

Given the lifestyle, diet and so on, people here should have dropped like flies. However in 1964 medical researchers discovered that no one in Roseto under the age of fifty ever suffered a heart attack or stroke. People in the town regularly worked in the granite quarry into their eighties. Roseto had the most people in the US who lived into their hundreds of years. People lived into advanced old age in spite of their diet, smoking, alcohol intake, and at least twenty percent of them lived below the poverty line. Yet everyone expressed a deep contentment with life. 

There have been a number of theories floated about how The Roseto Effect worked. Such as strong family ties, that sense of contentment even in poverty, and I’m sure someone along the way chimed in with genetics. All these factors are legitimate. But I find that perhaps the best explanation is related to family ties: the sense of community. A strong social network built on walking among your fellow human beings, talking to each other, relating, teaching each other, and exchanging ideas. Nothing beats it for a long and happy life. Or at least that is the conclusion we get from The Roseto Effect. 

Now how to build this information into our Smart Neighborhood? We can’t force people into community but we can copy some of the physical qualities into the SNI. Let’s start with a wide walkable street along the Razorback Trail or an extension of the same. These streets/trails lead to a station for buses, perhaps a train, with racks for bikes or scooters, a driveway for cars, or even a parking garage.  On one side of the street/walking trail are houses with big front porches, while on the other side are the stores that offer retail shopping. This way people go to or arrive at the station, walk home, or walk to shopping via the trail. The residents are among people they know. Knowing everyone is the area will reduce crime too. 

If there are streets for cars, or delivery trucks, these are behind the houses. The houses with garages have the entrance behind the house too. The blocks are short, the streets a bit narrow with a canopy of trees. Blocks like this tend to cause people to slow down. This is much better than the speed bumps or speed tables that damage cars tires and suspension. 

In the Strong Towns article about Kansas City we find that you don’t have to jam people together into small cramped living quarters to achieve density. The houses in the Smart Neighborhood can be duplexes, triplexes, or quadraplexes for affordable housing. For our purposes affordable housing is housing that a working person can buy or rent on their wages. We can also include housing for the poor as well which may be the same type of housing or most likely will be apartments. 

I kind of like the idea of a series of duplex houses arranged around the perimeter of a block with the interior made up a playground and garden. We can play with layouts but the goal is to make this livable and inviting for residents. We want people to move into our Smart Neighborhood. 

The layout of the Smart Neighborhood reduces, and if the mass transit system is extensive enough, may eliminate, the need for a car. I like cars myself, so I would like to have one. It will be up to each citizen to determine if they want a car or not. This gives us more freedom. Including the freedom from having to own a car. 

No one will be forced to live in the Smart Neighborhood. You can live out in the county if you like. Or live in one of those McMansions in a suburb. My hope is that there will be enough people who want to live here that we don’t end up destroying the beauty of the Ozarks. Mostly we can encourage a strong sense of community, something that money can’t buy, investors or governments can’t plan. We can build this together. A strong social network can lead to better health, a cleaner environment, safer neighborhoods, and a balanced budget with the right priorities. A better metric for the success of mass transportation than mere dollars. 

Here is a link to a Strong Towns blog about walkable neighborhoods.

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