25. Living Villages: Thoughts on the Future of the Village Form

vil·lagej’vil.ij I(OF fr. ville farm, village, fr. L villa country estate) 1a: a settlement usu. larger than a hamlet and smaller than a town … (Webster’s Seventh New Collegiate Dictionary)

Recently, as contemporary American settlement patterns have changed, the village form appeared to be obsolescing rapidly. But it has suddenly reestablished itself in the lexicon , if not the geography, of land development and planning. Every third planned unit development (PUD) seems to have “village” attached to its name in an apparently successful attempt to market nineteenth-century nostalgia in the form of somewhat higher density suburbanization. Shopping centers, too, claim a village-like form. In a last ditch attempt to preserve some type of pre-suburban land use patterns, New Jersey has incorporated the village concept in its Draft Development and Redevelopment Plan. The village form is especially threatened in areas such as central New Jersey, where rapid growth is invading places that had been largely stabilized for decades. The very popularity of these older places adds to the difficulty of retaining them intact in a market dominated by suburban style development (see Table 1).

A product of the nineteenth-century American agrarian economy, the village represents a development form peculiar, to that vanishing way of life. The frequency of villages in the rural landscape was great because the primary source of support for its marketplace were farm families who could not afford to spend a great deal of time away ‘from their labors in order to journey by wagon for products that they, could nor produce and to sell those products that they could. The general stores served as post offices and a wide variety of specialty retail. craft and service enterprises—from harness and millinery shops to banks-grew up in a close proximity to one another and to the homes of the ‘ people that comprised the village’s service sector. In the absence of zoning to locate uses of land, the resulting compact, mixed use centers were the product of economic and transportation factors. Successful commerce depended not only on the time required for the wagon trip from farm to store, but, within the village, on the time required to walk from home to business or from business to business. Pedestrian movement supplied the glue that bound village elements into a definable form and into an economic unit.

The commercial function remains an essential ingredient of the village experience as the twentieth century draws to a close. In contrast, the picturesque Vermont hamlet with its abandoned hotel, general store and depot, is now less than a village, despite the residences that surround the town center. Economic decline, that inadvertent preserver of American architecture, also destroys the micro-economies that distinguish functioning villages from simple settlements and clusters of homes. A village is inherently a marketplace.

Although prosperity can reinforce the market function; it can also cause the village to vanish. There is a physical as well as an economic dimension to the village. Because of its agrarian origin, the village is characteristically framed by the undeveloped land surrounding it, both farms and woodland. Thus, suburbanization can rapidly replace the undeveloped area that provides an important part of the village identity. The village form “vanishes” when its edge is lost to development.

As an indication of the distinctive density gradient associated with the village form, three such villages were examined in a region currently experiencing rapid suburbanization- Mercer, Middlesex and Monmouth Counties in New Jersey. National Decisions Systems, Inc. (NDS) provided current population estimates for three concentric rings around the village center-72 mile, 1 mile and 2 miles.

In each of the selected cases, although some new development has occurred, most of it has represented an expansion of the village proper, rather than the scattered, single-purpose development that characterizes the region’s recent history. Despite the area’s growth, the village form is still statistically apparent in the density patterns. Within the first mile-the effective walking range from the business center-the population averaged 1,532 persons per square mile. In the area between the ~-mile ring and the 1-mile ring, the population per square mile was only 335.6 persons and this dropped to 127.8 in the outer ring. In contrast, fully developed suburbs often average 4,000-6,000 persons per square mile.

The Village Edge

The village form, of course, is not round as implied by this measuring device, so these radii are necessarily arbitrary. Nevertheless, they illustrate clearly the sharp delineation of the village forn1 between the ~-mile and the l-mile rings. Beyond this, settlement patterns are clearly rural, although they are markedly less agricultural now than 10 and 20 years ago. Because of this distinct density difference, the ½ mile radius will form the statistical basis for the term “village” in this article.

In its statement of intent regarding criteria affecting villages, the New Jersey Draft State Plan provides some elements of a definition.2 It says, a village has a  “distinguishable boundary,” a residential population of less than 500 persons, a density of at least 1,000 persons per square mile and a “blend” of residential and nonresidential uses, generally within a quarter mile of the village center, that “support[s] a pedestrian orientation and the rural environment in which the village is located.” The plan notes that residential development tends to be diverse in villages and that they provide civic, religious and other social and cultural activities. The plan distinguishes between villages and planned unit developments (PUDs) primarily in the “pedestrian orientation of the village” and the automobile-oriented environment of the PUDs.

The relative position of the pedestrian is certainly a village ‘s distinguishing feature, although one should avoid romanticizing this point. Villages often lack the uninterrupted sidewalk networks that are a required feature of suburban municipalities and the “automobile-oriented” PUDs. Nevertheless, more pedestrian movement occurs in villages than in tract developments, PUDs, traditional suburban areas and all other non-village settlements except for cities. This is because the village, as an economically derived form, provides significant pedestrian destinations-a mix of commercial establishments and public and nonprofit entities-within walking distance of a substantial portion of the population.

Moving on Foot

It is in this regard that the village reveals itself as a truly  urban form, albeit one that exists in a rural context. Many, if not most, of the residents and workers move from activity to activity-from convenience food store to library, to drugstore and thence to home or workplace-on foot. In this characteristic, they are sharing a common experience with the workers and residents of Manhattan’s West Side, Washington, D.C.’s Southwest and Boston’s North End— very urban places, indeed. Good sidewalks do not by themselves make good pedestrians. To use classical transportation planning language, it is the proximity of good origins and good destinations that induces pedestrian movement.

The three studied villages have a remarkable number of destinations. NDS estimates, for example, that in Cranbury’s village portion, 86 businesses exist. These include law offices, a dentist, small printing establishments, a liquor store, two lending institutions, a hair dresser, various home occupations and a penny candy store, whose septuagenarian owner has seemingly left it unchanged since the 1940s. Public destinations include the post office, public schools, township offices and parks. The nonprofit sector includes two churches and an after school program for children. In all, approximately 50 nonresidential destinations lie within a 5-minute walk of the principal intersection.

Does this propensity to walk when destinations are accessible translate into different patterns of auto use? While we lack conclusive data, there appears to be somewhat lower au to ownership per household in villages than in non-village suburban areas. And a higher proportion of people walk to work.3 The percentage of people who walk to work or who work at home in the three villages ranges from 5.7 to 13.6, high for New Jersey.

Do residents live close enough to stores and services to encourage walking? Gross residential density in the three studied villages averaged 1.25 dwelling units per acre. This ratio includes all streets, sidewalks, cemeteries, nonresidential structures and recreation space-a decidedly residential environment. Where lot sizes rarely exceed half an acre, neighbors, live close to one another and to nonresidential activities and structures. While this degree of intimacy is not everyone’s cup of tea, the increasing appeal of attached homes over the past decade suggests that many people exhibit, at least, considerable tolerance for proximity to neighbors, especially when other amenities, such as convenience, are attractive trade-offs for less privacy. Observation also confirms that residents do an appreciable amount of business-related walking from their homes to shops and to other destinations within the ~-mile radius because householders find it more convenient to walk than to un-park and park a car twice for a short journey.

In these village settings, there are still apartments over stores (although zoning would bar such mixes in new construction) and a sprinkling of two-family and other multifamily residences interspersed with single-family homes of considerable size on relatively small lots by contemporary standards. All three studied villages have substantial residential populations in their core areas.

The popularity of villages today probably relates more to their form-which many can enjoy-as distinguished from their function-which is shared by the relatively few within the 1.2-mile radius of the village center. In an era in which an increasing share of architectural awards are granted for restoring non-contemporary buildings, it is not surprising that the typical village’s collection of nineteenth- and twentieth-century structures represents a rare and valued amenity. But there is more at work than the allure of Federal Greek Revival and Italianate facades.

For some, the arrangement of buildings and spaces in villages represents a welcome escape from the mechanical layouts typical of suburban development. In suburban tracts the cumulative effect of uniform lot sizes, standard building heights, set back regulations, separation of uses and standardized streetscapes represents a national soporific imposed by municipal codes and supported by a market that appears satisfied with physical isolation and a repetitive built environment. The village, in contrast, was shaped by the economy before the advent of public planning and regulation. Its aberrational survival, as a kind of national zoning variance, raises the question as to whether it is possible to replicate the village form in a regulated setting.

Are there social characteristics especially associated with villages? The volunteer fire companies, pancake breakfast benefits and church festivals are hardly the exclusive provenance of villages. Still, the intimate quality of life peculiarly induced by pedestrian movement and the close proximity of people to businesses and other people probably produces greater social interaction than is customary in typical suburban development where the physical form and location of the home, the business, the auto and the school bus substantially isolate individuals and families. For example, villages typically have inexpensive, informal eating establishments, the American equivalent of the European cafe or pub; places where, for the price of breakfast or a cup of coffee, residents may be reasonably sure of meeting an acquaintance. And, because village retailers . draw so heavily from those in the immediate environs, the frequency of contact at the drug or hardware store reinforces name recognition and merchant familiarity with consumer needs and preferences.

Village Definition

Based on these data and observations, a definition of a “village” emerges.

* A village is a predominately residential area with supporting commercial and public activities lying near its center. It does not have a clear distinction between residential and nonresidential areas.

* A village is compact relative to its surroundings and to traditional suburban tract development, and it is easily distinguishable from the surrounding undeveloped land.

* This density mix and arrangement of land uses encourages pedestrian movement among local origins and destinations.

In addition to these minimum elements, desirable village components include a public school, recreation facilities, sidewalks and buildings such as churches that have, in addition to their primary uses, the capacity to house the charity breakfasts, scout meetings, cultural activities and civic gatherings that comprise the invisible threads of community life.

As indicated earlier, the studied villages have markedly different densities at the ~·mile radius than the surrounding areas, suggesting that the de facto village edge lies about 2,500 feet from the center. Visual examination confirms this. Thus, a village requires approxin1ately three quarters of a square mile or about 500 acres to produce the density and complexity implicit in the definition.

Within this total village area lies an inner component with a radius about one quarter mile from the center. In these approximately 125 acres lie virtually all of the commercial and noncommercial pedestrian destinations and live most of the residents and workers who regularly walk among them.

The study definition reflects a village that is somewhat larger, denser and more populated and diverse than the New Jersey Draft Plan describes. And, it is sufficiently flexible to accommodate small, similar places, such as old port or railroad communities that are not exclusively rural in origin.

Prospects for New Villages

Does planning and development offer the prospect of creating new villages? The precedents are few. The best known examples exist in still growing Columbia, Maryland. Taking a page from classical neighborhood planning doctrine of the 1920s, the smallest growth units (200- 1,200 households) in James Rouse’s famous planned community were designed to provide for a sufficient population to assure the operation of a neighborhood school, convenience food shopping and recreation facilities ‘Within identifiable boundaries. Beyond this “neighborhood” level unit of development (which bests fits our own village definition), Rouse created a larger component with more extensive shopping, a hierarchy of schools and more specialized recreation serving several neighborhoods. This level (2,000 to 4,000 households) he termed “village.” Columbia’s villages and neighborhoods have evident boundaries, mixes of housing types and public and commercial facilities and perhaps the best pedestrian-bike circulation system since Clarence Stein and Henry Wright’s plan for Radburrn, New Jersey.

Planned development has pitfalls, however. The desirability of creating a village sufficiently large ·to support a grammar school does not assure that the population’s demographic distribution will be maintained in suitable balance over the years. New projects typically attract the type of households most likely to send children to elementary school soon after they purchase the houses. These families also tend to stay in place, however, long after their children have left school. The early boom of school children is followed in about fifteen years with a local demographic bust.

Something comparable happens with food stores. When the school is full, the cash registers are ringing . When the children grow. up and there are fewer mouths in the market area, sales go down and stores may close. Adding larger, regional stores is not the answer, however. They produce parking demands that are inconsistent with compact land uses or with pedestrian movement. While parking lots shorten distances for drivers, they add unattractive distance for walkers-an anti-pedestrian bias in the typical suburban form that is inconsistent with the village definition.

The temptation to organize commercial and even residential development around parking lots, rather than around streets and sidewalks, is so ingrained in planners and developers as to suggest its irresistibility. For example, the planners of two large PUDs in the same area as the studied villages made only small gestures toward integrating retail with residential development. Their walkway networks are essentially for recreational use-not to connect the activities of daily living. Then, fine-tuning school and food store sizes to resident and worker populations requires a willingness to make decisions that can jeopardize return on investments. It is far simpler to allocate space for stores and parking according to national formulae and have children bused to large, remote schools.

A related limitation is the scale required for village life. Few developers will take on a project involving 500 to 1,000 residential units, much less one that also requires, as Columbia did, the sophisticated integration of a K through 5 elementary school, a day care center, a small store and clustered recreational amenities.

In addition to suburban developers’ lack of experience in mixing activities normally separated by law as well as practice, is the matter of market risk. The reality of village life is a mélange of apartments over stores; large homes next to small ones; the mortician’s establishment adjacent to comfortable homes. It is a mix of cemeteries, traffic, on-street parking, sirens, bars and school children. There may be sufficient demand among those desiring older homes to endure such untidiness, but it requires a developer of Rouse’s stature and conviction to attract people entering the new home market to such a setting.

Saving Existing Villages

Perhaps the most challenging element associated with the growth of existing villages is preserving their edge in the face of rapid regional growth. In most of these, some potential for inward growth exists through the conversion of the largest single family dwellings into two or more units and the construction of new homes or stores on vacant lots. This would help retain the existing edge in place. Such infill, however, often results in the awkward insertion of middle density townhouses oriented to a common parking lot, rather than in structures that fit well in the village streetscape. The new units look and function as what they are: alien suburban forms.

Outward growth can continue at similar densities into adjacent farmland, thereby simply moving the village edge. This expansion often occurs beyond walking distance of the village center, however, and thus has less of the village quality about it because of relative remoteness and auto dependence. Also, residents accustomed to views of open space will find that those vistas have moved beyond them. Difficult issues face local officials. Should the existing edge be retained in place? Should it be moved outward and, if so, in the village or in suburban form?

Preservation of agriculture as the form for maintaining the village edge is extraordinarily difficult in an area experiencing rapid growth. Various fam11and preservation tools can compensate farm owners for the loss of development rights, but the land price pressure on agriculture will reduce the effectiveness of these methods to rearguard actions. Where resources are limited, public support may be allocated first to farms that serve local needs by producing for local consumption.

To augment farm preservation programs, some form of public open space acquisition or dedication may be necessary. Preserving the village edge may require application of the greenbelt concept, a mix of private farming and public land reserves. Where stream corridors provide potential buffers, their reduced development value makes them suitable candidates for acquisition or dedication.

Adding to the difficulty of retaining the village edge is the prospect of divided land control in the adjacent farmland. Clustering residential development is one means of retaining open space. Where six developers operate independently without strong or useful public direction, however, the result will be six housing clusters and six segments of farmland, a form of scattered site development that creates as many problems as it appears to solve. Pooling the development opportunities among developers in order to produce a single cluster of development and larger, contiguous farm tracts has a theoretical appeal that may nevertheless be beyond the practical capacity of small municipalities to manage. Preserving the village edge is a considerable challenge.

In the center of the village, modest residential and service employment growth helps retain existing convenience stores during a period in which new shopping centers seek to lure the best ones away. A conflict inherent in retaining retail services is the issue of whether to devote scarce land to added parking or to homes for additional village consumers. Among the divergent interests affected by such decisions are the businesses that have a substantial walk-in trade and those almost entirely dependent upon drive-in customers.

Villages, originally the product of commercial forces predating planning and zoning, are frequently reshaped by new styles of land use regulation and subdivision fads. For example, the newest development near the village edge is likely to be comprised of blocks with curving streets, substantial setbacks and side yards, homogeneous building styles and sizes, and no shopping. These suburban-style accretions are the product of builder habits, market preferences and local values reflected in land use rules that prohibit the construction of all of those physical arrangements that recently have attracted favorable attention to the village.

In many village additions, building styles and lot sizes are not diverse and pedestrian movement is not encouraged indeed, people often find it hazardous if not impossible to walk to. the school or to the store. Residential densities are markedly lower in the new sections and developers separate homes from commercial or public activities. Ironically, those people who have been closest to the village form for the past thirty years-village residents-have acted officially to deny its local expansion or replication. It is in the infrequent, large-scale, planned communities, such as Columbia, where village standards have market and community support.

One recent exception is a small resort village being built on the Florida Gulf Coast and described in a recent Atlantic Monthly article by Phillip Langdon called “A Good Place to Live” (March, 1988). There, a developer is seeking “a friendly, social atmosphere” in a mixed use, pedestrian oriented community offering building types that suggest turn of the century styles. Homes are designed individually within developer-imposed guidelines that specify wood exterior walls, metal roofs, certain window treatments, porches, fences and color harmony. The porches, set back from sidewalks a uniform sixteen feet, reflect nineteenth-century land treatment, giving streets some of the intimacy associated with traditional villages. The narrow, brick-paved streets slow traffic and encourage movement on foot. Most important, there is a small, but essential, commercial-public center that provides somewhere to go.

Seaside realizes the goal of “harmonious diversity” through the interaction of individual resident-driven design shaped by the developer’s standards. The Seaside experiment, as small as it is, may offer some guidance to those who would extend the village form. Short setbacks, more flexibility in side yard requirements and a case-by-case review of commercial residential mixes would go a long way toward allowing the village form to grow outward.

On the other hand, such standards are counter to virtually all of the teachings and experiences of local officials since the introduction of planning and zoning. The pioneers of planning sold it to electorates as an anti-market device that would protect property values. As a result, the “good of the community” has, for a generation or more, been firmly associated with requiring development to take the form of repetitive mini-estates defined by as much lawn and as many cars as regulation can induce.

In light of this history, how many communities will join the pro-village counter revolution? Can a sufficient number of planning board members overcome the conditioned belief that, absent a suburban-style home, an American family is only a step up from food stamps and that the neighborhood is a decade away from becoming a slum?

And is there a significant market demand for the stimulation of a diverse living environment which outweighs this lifestyle’s disadvantages? Which developers and which lenders will test this market on any significant scale? Residential development in the United States is based, in large measure, on excluding all factors that fail to contribute to mass taste and ready marketability. These exclusions include incompatible views, noise and people. Conventional residential developers see the village as a potential source of water and sewer service and also perhaps as a market cachet. For example, the proximity of the retail sector is regarded as acceptable, if it is out of sight, which generally means beyond walking distance.

In fact, it is likely that what the new friends of villages want is the appearance, rather than the functional reality, of villages-i.e., Seaside’s harmonious colors and shapes, rather than the mix of businesses and residences, the limited parking and the tight densities that enable villages to function as villages. The sanitized new products, each proudly bearing the name “village.” will keep stores, schools and workplaces beyond View, earshot and walking range. The result may be somewhat more than a village made by Potemkin, but not much more.

But, however rare the expression,· it has proven possible to replicate both the village form and its substance in new development. The product is tidier than the original model, utterly undependent upon agricultural delineation and somewhat suburban in appearance, but it exists in a contemporary form that has market support. The initiative has come from both government and private developers. And, existing villages-given the same public sector determination-can be expanded to the point where pedestrian connections are still practical. The village form can be preserved, including its edge-if there is the will to do so.

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