I’m hunting for the perfect (American) place to live. I have no reason to believe that one exists, except that I can’t accept that it doesn’t. So, what am I looking for?
Well, I suppose I don’t know myself exactly, but some guidelines that I pursue in the meantime:
- Somewhere between 15,000 and 100,000 people. This is tricky, because there are so many ways that these populations get counted. I’ve lived in places where the town’s borders don’t discernibly end, instead flowing continuously into the next jurisdiction. And I’ve lived places where the town’s borders loosely correspond to failing density. I want to live in a place where I feel like I’m able to contribute meaningfully to the community, which in my mind puts a cap on the size. On the other hand, there need to be enough people to sustain interesting public life and recreation; once again, I’ve made a guess that corresponds to the minimum necessary population for those ends.
- Neighborhood schools. I don’t have kids, but my wife and I would very much like to have kids. And if we don’t like the idea of driving ourselves, it seems unlikely that child-taxi driver is the role for either of us.
- Bike-able commute to work. This one is very hard to nail down, since I’ll probably be shifting careers entirely in about five years. My current job doesn’t seem to be compatible with my long-term goals, but it’s smarter for me to stay put, for the time being.
- Reasonably near my family, all of whom currently live in Virginia or Pennsylvania
- Temperate weather, with seasons.
- I dislike the Southeast’s weather enormously for the feeling of cabin fever that persists for 6 months.
- Coastal California is nice, but the lack of seasons is hard for me. I like to tell the time of year by things other than tourist volume and wave height.
- Things I’ve heard about Colorado are appealing, but it’s pretty far away from family.
- Minnesota and Wisconsin, like CO, sound interesting but for the distance from family. I’ve never been to either, except for a long drive across the Southern edge of both, where windmills seem to outnumber people.
- I could see myself in the mountains of VA, NC, or TN, or going North to PA, Ohio, or possibly NY. Those are not out-of-control far away from family.
Before I go any further, I should say that I like my hometown of Waynesboro, VA. It’s out in the mountains of VA, about 95 miles West of Richmond. My wife and I both come from Waynesboro, although my wife’s parents have since moved to Richmond for work. (At our insistence, they chose to live in the urban areas, which they’ve come to love, rather than in the suburbs.)
What’s nice about Waynesboro? It has excellent weather, if not a little sparse on snow; the mountains are all around, and hiking is easily accessible; the town still has neighborhood schools (after narrowly avoiding a new mega-high school plan); the scale (~21,000) seems nice to me; and it has active rail right-of-way, which is about as good as transportation infrastructure gets, when you don’t live on the coast or in an area with canals. It’s also where my parents live, and only a 90-minute drive away from where my wife’s parents live. Finally, Waynesboro has some stuff that I would consider to be ‘good bones’.
Here is a map of Waynesboro’s core, where I define core loosely to show school locations. The high school is at 1, in the middle of the map, where it should be. 2 is the middle school: not centered like you might hope, but still a reasonable 25 minute walk that I remember making when I’d miss the bus. 3, 4, and 5 are neighborhood elementary schools.
The picture isn’t as pretty when I show the whole map of Waynesboro:
Turns out, Waynesboro has a lot of land, most (ok, all) of it sparsely developed. It’s on the spread-out edge of reasonable in the area I showed first. There are rectangular blocks, and generally hints that people lived here even before there were cars. Unfortunately, things don’t look so good as you move outward. Familiar story, right?
If I had my pick, the town would be focused around this highlighted area. As you can see, it’s 1.23 square miles (787 acres). For the current population of 21000, in 8900 households, that would be 11.3 dwellings per acre. This is compared to the average of 0.92 dwellings per acre that currently exists in the city. Jeff Speck states in Walkable City that 10-20 dwellings per acre marks the threshold of walkability. Just take my word for that, at this point. So, what does that look like?
Here’s a link that does a good job of addressing the spectrum of densities. Here’s their demonstration of 9.7 dwellings per acre:
Come to think of it. 11.3 dwellings per acre isn’t really that demanding. It’s on the border between single-family and attached town homes. If you’re thinking ‘you call that density??’: believe me, this lot/block size would be a marked improvement for Waynesboro. When you subtract away the non-residential areas, you’re left with a little less housing area in the plot I drew:
There wasn’t a lot of thought that went into these boundaries. I just took the areas that are residential, more or less. Now we’re down to 340 acres. Dividing up our 8900 households yields a hair over 26 dwellings per unit. Falling back on the same site:
A couple of things come to mind at this point. First of all, we can probably let people stay a bit more spread out. The land may not be worth enough that people would live in quite these tight quarters. Also, we should, at this point, reevaluate the possibility that some of the commercial areas that I left off the map will actually become multi-use with residential in this fantasy world of mine, so perhaps we don’t need to be quite so dense after all.
In any case, it’s not any incredible density I’m talking about here.
Needless to say, this isn’t a full story. Expect more.