Vermont Traditional Neighborhoods

Tools

Vermont Traditional Neighborhoods

In brief

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.

Summary

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

An essential characteristic of traditional Vermont neighborhoods is a narrow but deep lot. Homes sit close together along the street, but have deep back yards so that there is a balance between accessibility to the public realm and the privacy of one’s own yard. This pattern puts density where it matters – along the street where people can interact or walk or bike to local destinations. Narrow lots often mean that garages will be in the rear. They can be attached or detached, but they will not dominate the streetscape.

To achieve a pattern of narrow and deep lots at walkable densities, consider the following strategies:

  • In village and town centers, zone for densities of approximately 3-8 units per acre for residential areas. Have both a maximum density and a minimum so your community can achieve the desired density to create walkable neighborhoods and smaller homes. Have both maximum and minimum lot widths.
  • Because narrow driveways may not be able to accommodate visiting cars, allow shared driveways, on-street parking and provide occasional guest parking spaces in neighborhoods.
  • Make extensive use of pictures in your town plan and zoning bylaws to illustrate to developers and residents, who may be leery of density, just how a well-designed neighborhood can look.
  • Carefully review zoning ordinances suggested by consultants or other communities. Most zoning ordinances separate uses too much and are overly concerned with making sure cars are accommodated, at the expense of other goals. These ordinances are often borrowed from one community to another even if they are not totally appropriate for every town. Look for ideas from smart growth, livable communities and new urbanist sources.

Architecture that fits and is oriented to the street

Houses designed for a street-focused, pedestrian oriented environment put their most attractive face to the street. They often have architectural detail such as woodwork, railings and decoration and roof pitches that are often steep. Garages are hidden and steps or porches provide an inviting transition from the public arena to the private household.

Some communities that are trying to recreate traditional neighborhoods have detailed design standards to guide architecture. This approach is most commonly used for retail buildings, to prevent look-alike national chain stores. Using tight standards for private homes, except in historic districts, can be criticized for suppressing individuality and increasing costs. However, some basic steps can be taken to guide builders in your town.

  • Ensure buildings have articulation – a variety of colors, textures, materials and rooflines to increase visual interest and help identify individual homes or businesses.
  • Require garages to be level with or behind the front façade of a house.
  • Require parking lots for commercial and civic buildings to be in the rear or to the side.
  • Allow on-street parking.
  • Have maximum as well as minimum setbacks so that houses are not too far from the street. Front lawns from 10 to 25 ft. deep are good for a traditional neighborhood (25 – 35 ft. on arterial streets). If you measure from the property line or the centerline of the street, add the appropriate number of feet to achieve that result.
  • Provide incentives for porches, stoops or patios in front of houses.
  • Allow mixed use buildings such as stores with apartments above.
  • Allow multi-unit structures (up to a limit) on the same size lot as a single family house, with parking in the rear. This allows flexibility, for example, to add a garage apartment or turn a house into a duplex and back again.
  • Provide for alleys behind major streets so that houses and commercial buildings can face the street and sidewalk, but have their vehicle access in the rear. That way there are no driveways interrupting traffic on a busy thoroughfare.
  • Provide a design handbook with pictures of the types of buildings desired.

A range of housing options with a mixture of uses

Traditional Vermont neighborhoods across the state have many buildings that look like large single-family homes that actually contain several apartments, or perhaps a business on the first floor and a couple of apartments upstairs. In recent decades, zoning has tended to separate uses, with one area for multi-family housing, one area for single family housing, one area for commercial uses, etc. This separation of uses fundamentally changes the character of communities and the quality of life of their residents. Although it may seem “messy” to have different types of uses on one street, it is convenient for people walking to work, shopping, school or transit; and it is good for property owners because it lets them respond to the market by turning a building from single to multi family, renting two rooms to a law firm, turning it back into a single family house again, and so on. This flexibility is one reason why so many buildings in old village centers have remained viable and occupied since the early 1800s. There is no reason why new streets and buildings cannot have the same flexibility.

Different housing types also allow a community to meet the needs of residents and serve people of different stages of life and varied income levels. Most young people rent apartments for a few years while they find jobs, or finish their education, and they tend to move frequently. At the same time, retired people and empty-nesters often want to downsize. In a community with a variety of housing options (life-cycle housing), they can do this without leaving their neighborhood too far behind. Kids can bike over to Grandma’s apartment, or visit their older brother a few blocks away.

Providing for different income levels is also important. Many affluent suburbs agonize over the fact that there is no place for teachers, firefighters, waiters and nurses to live. Small Vermont also struggle with this issue, but the availability of apartments and varying sized homes helps provide for safe housing for all members of the community.

Your community should consider some of the following techniques for maintaining a variety of housing options:

  • Allow multi-unit structures on the same size lot as a single family house. Requiring larger lots for multi-family dwellings limits the flexibility to change a building’s use.
  • Permit garage apartments and granny flats. (Tool: Accessory Apartments)
  • Allow mixed use buildings such as stores or offices with apartments above.
  • Use creative parking options such as shared parking which allows the same parking space count for a business that is open during the day and adjacent apartments where residents park mainly at night.
  • Permit on-street parking.
  • Require developers to provide different housing types close to each other or intermingled.

People-centered neighborhood design

Traditional Vermont neighborhoods retain their real estate value and are desirable places to live and locate a business in part because cars take a back seat to people. The three most important people-centered design features of these neighborhoods are placement of garages behind the houses (sometimes with alleys or shared driveways), narrow streets with on-street parking to help slow traffic, and an integrated sidewalk network to make walking just as easy as (or easier than) driving.

In a commercial area designed for pedestrians, shops are near the sidewalk and they let shoppers know what they have by displaying their wares in the windows. By contrast, in a suburban highway strip, stores are at the back of parking lots, use large signs to let shoppers know what they have, and use predictable layouts that are the same in every town. These suburban strips feel very hostile and unsafe to pedestrians.

Your community can accommodate cars but not let them dominate the design of a community. Consider these techniques to achieve people-centered neighborhood design:

  • Maintain a connected street network instead of cul-de-sacs, loops and dead ends.
  • Use traffic calming measures to keep drivers from speeding through residential areas. These measures include islands in the middle of intersections, curb bump-outs at corners, curving streets, trees along the edge of the road, etc.
  • Require garages to be level with or behind the front façade of a house.
  • Require parking lots for commercial and civic buildings to be in the rear or to the side.
  • Allow on-street parking.
  • Keep streets narrow. Pedestrians should be able to comfortably cross a commercial street even if it means not putting in turn lanes. (One travel lane and one left turn lane in each direction can be accommodated, but right turn “slip lanes” are particularly discouraging for pedestrians.) Residential streets less than 30 ft. wide are usually fine. There is a common misperception that wider streets are safer, when actually narrower streets cause drivers to slow down, reducing the potential for accidents and injury.
  • Require sidewalks on at least one side of residential streets and both sides of commercial or mixed-use streets.
  • Use pedestrian/bike bridges and paths to provide alternative routes for non-motorized travel.

Landscaping and areas that encourage social interaction

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.

Connected Streets

A well-connected network of streets can provide greater mobility and access and provide shorter, more direct routes between destinations. This greater mobility considers pedestrians, bikers, transit riders and automobiles. During times of congestion or construction, drivers have more opportunities to switch to different routes and avoid delay. This is especially important for emergency responders as they need the fastest, most direct route to a fire or medical emergency. Networked streets also encourage intra-area trips to occur on local streets instead of arterials or highways. Poorly-networked streets typically concentrate local traffic on a few arterials because there is no other route available—but highly-networked streets can keep local traffic on local streets. This preserves capacity on arterials and highways for more regional trips.

According to the Congress for New Urbanism, highly-connected networked streets can help the nation address climate change and reduce energy consumption. A system of compact blocks and streets increases the opportunities for other modes of travel, such as walking, bicycling, and taking transit. As more trips are done without an automobile, the number of vehicle miles traveled can decrease, in turn reducing the amount of energy consumed and greenhouse gas emissions.

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.

Note: 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

Resources

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.



Browse or Search the Toolbox