Last week, my colleague from The Cort Group and I had the pleasure of visiting two groups of Stockton-area students at Venture Academy and The First Fifty to discuss cities and urbanism. Our plan was to teach these students about the fundamental characteristics of great neighborhoods and cities. I anticipated that much of our time would be spent debunking the myths that freeways, strip malls and tract housing are synonymous with municipal prosperity. Instead, it turns out that even though the majority of kids in Stockton live in unwalkable, uncharismatic neighborhoods, they intuitively understood the basic tenants of urban design and how walkability and public spaces make for the best communities.
As part of our presentation, we asked the students to split into groups and design what they felt the perfect community should look like from a bird’s eye view, covering one to two miles. What would the roads look like? Would there be places to eat? What kinds of homes should there be? The results were both amusing and pleasantly surprising.
I went into this exercise with the expectation that the groups would come up with communities anchored by mega malls, lines of homes, gated subdivisions and freeways crisscrossing the city, but thankfully they proved me wrong. What made an ideal city in their eyes turned out to be parks, affordable housing and restaurants/shops in close proximity.
To our delight, each group placed a large park or town square in the middle of their communities, noting that they wanted places where people could get together and hang out (many said that their own neighborhoods lacked this quality). Generally, each central public space was surrounded by businesses and homes. Schools were placed near restaurants and shops so that they could be easily accessed by foot. There were bike lanes and crosswalks. A few of these groups even made it a point to include a mix of housing types, incoporating single family homes as well as apartments and low-income housing. One student even said he would use his own house for homeless children (the same student also mentioned that his house would be adjacent to Nicki Minaj’s).
To be sure, cars were still part of the equation. Gas stations were included as well as some areas for parking. But the students made it clear that while they wanted space for cars, they did not want residents in their communities to be dependent on them. They wanted people to use cars when they wanted to, not because they had no other choice.
In addition to solid design, the students incorporated some rather hilarious elements to their cities, of course. One group featured “Turn Down for What Hospital,” after the hit Lil Jon single. There was also the high end French restaurant named “Le Food,” and one local college was dubbed “Hashtag University.” And don’t forget the Post Office, “where people go to post up,” as one student described. But it was where these landmarks were placed in relation to other areas that revealed the groups’ keen awareness of the problems facing Stockton.
Before we started the mapping exercise, we asked each student about the neighborhoods they lived in and what they liked and disliked about it. Several students noted that they had nothing to do in their area and needed a car to get to anywhere fun. One student lamented the lack of sidewalks, while another said that while she lived in a newer neighborhood up north, no one talked to their neighbors and there was no sense of community. Moreover, two kids learned that day that they actually live in the same neighborhood.
With these issues in mind, the students created places that would be much better at fostering human interaction and providing equitable housing situations. None of their neighborhoods looked like anything built in Stockton over the past 50 years, which is interesting because newer subdivisions frequently feature pictures of happy neighbors while advertising “community” in their marketing. These kids weren’t fooled, however, and they understood that new homes and gated communities don’t equal strong neighborhoods.
In addition to creating their ideal communities, the students also showed support for a better Stockton. When asked who would be willing to live downtown, well over half of the students raised their hands. And while most said they planned to leave Stockton at some point, many also said they want to come back. Hopefully, by that time, we will have invested in better communities worth coming back to.