Overprotection Begins with City Planning

Hi Readers — This comment came in response to the blog post below, regarding a Minnesota community up in arms about an Alzheimer’s facility moving in. The people there are worried for their children’s sake. Ironically, it is when we try to make a neighborhood unneighborly that we all suffer. Voila:

Dear Free-Range Kids: The crucial concept here (from my perspective as a native and current Minnesota guy who has also lived in Albany, NY, DC, and Hartford, CT) is zoning and neighborhood planning.

Here in MN, it is presumed that any credible, autonomous, functional person has a drivers license, access to at least one vehicle, and wants to live in a neighborhood where walking to a corner store for milk and eggs is not an option. Protecting your family’s financial future is the same as believing that two- or three-family structures within a block or two are a threat, and that driving your kids to school is the only way.

So, people are convinced that the only way to protect the value of their home is to hope they’re embedded in a wide enclave of exclusively residential single-family, owner-occupied homes with a few ultra-safe businesses on the periphery surrounded by massive parking lots.

I saw similar issues at play in Albany, Washington, and Hartford, as well. But, these circumstances in MN rub me the wrong way in the same fashion that gated and/or contractually-beige housing developments do. If you can’t bear uncertainty about your neighbors, you’d better have a lot of money to buy a chunk of land and build a big fence, if not a moat.

Otherwise, get over yourself. Meet your neighbors. Walk a lot. Make eye contact. Say “hi” to strangers walking by (the next time, they won’t be strangers). Be open to babies and puppies. Poke fun at the silliness in Woodbury, MN and welcome a small-to-medium-sized group home into your own neighborhood. — Bose

20 Responses

  1. But how are you supposed to walk safely in these neighborhoods when the municipalities decide that building sidewalks is more of a liability than an asset?

    The lack of sidewalks in many American communities contributes greatly to a whole slew of evils, from making it much more difficult for kids to gain that first taste of autonomy (let’s face it, sidewalks are genuinely safer than walking along moderately busy streets) to contributing to the ridiculous notion that even distances as short as a quarter mile must be driven.

    We recently visited my in-laws, who live in a nice suburban neighborhood of a small city. They live about a quarter mile from a nearby playground. There’s a sidewalk along the somewhat major street along which my in-laws live, as well as one along the next street over. The playground is on a block in between the two major streets that have sidewalks. The block on which the playground is built has no sidewalk. Apparently, the objection to building a sidewalk that goes to the playground is that it might encourage kids to go to the playground by themselves. We got a lot of strange looks walking to and from the playground with a 2 and 4 year old, especially since most of the local kids couldn’t have handled the quarter mile walk. (And oddly, most of the locals were eating ice cream when they got out of their cars at the playground. Is it any wonder that their kids were all obese?)

    What is this country doing to its kids?

  2. OMG! Bose hit it spot on. I’ve never heard it articulated that way before but that is right! I’ve lived here for a dozen years (and was born here about a million years ago) but that assessment of suburban MN is exactly correct.

    Nothing to do with this particular story but another issue came up in our hoity toity suburb of Minnetonka. One business went under, leaving a building free. Goodwill Industries wants to open a store in the empty building. Neighbors are up in arms! Why? They SAY because of traffic and parking issues but the store that was there was fairly busy and it’s in a busy commercial area. Finally, one guy spoke on the news about how the neighbors don’t want the kind of people that frequent a Goodwill there.

  3. Who are these people??? This is why I don’t live in the burbs and don’t have a home owners assn.

  4. Thanks, Lenore!

    JMG, I agree — it’s insane that building codes require oversized parking lots for businesses but not sidewalks in neighborhoods. The concept of a sidewalk-free park/plaground is a new one on me, though.

    Yeah, Amy, the illusion in the midwest is that there’s plenty of land elsewhere (just Not In My Back Yard) for anything that makes people the tiniest bit uncomfortable.

  5. I live in Minnesota, and the attitude being discussed is not universal. In my St. Paul neighborhood walking to school is the rule, kids are out playing and biking on the sidewalks at at the parks, and the local grocery store, bank, library. and coffee shop are within walking distance. People know their neighbors and interact with them all the time. I know most people who live for at least a couple blocks in each direction, and many people further out than that.

    I’m appalled at the attitude of some people in Woodbury. Our local nursing home (including plenty of people with Alzheimer’s) is also within walking distance and we visit there regularly. But I deliberately moved to my city neighborhood because I knew people shared my ideas about community. I cared more about seeing kids playing on the street and neighbors talking to each other in their front yards than I did perfectly manicured yards and huge houses.

  6. My sister used to live in Minneapolis and we had no problem walking from her house to local shops one Thanksgiving. But she wasn’t really that far outside the city.

    That said, I can see how people in Minnesota may not walk all that much. Building all that infrastructure which will only be used two weeks out of the year…

    (There’s an old joke about how beautiful the summers are in Minnesota–Both Weeks!)

  7. Growing up (I’m 32) my subdivision had a pool, park, creek with woods, library, school, roller rink, 7-11, and an ice cream place all in walking distance. It was great. The subdivision my husband and I are raising our kids (6 &8) has nothing. I allow the kids to ride their bikes all around (at least we do have sidewalks) and they go several streets over to visit friends, but there is no place for them to go explore. They are forced to play in our yard or the neighbors yards. Their school is 12 miles away down a 2 lane highway with no shoulders, and the nearest park is only 4 miles away but sits across the interstate from our home. My parents still live in the same house I grew up in which is only about 20 minutes from us. We are able to go to their house and let the kids wander a bit. Just today they disappeared into the woods for about an hour while my mom and I played koosh-ball tennis at the park!

  8. I’m curious as to why people choose to buy houses in areas that do not seem to accommodate their lifestyles.

    I’ve never bought a home, so I don’t know the first thing… but to the people who are unhappy with their living arrangements – were there really no other options?

  9. In many areas, it’s hard to buy a decent-sized (and I do mean decent-sized, not palatial) home in a safe (meaning mostly overt-drug-trade-free) neighborhood near decent schools that does not have the lifestyle-unfriendly characteristics that the post describes. In many places, this kind of community lacks sidewalks DELIBERATELY because it’s assumed (or was 20-30 years ago when these plans and ordinances were made) that decent people do want to drive everywhere and don’t want “hooligans” walking through their neighborhood.

    It’s not impossible — we live in a fairly walkable neighborhood in a city with a decent neighborhood school and low crime. But there’s a limited number of such places in most communities.

  10. Besides the horror of the multi-family home, let’s not forget the odd aversion many American communities seem to have to a blend of commercial and residential. Of course if all commercial must have mega parking lots around it, they may not be compatible.

    I can walk to a grocery store and back, but it’s about a 2-mile walk each way and the one busy street crossing is oddly unfriendly (in terms of the layout of the lights and the sidewalks, which are weirdly un-integrated). On a positive note, biking is more plausible and for a town of my town’s size I do have access to (relatively) good public transportation.

  11. Surely people on here have watched HGTV’s House Hunters. Typically, the people hunting in the suburbs do not want to see or hear their neighbors.

    My husband and I usually turn to each other and say, “that is called the country, not the suburbs.”

    Of course these are the same people who want to “throw parties” for their neighbors. Yes, but how will you get to know them if you never see or hear them?

    It really makes me appreciate my urban neighborhood. Even with all its own peculiar warts.

  12. Wisdom has spoken. Give me the uncertainty of city living where everyone gathers and life is unpredictable.

  13. We bought our house in Raleigh, NC partially because of the community. It appeared to be very child-friendly, mostly with side-walks, walking distance to a great elementary school and a couple of parks. We still can’t get to a grocery store or a coffee shop or a book store without going on a drive, but anything more urban was simply out of our price range. I grew up in a big city where we walked everywhere. And I miss being able to walk to a store or a library.

  14. thanks for posting lenore! i’m a proud midway, st. paul, MN parent. we use our sidewalks and we enjoy ‘the uncertainty of city living where everyone gathers and life is unpredictable’! amen friends! and yes, my friends & i will surely head over to the minnetonka goodwill. think they’ll mind our audis, volvos, or subarus? ya, we’re those scuzzy goodwill shoppers!

  15. I am an urban planner (ok, former urban planner) who tried for years to get developers and politicians to include and require sidewalks, pedestrian amenities and to interconnect roadways. It was a near impossible chore. In just a few weeks I will be moving back to the area I last worked as an urban planner and I find it ironic that the neighborhood with the most interconnected roadways, with sidewalks to the library, YMCA and high school is now considered one of the most sought-after. Go figure… maybe we are changing some minds, and habits.

  16. That’s just ridiculous. Why don’t they make their own army and and government while their at it. What they are doing is segregating themselves from their community. Most people know that when you do this, their a ramifications that follow. Policing who comes in the “community” to buy something at the store, or the park, or local community center. It would be along the same line as racism.

    That is not uniting a community, that’s separating themselves from the rest of the neighboring area, and tagging itself as selfish, fearful, and arrogant. Which to some people is an invitation to cause trouble. Plus it costs tax payers more money to create this type of community than to help everyone in and around it.

  17. Another Minnesotan here who lives in a walkable community with mixed housing. The situation in Woodbury is no doubt shameful, but I have to agree with the others who question why someone who values corner stores and public transportation would choose to live in a place so contrary to their personal preferences. We deliberately took those sorts of things into consideration when we bought our home. If I can manage to live in a nice house on a busline and walk to work and school and parks and shopping in Northern Minnesota, certainly that can be accomplished down in the Twin Cities. Vote with your feet and your dollars, as it were.

  18. Being from Minnesota, I am embarrassed by the citizens of Woodbury.
    Another suburb, Orono, was being considered for an eating disorder facility. The citizens there shot that down as well. NIMBY at its finest.

  19. it is embarrassing but hey look on the bright side it could of been worst.

  20. @MJ, pardon my ignorance, but please, PLEASE, explain.

    I was born in the Twin Cities, as a kid lived in New Ulm, Redwood Falls, Mankato, Rapidan, Grand Rapids, Bovey, Grand Rapids (again), and Pine Island (rural and in-town, prom and graduation).

    I have family ties to Good Thunder (great-grandpa was the 100-years-ago postmaster and publisher of the Herald, great-grandma cared for me & my sibs), Edina (grandpa got his first non-family newspaper job there, and met a young Hubert Humphrey), Wabasha (grandpa published the paper there for 25 years, and served as mayor for a bit). Add Lanesboro, Blooming Prairie, Lake Washington, Warroad, Springsteel Island, the Boundary Waters, ad infinitum.

    Currently I’m in a town of almost 10K people, and hating it. The local travel agency runs a successful bus service between here and the MSP airport. They also pick people up 12 miles away, from the 30K person city, and deliver them to the MSP airport several times a day, stopping at the local travel agency along the way.

    I asked them, “Surely you have empty seats between this 10K town and the 30K city 12 miles away, can I grab one of them on one of the 6 routes you’ve scheduled every day?”

    The answer was stout and specific: “The owner tried that, a drunk guy messed it up, he’s vowed to never try it again.”

    @MJ, at this point, I hate Minnesota… yeah, it defines me, it is integral to everything about me, but I hate that.

    Where are you that you have a diverse, walkable, community in Northern Minnesota?

    On a bus line?

    Seriously, explain… If you ask Lenore for my email address I encourage her to share it with me.

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