Homegrown Lessons

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I live in a leafy, ravined residential section of Raleigh, North Carolina. Our neighborhood, a couple of miles from downtown and close to a major state university, evokes two policy observations.

First, like other pleasant places I’ve lived in, the neighbor- hood’s initial construction long preceded zoning, so it has the diversity of income and lifestyle that urban planners drool over. Homes include a near-mansion down the street, a low- rise housing project (originally built privately), manufactured duplexes, 1950s-style brick bungalows (some with Colonial pretensions), a smattering of Bauhaus” contemporaries,” and a mix of dignified and humble traditional Southern homes.

To the east is the remnant of a neighborhood built by freed blacks after the Civil War; some of the modest frame houses remain. Thanks to Raleigh’s recent growth and the housing bubble, many of our streets have “infill” (new houses built on scattered empty lots or sites of “tear-downs”). Our own 2007 house sits on two former side yards. Down the street is a 1970s-style commune, the Mayview Collective, where six or so youngish people repair bicycles, raise chickens, and hang their laundry in the front yard.

The policy point: urban planners, who know from reading Jane Jacobs that they want such diversity of streetscape, can’t achieve anything like this. At best, they force developers into weak echoes of “urban design” mantras by mixing income levels and tweaking layouts and ornamentation. Coercion cannot begin to match our kind of diversity.

Another attribute of the neighborhood is the chirping: birds are everywhere. Our small backyard can sound like a jungle, with only the howling monkeys missing. North Carolina’s warm, humid climate nurtures trees and shrubs, which draw birds into noisy theatrical performances. Blue jays swoop across the lawn, cardinals court (or maybe fight), rusty brown thrashers wriggle in the mulch, and industrious robins and wrens build nests and feed offspring. And then there are squirrels, rabbits, and (reportedly) a nearby raccoon.

This policy point? Human beings are compatible with the beauty and fecundity of nature. It’s not a message that the environmentalist “humans are a cancer on the Earth” crowd like to hear. To them, nature requires vast stretches of uninhabited wilderness, set aside by the federal government, of course. But the richness of wildlife in small urban habitats – right under our noses – belies the myth that the human footprint precludes nature. I’d say it celebrates nature, instead.

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