Monday, June 14

Learning from the early family-friendly suburbs

I ended the last post alluding to ways to make the built environment appeal to young families. Now I'll pull from some of my father's experiences growing up in Ridgewood, New Jersey to illustrate features of what I would consider a family-friendly suburb. Today, these kinds of places are so rare most younger families are completely priced out of them (and many were priced out then too), but the fact that they have existed in the past means they are technically possible to build.

The downtown of Ridgewood, near the New Jersey Transit station. Flickr Credit: Here in Van Nuys

Of the 600 students that my father attended elementary school with in Ridgewood, he recalls roughly 90% of them walking or biking to school every day. If you lived within a mile of the school, this is what you did. You also went home for lunch. The remaining students were mostly residents of a new subdivision built in the mid-1950's. These homes were so isolated from the rest of town, the school district had no choice but to use buses to bring them in. Of course, the rest is history. By the time my generation rolled around, walking to school in the suburbs was a rarity and we all bused. These days, mom drives the kids in and accompanying a child to school on foot is a good way to get yourself fined in some school districts.

The walk to school stats are a good litmus test for a family-friendly community. It has to be fairly compact to yield over 500 kids within a mile radius. The streets have to be well connected to allow a safe route away from the main auto thoroughfares. There's probably sidewalks everywhere, which is the case in Ridgewood. Growing up, my father remembers stopping by a neighborhood convenience store on the way home from school. Another neighborhood store next door gave out licorice in exchange for empty soda bottles. Uses were mixed somewhat.

My father doesn't remember any neighborhood parks, but the limits of the town were within easy reach for him. A wide swathe of undeveloped land and a creek separated his town from Paramus to the east, creating a distinct boundary and sense of territory, at least for a 10-year old. An abandoned trolley track had been used as a de facto walking and biking trail through the town, which made it easier to get around. As long as he was in by dusk, there were a wide range of places to explore.

The center of Ridgewood organically formed around the transit station to New York City, and not much of the development my father knew of as Ridgewood lied more than a mile from it. This is where he went for church, grocery shopping, clothing shopping, the library, the pool, and the weekly YMCA classes. Even the transit station had only a small parking lot attached to it, preserving the valuable central space for use by humans to do all of the things humans like to do.

Is the Ridgewood my father remembers a suburb? Yes, it's a suburb of New York City. But in contemporary planner-speak, it's also a transit-oriented development surrounded by walkable neighborhoods. It really is a town in it's own right. In many of the respects mentioned here, this living environment is as far removed from the late-20th century suburbia as it is from the dense Manhattan its connected to. Most families will probably not choose to live in high-rise condos anytime soon, but if there were places like Ridgewood more widely available, I can imagine many making this choice.


Jeannine | The Small and Chic Home said...

I'm from Ridgewood! I went to Ridge Elementary and George Washington Middle School. We walked to school every day (with my brothers until 3rd grade, alone after that) and went home for lunch every day (but we ate dinner at lunch friends did not).

From your description, I can tell that your dad lived on the east side, so he probably went to Somerville, Travell, or Glen (now closed) for elementary school. Is the subdivision mentioned in your post "The Lawns"? I've never been in it there and I'm in my early 30s. I just know the streets in The Lawns wind and curve with cul-de-sacs while most of the our streets were straight and we could ride our bikes around the block. When I was first learning to ride my bike, I was allowed to go up and down the street. It was a big milestone when I was finally allowed to follow my brothers around the block!

When my parents were looking to move to the suburbs from The Bronx, my mother's requirements were that she not be tied to a car, that my dad would be able to walk to the train, that we'd all be able to walk or ride bikes to school, and that all shopping could be done in town. Her real estate agent said only two towns fit: Ridgewood and Montclair. Ridgewood won out in the end.

I think my mother colored my decision to live in town when I moved to Charlottesville. I can walk to work and to the Downtown Mall, I'm on the CTS and trolley lines, and if I was without my car, I could get everything I need without too, too much trouble.

By the way, one thing that Charlottesville has been successful about that Ridgewood hasn't been is keeping chains in the downtown shopping area to a minimum. When I was a kid, downtown Ridgewood was all "mom and pop" stores and it was the same size as it is today (you can tell your dad that my first job was at Drapkins...that should make him smile!). When The Gap showed up downtown, it was kind of exciting...but that was followed by Ann Taylor, Lily Pulitzer, Laura Ashley, Waterworks, and many other chains. There are a few boutiques on Ridgewood Avenue still, but most of the store fronts are big name banks and brokerage firms. The store in the image used to be a gift shop.

When Urban Outfitters showed up on the Downtown Mall, I was a little upset because I thought it might be the start of a change. I hope the "buy local" mantra keeps the chains at bay for a while.

This is the longest blog comment I've ever written...sorry to be so verbose, but it was pretty exciting to see my little hometown written about in a Cville blog!

Andrew said...

Ridgewood is like Park Ridge, IL, New Rochelle, NY and other suburban villages which are connected by fixed rail (and/or bus) to the center city. These pre-war towns were the epitome of what was good about "suburban" American at the turn of the 20th Century at a time when the professional class sought refuge from the ills of urban America.

Fortunately for places like Ridgewood, there is still a very viable mass transit option to get to New York (via the PATH). Obviously it is the car-dependent suburban communities characterized by strip malls and cul de sac which show the failure of 20th century planning.

While New Urbanism is a step in the right direction, it is vital that New Urbanist communities are linked by Mass Transit to the center area of commerce for its region, to be truly successful.

Anonymous said...


Is it still vital for things to be linked to the center or even mass transit?

Employment in 17 out of 18 industries continued to decentralized, employment share continued to fall in 95 out of 98 city centers. Employment continues to spread through out the metro region.

More importantly even large investments in mass transit are failing to increase transit share.

As long as employment flees the city center, even large investments in transit aren't going to increase transit share.

The big issues are the falling cost of transportation. Ed Glaeser of Harvard points out real transportation costs fell 90% in the past century. (see pg 2)

As real transportation costs fell, employment no longer needed to be concentrated in the city center. So jobs sprawled.

Mass transit useage is falling despite large investments in mass transit infrastructure because nationwide the commute time for people using transit is about twice as long as the commute time for people driving to work.

Employers are moving out to the suburbs for the same reason that there employees, to save on rent while reducing commute times for there employees.

Today factories are much more likely to be located on the urban fringe where land prices are cheaper and there is less traffic on the freeways and its easier for tractor trailer trucks to access the interstate. Railyards have followed employers in fleeing the central city to more exurban locals to avoid neighborhood complaints about the noise of passing trains and restrictions on those trains.

Now that the housing bubble blue up the Finance, real estate and insurance companies that used to be located in urban cores, who is left to fill that space?

Its seems to me that transit investments are pretty irrelevant.

philippine real estate said...

Great post. I feel exhausted but I enjoyed reading it because I learned so much from it.

Paula M