Landscaping and Areas that Encourage Social Interaction

Pocket park with community garden, in Burlington.

Street trees and other landscaping features are critically important to compact neighborhood design. If both buildings and lots are modest in size, the street itself becomes a public space that people use for socializing, and trees are a substantial part of what makes that public space work. Shade, beauty and a sense of enclosure are all elements that trees bring to a public space.

Front yard gardens are another aspect of compact neighborhoods that are interesting to observe. When front yards are small, people are more motivated to turn them into gardens. The gardens make walking along the street more pleasant, thus encouraging more walking. With more people walking and others out working in their gardens, the chance of casual meetings is greatly increased.

Is it “social engineering” to design neighborhoods that facilitate interaction among neighbors? When traditional Vermont villages were first built, walking and social interaction were taken for granted, and planned for with village greens, pocket parks and civic buildings incorporated into the town center. Post-war suburban development had many features purposely designed to “socially engineer” privacy: large lots and deep setbacks, lack of front porches, lack of windows on the sides of houses, garages in front, lack of sidewalks, unconnected streets, separation of residential areas from other land uses. Unfortunately, some of these features were codified in zoning and subdivision ordinances, so it is hard to change them even when we realize that these regulations are not creating the balance between public and private space. Many towns find that their current ordinances prohibit them from recreating their most beloved neighborhoods. When we step back from these rules, we are really un-doing the social engineering of the last generation, which was designed to limit social interaction. We are building on the best traits of Vermonters, to trust and enjoy each other.

To enhance the landscaping in your town,

  • Plant trees in public boulevards. When power poles take up that space, plant shorter trees on that side and taller shade trees on the other side of the street. (Tool: Street Trees)
  • Require developers to plant a tree in front of each house.
  • Plant gardens in public spaces such as traffic islands and in front of public buildings.
  • Use rain gardens instead of storm sewers in relatively flat neighborhoods. Rain gardens are designed to absorb runoff water so that it can soak into the ground and be absorbed by plants.
  • Create well-defined open space. Central courtyards, gardens and parks, with windows that look out on them, create safe, semi-private spaces.
  • Encourage well-designed central amenities like playgrounds, pocket parks or community gardens instead of locating these on the project periphery.
  • Other design features already discussed such as garages in the rear, front porches, a mixture of uses and landscaping, also create opportunities for community members to meet and catch up.