Suburbs with a hometown feel

YOUNGSTOWN -- A marker at U.S. Route 224 and Market Street notes the spot as Boardman Center.
But Philip Langdon didn't get the sense he'd arrived anywhere in particular as he drove U.S. Route 224 between Canfield and Poland.
The changing nature of suburbs means many need a better sense of place, said Langdon, a noted author and speaker on urban and suburban redevelopment.
Items as simple as uniform roadside landscaping or a grassy median on Route 224 would give residents and visitors a more comfortable feeling, he said.
"It makes you feel like you're in a place instead of passing by," Langdon said.
Langdon, who grew up in Greenville, Pa., is senior editor of New Urban News. The nationwide publication focuses on New Urbanism, a concept centering on more comfortable places to live. Characteristics include compact neighborhoods featuring a mix of housing and business.
Langdon gave two presentations in the area last week on how cities are rebuilding and how suburbs can be more livable.
Design needs to reflect the change in suburbs from bedroom communities to areas where people live most of their lives, he said. That means a return to town centers where people can gather.
"That's one thing missing in post-war suburbs," Langdon said.
Achieving that means smaller developments with a variety of housing types right for younger people, families and older couples and singles. Businesses near housing are on the street and within walking distance of nearby residents, creating gathering places.
Older communities have an advantage in such revivals because they were designed that way originally, Langdon said
Canfield and Poland are keeping their town centers comfortable, he said. Canfield has its green and Poland has a new library, nearby condominiums and a chain drugstore made to fit the village's character.
The library particularly serves the village well, he said. The library is on the street near the village center, follows local architecture, incorporates a vintage 1846 building and includes a caf & eacute; that is a prominent gathering place.
"It contributes to the continuity of the street and community," Langdon said.
Already-built suburbs can embrace town centers, too, he said.
An example is Westford Centre, a proposed $186 million development in Canfield off Route 224 between Raccoon and Tippecanoe roads. The project is a mix of 400 homes and condominiums, offices and shops and even a golf course.
"It happens one community at a time and takes a lot of effort, but it's really necessary," Langdon said.
Often, individual developers wanting to try something new are the prime movers in New Urbanism, he said.
Communities, however, need to be ready for such opportunities, he said. For example, local officials need to set aside space for mixed-use developments and be flexible with zoning changes that make them possible.
Local governments can spearhead New Urbanist developments but it's harder, he said.
"If the community does it, it takes quite a while. But there are places that have done it," he said.
Regardless, successful redevelopment in cities or suburbs takes years to achieve, he said, easily a decade or more.
Meanwhile, Langdon said Youngstown finally appears to be headed toward redevelopment success.
Youngstown doesn't feature strengths of other successfully redeveloped cities such as a strong economy, low crime or metropolitan cooperation. But it does have a few essential tools: turn-of-the-century industrial charm and better recent focus on planning via Youngstown 2010 and Youngstown State University, he said.
"You're in a good position to capitalize on that," Langdon said. "You have a lot of opportunities."
The city's urban feel is appealing to a range of people, he said. Youngstown 2010 and the proposed redevelopment of Smoky Hollow into a New Urbanist, mixed-use neighborhood are strategies to tap that, he said.
Universities such as YSU have been vital to redevelopment in places such as Providence, R.I., he said. Schools bring diversity and activity that can sustain residential and business development, he said.
Reopening Federal Street to traffic is a good move for downtown, Langdon said, though the execution may have been a bit misguided.
The expansive concrete and minimal benches and landscaping in the center don't feel comfortable, he said. Softer materials and more landscaping would ease that harshness, he said.
That's not a big problem, though, Langdon said. Communities rarely make the perfect move the first time, he said. The city likely will do a better job in five or 10 years when it again comes time to perk up the street, he said.
"They learn a step at a time," Langdon said.

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