New urban community promotes social networks and walking

For years social scientists have been skeptical of new urbanists’ claims that traditional neighborhood design can enrich community life and lure people out of their cars. Since modernist planning failed so dramatically to solve social problems in the middle of the 20th Century, conventional academic wisdom has mostly dismissed the notion that physical design can foster community.

Over the years, however, media stories and occasional surveys have indicated that new urbanists could be right in their assertions — but these reports have been dismissed as anecdotal or lacking in scientific rigor. So a study by a team of researchers from Lewis and Clark College led by sociology professor Bruce Podobnik has the potential to influence how those in the academy, and public policy, think about urban design and its effect on community.

The study was based on a door-to-door survey of four neighborhoods in the Portland, Oregon, area. One was a conventional suburb in Beaverton, Oregon. Two were neighborhoods in Portland with differing physical characteristics and histories. The last was Orenco Station, one of the best-known new urban developments in the Northwest, with approximately 1,850 housing units and a town center that includes 68,000 square feet of ground-floor commercial space on a total of 190 acres.

The physical design of Orenco Station, with its pedestrian-friendly network of streets, small parks and public spaces, differs substantially from the other neighborhoods studied — especially the conventional suburb containing large lots, cul-de-sacs, and few sidewalks. Data was collected from Orenco Station in 2002 and 2007, offering insights into how attitudes change in a new urban community over time. A paper that fully describes the study will be published in an upcoming urban research journal.

Among the findings:
• Fifty-eight percent of those surveyed report that people are friendlier in Orenco Station than in the places where they previously lived. In the Beaverton suburb, only 47 percent said people are friendlier there, and 45 percent and 42 percent said this about the two Portland neighborhoods.

• Fifty-nine percent of Orenco Station residents engage in group activities, compared to only 30 percent in the Beaverton suburb and 31 percent and 30 percent in the two Portland neighborhoods. The quality of group activities in Orenco Station appears to be higher than the other neighborhoods. Orenco Station residents most commonly cite group dinners, book clubs, and other informal neighborhood activities. The only common group activities in the other neighborhoods were neighborhood watch and homeowners association meetings. The study notes that in Orenco Station residents meet primarily for social reasons, while in the other neighborhoods they meet mostly to address safety and property issues.

• Ten times more Orenco Station residents regularly walk to a store than do the inhabitants of the Beaverton suburb. Fifty percent of Orenco station residents report walking to a local store five or more times a week, compared to 5 percent in Beaverton. Only 7 percent of Orenco residents report never walking to the store, compared to 68 percent in Beaverton. This achievement likely contributes not only to environmental sustainability but to personal health in Orenco Station as well, the researchers note.

• Sixty-seven percent of Orenco Station residents report using mass transit at least once a week, compared to 42 percent in the Beaverton suburb. Both communities are located within a quarter-mile of a light rail station. Orenco Station has pedestrian-friendly infrastructure, while the Beaverton suburb has few sidewalks.

• Orenco Station has the highest occasional use of mass transit of any of the neighborhoods studied, with 51 percent of residents reporting that they use the light rail once or twice a week.

• Orenco Station and the Beaverton suburb have a comparable number of regular light-rail users (16 percent). Twelve percent of Beaverton residents use mass transit 5 or more times a week, and 4 percent use it 3 to 4 times a week. Nine percent of Orenco Station residents use mass transit 5 or more times a week, and 7 percent use it 3 to 4 times a week.

• Orenco Station reported by far the highest number (65 percent) of residents who use mass transit more since moving to the community. By contrast, 23 percent of the Beaverton suburb residents use mass transit more.

• Of all the communities, Orenco Station had the lowest number of residents who reported never using mass transit (33 percent), but also the lowest number of people who reported using mass transit 5 or more times a week (9 percent).

• Social activity rose substantially in Orenco Station in the 5-year period between the two surveys. In 2007, 59 percent reported participating in group activities, up from 40 percent in 2002. In 2007, 50 percent reported interacting with their neighbors in new ways — up from 8 percent in 2002.

• Walking also rose substantially from 2002 to 2007 in Orenco Station, according to the study. In 2002, only 11 percent of Orenco Station residents reported walking to a local store five or more times a week. Part of this can probably be attributed to the completion of the town center.

• An interest in social diversity is on the rise in the new urban community. Fifty percent of Orenco Station residents — who are 95 percent white — reported in 2007 that they would like greater diversity in their community. In 2002, when the makeup was also 95 percent white, only 35 percent had a desire for more diversity. A higher number of residents also supported more affordable housing in Orenco Station in 2007 relative to 2002. This finding could be interpreted in two ways — one is that Orenco residents are growing more open to diversity; another is that Orenco has failed to adequately attract minorities and accommodate those with lesser means.

• Finally, Orenco Station gets very high ratings from residents, 95 percent of whom found the community superior to more typical suburbs. This rating held up even in light of the cost differential between Orenco Station and surrounding suburbs.

Modal split a concern

One area of concern in the study is the modal split for commuting. Only 15 percent of Orenco Station residents reported using mass transit as a regular commute, slightly lower than the Beaverton suburb and the lowest in the survey. However, 11 percent of Orenco Station residents carpool, bicycle, or walk to work, and 10 percent combine various forms of transportation to go to work. The latter two figures compare favorably to Beaverton (3 percent and 2 percent, respectively).

Michael Mehaffy, who was a project manager in the development of Orenco Station, notes that proximity to a large high-tech plant is one reason for the relatively low numbers of regular transit commuters: “About half of the employed residents work at Intel, and their largest campus is right on the community’s doorstep, and not on light rail,” he explains. Many residents drive a short distance to work at Intel, Mehaffy says. Of greater significance is the overall use of mass transit — two-thirds of residents use it at least once a week, he says.

Nevertheless, “this is no time to rest on laurels, and [Orenco Station] would benefit from more incentives — coordinated transit passes and the like, Zipcars, or bikes, etc.,” Mehaffy says.

Other studies in recent years have indicated that new urban design leads to higher levels of walking and reduced use of automobiles. Studies of two new urban communities in suburban locations lacking rail transit — Southern Village in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, and Fairview Village in Fairview, Oregon — showed 20 to 25 percent reductions in automobile use and higher levels of walking compared to conventional suburbs. New urban communities that are transit-oriented, high density, and/or located near downtowns have achieved even more dramatic results — sometimes 50 percent or greater reductions in vehicle miles traveled.

The Orenco Station study is probably the first to show, in an academic study, such a big difference in social activity between a new urban community and a comparable suburban development. Also, it is the first to show such high rates of walking to stores.

It remains to be seen how academic researchers will react to the findings. A comment by Jerold Kayden, a professor at Harvard Design School, is typical of the academic skepticism on the question of New Urbanism and community. In an article by journalist Anthony Flint in 2003, Kayden argued that new urbanists have promised too many community benefits. “[New urbanists] promised a new type of community, with all sorts of social interactions currently made difficult by suburban sprawl. There’s just been no empirical demonstration of that.’’

Academic debates on the New Urbanism have been argued more on theoretical grounds than on scientific data, the Lewis and Clark researchers note.

However, the journal Environment and Behavior reported in May 2004 on an intensive study of Kentlands and a nearby conventional, large-lot suburban development (called Orchard Village) in Gaithersburg. Researchers Joongsub Kim of the College of Architecture and Design at Lawrence Technological University and Rachel Kaplan, an environmental psychologist long associated with the University of Michigan, found that Kentlands surpassed the conventional development in all four realms of “sense of community” that were examined: “community or place attachment, community identity, social interaction, and pedestrianism.” The study observed that Kentlands residents seize the “advantage of their community’s walkability and, to a lesser extent, the sociability that high-density housing and other design features were intended to foster.”

Statements in the media have often supported the promises made by new urbanists. A July 21, 2009, Washington Post story on Celebration, Florida, for example, quotes a resident who moved three miles from a conventional suburb to Celebration — dramatically expanding his family’s social network in just six months. “‘It’d be impossible to figure out if it was my daughter Angela’s, my wife’s or my life that changed the most,’ ” Sonny Buoncervello told the Post.

The study is called "Assessing the Social and Environmental Achievements of New Urbanism: Evidence from Portland, Oregon." Find more details here.

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