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Growing In Community (Part 2)

August 23, 2012

Sorry for a delay – our home internet has been down a few days. Let’s dive in . . .

My last post was mostly just a catch-up, but also set the stage for where we’re going . . .

I’m not exactly an early adopter, but I tend to adjust to new ideas fairly quickly, especially when I see value in the idea. As an Architect, I was not an early adopter in New Urbanism. However, some personal experience with a development outside of Montgomery, Alabama, caused a dramatic shift in my thinking. I am now a significant proponent of many ideas coming from the movement.

Following that change in thinking, before our family relocated to Towson, we noticed key factors in Towson communities that illustrated New Urbanism ideas, despite being built decades before New Urbanism existed. We scouted multiple neighborhoods in Towson, several of which are townhome communities. One thing about Towson townhomes — most of them have the same layout, no matter which community you are in. However, there are dramatic differences in the communities, and the resulting home values highlight those differences.

Some of these differences have, over time, become the result of socio-economic factors. However, I believe those factors are results and not causes. Despite identical interior floor plans on the inside, when you walk out the front door, there are dramatic differences. The most successful townhome neighborhoods have a very small street scale. Homes are a closer to the street. The exterior facades have slightly more variety. Mature trees remain and are replaced when they die. The streets themselves are quite narrow, usually one-way with parallel parking on both sides. In these neighborhoods, kids are out playing and people are out walking and talking. As street widths increase, tree density reduces, and homes get pushed away from the street, the success of the neighborhood reduces, and so does the home value. The chances of seeing someone outside dramatically reduces. The same exact size townhome, built within 10 years of each other, with the exact same upgrades, less than 3 miles apart can fetch literally twice the price from one of the lower neighborhoods to the highest neighborhood. A significant factor is the quality of the schools each is zoned for, but I would argue that the quality of schools is an affect of the socio-economic factors, which is an affect of the quality of community, which is a result of the quality of space.

When we moved to Towson, we lived in a mid-rise apartment building . . . which was in reality a micro-city to itself. As long as we lived in that building, we could look out of our balcony and see the community all around us, but it seemed like an unreachable place, despite being just down the street. Several other people we have met felt the same way, so it wasn’t just us.

In May, we were finally able to escape from the microcosm of the apartment and purchase a local townhome. While we were not able to afford a home in the top neighborhood, we found a home on the best street of a mid-range neighborhood. We only moved 8 blocks, but life has changed dramatically. After 3 years in town, we suddenly feel like part of the community. Within weeks, we met several neighbors, became a part of the community association, and have completely transformed our lifestyle. I personally believe the spacial dynamics of our street are a key factor in how quickly we have become a part of our community.

But community is so much more than houses, streets, and generic people that populate them. There are much deeper dynamics that lead to experiencing life in true community. Some of those factors are “station in life” (are you single, married no children, married with children, etc.), type of employment (bluecollar/whitecollar, similar factors), and simply being available. For us as Christians, we also believe true community can not be fully achieved without a deep spiritual connection, rooted in a relationship with God through Jesus Christ.

After moving, we discovered a family 2 doors down has a little girl almost the exact age of our older daughter, which gave us instant play dates. As it turns out, the parents are vibrant Christians, which instantly bonded us together. Despite choosing our townhome partially because of an open back yard, we spend a large portion of our time playing in the front yards, running across 3 properties. The result is meeting numerous neighbors as they walk up and down the street.

The final icing on the cake for cementing us in the community in a short time was the dreaded Derecho storm that busted its way through Maryland in late June. The storm knocked the power out on our street during the hottest week of the summer. Some people chose to go stay elsewhere. Many of us escaped to our yards and got to know each other in the process. The homes across the street got power on a few days before us, and one generous neighbor (also a Christian), allowed us to run 250 feet of extension cord across the street and up the sidewalk to power 1 window AC unit in our home and a deep freeze in our neighbor’s home.

Shortly after this, we moved some of our chairs from our back porch to our front porch, and regularly sit outside with empty chairs, waiting for a passing neighbor to come sit and commune with us. Yes, in a walkable community, it really is that simple.

I admitted to a local pastor yesterday that we are still longing for a depth of personal relationships we have somehow missed most of our lives, but we feel like God has called us to this place, and the blossoms are now fading in order for the fruit to develop.

Next time, I hope to put out some thoughts on how to apply some of these concepts from spacial communities into spiritual communities, namely, the Church.

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