What distinguishes a great neighborhood from the merely meh? It's a difficult question, encompassing everything from physical attributes such as good design to the right number of parks and public places.
Unmistakably, a lot of factors converge to create the perfect neighborhood. Of course, personal taste trumps all. However, according to experts that range from urban planners, to geographers, to well-known architects and real-estate agents, pinpointing the perfect neighborhood is made up of a set of characteristics, not just from a single set of parameters. Neighborhoods are put on the map for buyers or renters because they are a fit to the person's desired features.
Is it a quaint and charming street, good schools or an abundance of interesting shops, restaurants and other diversions? What elements conspire to create great neighborhoods such as Boston's Back Bay or sultry South End?
PEOPLE AND PLACE If you ask public space experts, it's people, not developers, who create the next big place. According to them, it's always a bunch of individuals coming in who think the potential for their community is bigger. Potential neighbors have this feeling that something has happened there and start to do little things that collectively add up to a big thing.
That might include a shoe-repair shop owner sprucing up his storefront, a coin laundry adding an attached coffee shop or a resident putting in a park bench on the corner to allow people to stop and talk. These twists give a signal that something is going on here. Pretty soon other people put a bench on the street. Most of the time, this is when, revitalization and gentrification is born. Take, for example, the Village in the suburb of Brookline.
In many areas across the city, this urban renewal is started by artists - those who need to live cheaply to pursue their craft but want to be close to cultural and physical amenities. Somerville and Davis Square in Cambridge are perfect examples of this.
Not too long ago, these neighborhoods were quite desolate and rundown. Now, it is teeming with life and culture, especially for the hipsters who live out there, and who crave that kind of life. Musicians once exclusively reigned these two neighborhoods, but now most Bostonians are torn between being across the Charles or staying put in Beantown. The move of these artists sparked the beginning of a thriving district.
This is also true for South Boston and the Waterfront area. Districts have sprout out like wildfire in this part of the city, with the Innovation District and the Fort Point Channel leading the pack. Start up companies have espoused growth in the neighborhood, leading the younger folk to follow where the jobs are. For those who remember, this is how the area of Kendall Square / MIT began. Now, the gentrification is moving southward, as space is becoming tighter and tighter in the downtown districts.
Elements that encourage interaction - parks, boardwalks, public plazas and wide sidewalks - serve as people magnets. Best of all are sidewalks on a community's main street that run between café seating and storefront window displays, allowing people to walk dogs, greet neighbors and people watch. Add things such as weekly farmers markets, civic-association pancake breakfasts and multidimensional establishments that offer opportunities to linger, such as a coffee shop with art displays, a lively bulletin board and outdoor café seating, and you've got the beginnings of a great neighborhood hub.
These are the places you take friends and family when you want to show them the neighborhood, city tour guides say, as it's a known fact that people attract people. So when businesses converge in one place, such as a theater, bookstore and art gallery, they give people reason to stick around. Indeed, developers take notice of this, capitalizing on the most important and useful places, such as the local post office, coffee shop or park. The more things that can be clustered around these places, the PPS says, the more central and beloved a neighborhood will become.
LOCATION, LOCATION, LOCATION Of course, few people are going to settle in a neighborhood if it doesn't have access to well-paying jobs. The places that have the most value and that gentrified first were those closest to, or have access to, high-paying jobs. That is why you see neighborhoods revitalized near the subway lines into Fenway's Kenmore and Longwood areas.
True enough, planners say access to good public transportation can turn even some suburbs into hot areas. A study released earlier this year by the American Public Transportation Association and the National Association of Realtors showed that between 2006 and 2011, home values performed 42% better on average if the homes were within a half-mile of public transportation with high-frequency service, such as subway, light rail or bus rapid transit. Residents in those areas had better access to jobs and lower transportation costs, leaving them with more money to enjoy neighborhood amenities. Another perk that transit stations offer is the ability to attract and open retail shops, services and dining, giving some suburbs without a real downtown a place to walk and linger.
LET'S NOT FORGET SCHOOLS By and large, the highest-value home prices in America are found in school districts of very high quality, preferably those with access to high-paying jobs. These areas, such as the Boston commuter suburbs of Newton and Brookline, are the blue-chip stocks of neighborhoods, even for people without kids, because they attract people with higher levels of education, who tend to be more active in preserving community value.
Good schools and walkability are two of the biggest themes in terms of leveraging a neighborhood's marketability. Information for these commuter towns describe and show quaint main streets and residents talking about taking a quick stroll over to parks, bars, shops and theaters in their free time.
And with millennials entering the marketplace, volatile gas prices and fringe suburban home prices in decline, the demand for walkable neighborhoods has outstripped supply in most of the U.S. Walkscore, the online giant community, ranks Boston as the 3rd best city in the country to walk around in. Here's their official survey that ranks the walkability of America's cities and neighborhoods.
GET OUT, STAND OUT Sometimes, a whole host of elements serve as magnets to draw people out of their cars. Items near the top of the list are:
- Short blocks with relatively narrow streets and wide sidewalks.
- Ample windows at eye level that let you see activity or displays inside as well as entryways, courtyards and arcades.
- Human-scale lighting, benches and signs.
- Tree-lined streets that provide a sense of buffer from street traffic and a comfortable canopy overhead.
- Landmarks such as fountains, historic theaters, gazebos or clock towers.
- A complexity of architecture, building materials and color -- at least on the first couple of building levels -- as well as a mix of building uses.
In other words, cookie-cutter big-box stores and row after row of parking lots aren't found in many of America's great neighborhoods. In fact, a neighborhood will draw people if it's providing the opportunity for interaction with a backdrop of design that is enjoyable to look at. And interaction is key to satisfaction in a community. If people are happy and engaged with their community, they are more involved with its activities and work harder to protect it.
THE NEXT GENERATION
Many wonder whether the host of developments that are currently being built in Boston will end up clogging the city and leaving no more room for improvement. To that, we say that many of the best neighborhoods are yet to come, as cities encourage more creative development in urban areas and tend to sprawl outwards to the suburbs. Take for example the South End - it's continuously evolving (and even expanding!) even though it's already a quaint and perfect neighborhood.