A “Small Community” within the Community?


Boise City Comprehensive General Plan (City of Boise, 1963)

“In the consideration of residential areas, the neighborhood is usually considered to be the basic unit. It is generally conceived of as a small community within the community having more or less homogeneous physical character and interests. The preferred pattern for a neighborhood centers about the elementary school site and play area and is designed to be free of unnecessary vehicular traffic.” (Boise City Comprehensive General Plan, 1963)

I suppose we’ve all read words very similar to the above statement, in a myriad of comprehensive plans and general use plans from communities throughout the united States. And Boise, Idaho is not unique in its inability to achieve the lofty goals of a true “community within a community”. Today, in places like Seattle, Fort Worth, and Arlington, such a vision is most often couched as a desire for urban villages.

Let’s take a moment to look at Boise’s 50-year history attempting to make such urban places, and perhaps there are lessons to learn from this singular case study.

In the Beginning

In 1963 Boise, Idaho launched an ambitious effort to craft a community-wide comprehensive plan, and (for the first time) adopt a zoning ordinance that would govern all land uses within the city’s jurisdiction.

Within three years the planning effort was complete, and the new zoning ordinance was adopted. There were three volumes to the plan documents: 1) a comprehensive plan which included a city-wide future land use map and a detailed map showing the complete reconstruction of the city’s downtown business district, 2) a volume containing all the planning research and administration documents, and 3) the new land use-based zoning and subdivision ordinances. Although these plans were quite forward-thinking compared to the state of the planning profession in Idaho during the early 1960’s (the State itself would not obligate cities and counties to craft similar planning documents for at least another decade), the plans for the community’s new neighborhoods were based on principals that had been first espoused over three decades earlier — based upon sociological precepts which were already beginning to receive considerable criticism within the planning profession.


Boise Neighborhood Plan, (Boise City Comprehensive General Plan, 1963)

The above image was offered as a typical new neighborhood for the city. The plan indicates an area roughly 640 acres in size, bounded by thoroughfares representing the major section line roads that the plan called to be widened and extended. A large commercial complex would be located at an intersection of these thoroughfares, while a phalanx of higher density apartment buildings would buffer the commercial area from the remainder of the lower-density single-family detached housing development. This wall of apartments would then turn inward, forming a corridor of higher density-housing leading towards the center of the new neighborhood. At this center we see two elements; first, the apartment corridor terminating at a new public school and second, a significant amount of new and/or preserved Open Space with both trees and a water course cutting diagonal across the entire neighborhood.

Where did this idea come from?

This diagram compares favorably to the Neighborhood Unit diagram created by Clarence Perry, in his 1929 Regional Plan of New York and Its Environs (see below). Comparing the two diagrams, the similarity is striking — the perimeter retail, the centralized school, the bordering higher capacity roadways, even the internal collector roads into which the local residential streets feed.


Neighborhood Unit Diagram (Clarence Perry, 1929 Regional Plan for New York and its Environs, Cornell University Library Rare Manuscript Collections, Accessed 3/4/2014)

While both the Perry and Boise diagrams indicate a centrally located school, the former indicates a number of neighborhood-oriented uses to accompany that school, including churches and a public facility. And, while the latter indicates a similar amount of green space, it is essentially rural in character with only one delineated “park” — the rest of the open space would be “wooded”, replete with a “stream” (which, in Boise’s arid climate, could only be either an irrigation canal that would have serviced the former farmland, from which the new neighborhood would be have been carved, or a similar farmland drainage lateral).

All of the open space illustrated in the Perry diagram represents improved parks, bounded by roadways that would provide access for residents. Further, all of the homes in the Perry diagram would be located within a block of one of these parks, while in the Boise diagram nearly half of the residents would live more than a 1/4-mile from any form of open space (and access would be far more restricted, being provided only at the small number of intersecting local streets).

How are these two ideas really different?

What’s most striking though is the difference in scale. The Perry diagram indicates an internal radius of 1/4-mile, and while the Boise plan does not provide any type of scaling map element, its implied internal radius is a full 1/2-mile (since the section line roads, indicated by the bounding thoroughfares, are one mile apart). So, while the majority of residents in the Perry diagram would live within a quarter-mile of retail shops (easily reachable with a five minute walk), the majority of residents in a new Boise neighborhood would live over a half mile from the proposed commercial land use. It’s easy to see that the framers of the Boise plan did not intend their residents to walk to retail but to drive, graphically evinced by the large areas of dedicated parking surrounding the new shopping area.

“As Perry’s theory evolved and was modified, many of its enthusiastic adherents began to ascribe rather “mystical” powers to it. These new powers largely reflected a nostalgia for rural living.” (Jerrold Allaire. American Society of Planning Officials. Information Report No. 141. December 1961)

This is not to say that the Perry diagram represented the most advanced thoughts on how to craft neighborhoods. In fact, the proponents of the diagram were already under siege from a number of quarters. The chorus of Perry critics had been growing so loud that by 1960 (three years before the Boise planning efforts were launched), the American Society of Planning Officials issued a detailed report discussing the drawbacks of Perry’s Neighborhood Unit and offering some corrective measures. Chief among those critics was Reginald Isaacs who, as early as 1948, had been publicly stating that Perry’s concept of the neighborhood had become a planning tool used to institute racial, ethnic, religious and economic segregation. Others felt that the Neighborhood Unit was itself a straightforward attempt to modularize suburban development, leading to a generally monotonous character.

“From Atlantic to Pacific and from Canada to Mexico, the basic Perry neighborhood unit, with only minor modifications, has served as the development module. The formula is simple, and the result is tidy, perhaps too tidy. As too often happens through the use of a modular system, the end products are so standardized as to become almost undifferentiated. Thus one might feel just as at home, or just as lost, on the curvilinear streets of a “Desert Mesa” in Arizona, at the neighborhood super-shop in a “Prairie Estates” in Illinois, or in the centrally located elementary school in a “Rolling Meadows” in Pennsylvania.” (Jerrold Allaire. American Society of Planning Officials. Information Report No. 141. December 1961)

What did these differences mean to Boise?


Boise Neighborhood (Notes by Author, Google Earth image, Accessed 3/6/2014)

The above image shows one of those neighborhoods (located within the West Valley Neighborhood Association). It has a centrally-located elementary school, an adjacent (singular) city park, while the Settlers Canal and its adjacent gravel pathway (running through the neighborhood’s northwest quadrant) fairly-well mimics the initial plan’s “wooded area with stream.”

All in all, the new neighborhoods that emerged after the 1963 plan was adopted were significantly compliant with the vision outlined in the 1963 diagram. While the plan had purported that the Boise population would reach an incredible 110,000 residents by 1980, it had (in fact) attained a population of just over 102,000 — which was a fairly accurate prognostication, given that the 1960 census (the last census conducted before the planning process was initiated) listed the city’s population at just over 34,000 residents.

But as you delve deeper into the 1963 documents, an internal inconsistency emerges. On pages 13 and 14 of the Comprehensive General Plan, discussion is given to what was termed Neighborhood Commercial uses. This type of commercial use is broken into three categories:

1) Shopping Centers (located at major intersections, as delineated in the neighborhood diagram),

2) Ribbon Commercial Development (located along thoroughfares), and

3) Corner Grocery or Convenience Stores (located within residential neighborhoods).

This last category is most dependent on foot traffic, and in Perry’s diagram the 1/4-mile service radius would place the majority of retail shops within easy walking distance of a large majority of the neighborhood’s residents.

“The corner grocery stores, frequently of the type known as the “ma and pa” store, are located in almost every neighborhood in Boise City. To a large extent they cater to walk-in trade, provide a convenience to the neighborhood, and generate little vehicular traffic. The curb parking provided is usually adequate.” (Boise City Comprehensive General Plan, 1963)

Perhaps the area covered by the Boise neighborhood diagram made delineating the presence of these smaller, walk-in, “ma and pa” commercial activities troublesome, but when their diagrammatic absence is paired with the proscriptive language of the land use zoning ordinance written to support the General Plan some light is shed.

None of the newly called for residential land use zone categories (R-1A, R-1B, R-1C, R-2, or R-3) permitted any kind of commercial activity beyond some limited home occupations, and only a severely restricted set of personal service businesses could be permitted via a conditional use permit — no food or grocery services were to be allowed under any circumstances.

The lack of pedestrian-accessible retail uses, as well as the increase in the scale of the neighborhood (from 160 acres to 640 acres), and the relatively restricted open-space access, all contributed to the creation of an automobile-dependent neighborhood environment. And while much advertising space was given over during the build-out of these new neighborhoods to their rural-like freedoms and conveniences (access to wooded areas, model homes with “farm kitchens”, sometimes even near-by working farms, etc.), only but the first few home buyers were able to enjoy these rural-like settings. As the larger former farm-lots were further subdivided and zoned for residential uses, these emerging neighborhoods lost their rural character. And, due to the inadequate accommodation for neighborhood/pedestrian retail activities, they also grew into sterile residence-only environments.

What’s the take-away?

Perhaps the two most significant opportunities for refinement, for any community contemplating the development of “urban villages” (communities within a community), is to ensure the scale of each neighborhood is appropriate, and that there are amply opportunities and regulatory encouragements to develop and maintain small scale neighborhood commercial and personal service uses.

As professional planners we must not conflate the political artifacts of neighborhood association boundaries (often created by residents’ opposition to some proposed new development, or social justice issue) with a true neighborhood. Such places are often no larger than 125 acres; an area that one can walk across (from edge to edge) in no more than 10-minutes, and which has a distinct architectural and social character.

Lastly, the advent of mixed-use zoning can help resurrect the small neighborhood-oriented commercial uses that have been excised from our communities through the instrument of conventional single-use land use codes.