Vermont Traditional Neighborhoods


Fifty years ago, a typical neighborhood in Vermont was designed for people. There were single family homes of varying sizes as well as multiple family homes along with smaller cottages, duplexes and townhomes. Often these neighborhoods had shops, schools and places of worship an easy walk away. Houses sat side by side with their front doors close to the sidewalk and street. You could sit out on your front steps or porch on a hot summer evening and talk to your neighbors. Your garage, if you had one, was set at the back of your house. If you drove downtown, you parked close to your destination, not in an extensive parking lot. While in some parts of the country, small villages and downtowns have faded away and become ghost towns, Vermonters have kept their local stores, opera houses and Main Street shops alive. These neighborhoods can provide a guide for communities as they work to ensure homes are affordable, provide mobility options, and maintain lively town centers.


Vermonters are proud of their town centers; many people want to live there and they attract residents and visitors alike. Tree-lined streets, front porches and sidewalks make these areas attractive and inviting. This traditional settlement pattern changed with the suburban movement, resulting in design changes based on the automobile instead of people. Houses were placed farther apart on larger lots and garages migrated to the front of houses. The new ranch-style home was designed to facilitate movement from the dining room to a backyard patio for outdoor entertaining. Front porches disappeared as the living focus was on the backyard and privacy became a major architectural goal. As cars became more prominent, lot sizes continued to increase as the need for access to stores and schools on foot became unnecessary.

New schools were built on the edge of town where large tracts of land were available to meet new regulations for playgrounds and fields. Children were less able to easily walk to school. Stores and other venues also became larger, and were set back surrounded by a sea of parking. Even when townhouses and condos became popular, they were built to retain the same overall feel of a suburban development designed for cars.

After a few decades of the modern suburban design, people began to realize that the advantages of the traditional pattern had faded away: the walkability, affordable housing options, the sense of community, and the option of using a car or not for local trips.

We offer some suggestions for ways municipalities can bring back the advantages of traditional neighborhood design in new development by integrating key design principles into town plan and bylaws. They include (click on each to learn more):

Homes on Narrow Lots: Walk around your favorite Vermont downtown or village center and look at the lots. Many are narrow, but deep, with the public interaction and activity centered on the street.

Architecture that Fits and is Oriented to the Street: When integrating a new project into an existing neighborhood or creating a new neighborhood, attention to the project’s architecture and orientation is key to ensuring new fits into the existing neighborhood.

A Range of Housing Options; A Mixture of Uses: When analyzing the featured case study communities, many of the blocks had a mixture of housing types as well as uses. This allows for flexibility and provides housing and economic opportunities for residents.

People Centered Neighborhood Design: Our traditional Vermont neighborhoods work well in part because cars take a back seat to people. The scale of the buildings, the layout of the streets and many other factors work together to create people focused communities that make us feel safe and welcome.

Landscaping and areas that Encourage Social Interaction: Plants, trees and shrubs provide shade, beauty, visual interest and even food in our town centers. A lack of greenery can create monotonous projects. Well-designed open space, central amenities and living areas in the front of homes, like porches and front stairs, provide opportunities for social interaction.

Connected Streets: As connectivity increases, travel distances decrease and route options increase. This allows for more direct travel between destinations.

We also have provided a more extensive resources section to provide resources, especially visual examples of each of these design elements to help as you review projects and create new bylaws.

In trying to determine what are the key design components of Vermont’s traditional neighborhoods, volunteers and staff at Smart Growth Vermont documented various dimensional and design components of existing neighborhoods in Bristol, Vergennes, Orwell and Burlington. Thus, these case studies are a bit different than other case studies in this Toolbox. They document existing features in order for communities to integrate planning regulations into their bylaws based on town centers in Vermont.

Related Case Studies


Campoli, Julie and Alex S. MacLean. Visualizing Density. 2007.

Additional information about Rain Gardens.

The Institute for Transportation Engineers has developed two recommended practice guidelines: “Traditional Neighborhood Development Street Design Guidelines” (1999) and “Neighborhood Street Design Guidelines” (2003). These are available through ITE’s bookstore.

Congress for the New Urbanism. Connected Network Designations for the Economic Stimulus Package. January, 12, 2009.

Victoria Transport Policy Institute. TDM Encyclopedia. Creating More Connected Roadway and Pathway Networks.