The Waters: How Town Planning and Architecture Help Create Community

[I visited The Waters, a fledgling “New Urbanist” community in Alabama, in early February. This is the third in a series of four articles about my visit there. The other three are The Waters: A Very Tight-Knit Community, The Waters: Kids’ Lives, and The Waters: Self-Selection and the Pioneer Effect.]

I admit that I was skeptical of New Urbanist claims that town planning and architecture could, by themselves, play a strong role in creating community ties. However, after visiting The Waters, I’m a believer. Even though the number of children below 12 is average or below average – 30 for 110 residences – kids play far more here than in other communities in North America.

It seems like The Waters is teeming with kids, but actually, the percentage of kids here isn't that great compared to that for other North American communities.  It's just that the ones who do live there are almost always out, having fun.

There are other important factors that have contributed to this outcome which I will discuss in the next and final article on The Waters, but in this article, I describe some of the most important features of The Waters’ design that create community:
This is the plan for The Waters' first village, Lucas Point.  Lots are small and close together, so that 350 homes are all within 10 minutes' walking distance from each other and from all other amenities in the village.

  • Short Walks: Each village at The Waters is designed so that any resident should be able to walk to any other point in the village in less than 10 minutes. Only one village, Lucas Point, is built today, but six more are planned.
  • Cars at The Waters really do drive this slow, or even slower.

  • Low or No Fences: There are few fences at The Waters, and those that exist are very short – say 2-feet high. Thus, it’s easy to see people in their yards, and it’s also easy to look through yards to other streets and homes.
  • Small Yards (front, back, and side): Houses are very close to the street, so front yards are small or nonexistent. Side and back yards are small as well. This makes it easier for people to see their neighbors when they walk outside their houses.
  • Narrow Streets: It’s very difficult for cars to go speeding through streets in The Waters because they are very narrow. And, because people are often walking on the street, cars often have to stop. Like in many old European cities, pedestrians can rule the streets at The Waters.
  • Integrated Retail Center: Retail shops are integrated into every village plan in an area called “Town Square.” The Waters made sure that a food market + restaurant was at Lucas Point from the beginning, even though there weren’t (and still aren’t) enough residents there to support it. Thus, The Waters subsidizes its food market + restaurant, The Market. Also in Town Square is a YMCA gym. So, residents can buy food products, eat a meal, have a drink, and work out at a gym without getting in their cars.
  • Integrated Recreation Facilities: The Waters boasts tennis courts, lakes with plentiful fish, a play structure, and a swimming pool all within easy walking distance to residences.
  • Kids have a choice of numerous great common spaces.

  • Numerous Great Common Spaces: Courtyards, open fields, docks, and common lake shore land including a sandy beach are very prominent and are well-used by residents.
  • No Cul-de-Sacs: Cul-de-sacs are highly desirable in many suburban towns because they are the only places where cars don’t speed by and endanger pedestrians. However, at The Waters, pedestrians rule over cars pretty much everywhere. So, cul-de-sacs are not needed as a sanctuary for pedestrians, and every house has pedestrians walking by.
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  • Big Porches: Residents live a great deal on their porches, particularly during summer evenings, when it’s not uncommon for neighbors or passers-by to come over and pull up a chair.
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