By Neil Heller
Today much of the built environment of Northwest Arkansas that we live and work in is a product of the policies and prevailing thoughts of previous generations. The majority of shopping and housing areas we experience have their beginnings in the ‘happy motoring’ days Post WWII, where the automobile became a symbol of individual freedom and success. This, coupled with inexpensive, factory replicable materials and low fuel costs saw the proliferation of single-use housing subdivisions designed with auto-convenience at the forefront. This trend has since continued.
Something happened along the way.
The biking, walking, and casual socialization environments of the pre-auto days gave way to vast swaths of hot pavement and multi-lane high speed roads. Homes were continually constructed farther and farther away from the goods, services, and entertainment that people required on a weekly basis. This only resulted in further perpetuating the reliance on the automobile.
After 70 years, this type of experimental development is ultimately proving to be a significant strain on our environmental, social, and economic well-being. It is also taxing on municipal coffers that must pay down the investments into, and maintain, the vast amounts of supporting infrastructure.
A movement that began 30 years ago with the New Urbanists and Smart Growth advocates, whose design focus is centered around human scaled, pedestrian-friendly environments, has continued to gain traction with an ever widening audience resulting in a generation that now desires more sustainable and livable towns.
In a time when money is limited and lending is tight, we must look to retrofit and repair that which has already been built. This can prove an unhurried process at the municipal level. Understandably so, the policies of many state highway and local planning / engineering departments can be entrenched in the old way of thinking as it has been the zeitgeist of the past five generations.
This has given rise to a new breed of urban thinker. Many community groups, urban activists, friends, and families not wanting to wait on the government to institute change have devised ingenious ways of converting their auto-dominated living and work environments into more safe, humane, beautiful, and sustainable ones.
The following small scale interventions can have a tremendous effect on the area around them and can be done inexpensively and by a small number of people:
What if all it took to build better neighborhoods was a little paint? Intersection repair reclaims an endlessly repeated but non-convivial fixture of a town and transforms it into a public gathering space.
Individuals have taken it upon themselves to enhance pedestrian safety, where it has been neglected, by painting their own crosswalks.
Many times the front yard of a home in a subdivision is dominated by a boring utility easement. Simple gestures such as this ‘Little Free Library’ act as a gift to the street by providing interest along someone’s path as well as offering a chance for neighborly socialization.
If a house must have a driveway, then why not like this? Reducing square footage of pavement is aesthetically pleasing and reduces the amount of stormwater runoff and excess heat.
Neil Heller is an urban designer and co-founder of the Incremental Sprawl Repair blog. You can follow sprawl repair ideas on twitter: @incsprawlrepair
For additional DIY strategies and ideas: