Urban Neighborhoods: A Few Thoughts

November 19, 2010

As we were beginning to think about moving to Austin, I plotted every new church I could find on a map. We wanted to have a sense of what was happening where. The map ended up working out a lot like I anticipated it would. There were a handful of new churches gathering in the center of the city, around downtown. Then there were a ring of churches around the edges in the growing suburbs. There were a few other churches in between, but for the most part, it looked like the churches were outlining a donut shape. From talking with others, I know that this is common in other cities as well.

That map has changed in recent years here in Austin. A few churches have focused on this donut area — an area that I call urban neighborhoods. The word urban often brings to mind dense population and walking or public transit as primary transportation. Suburban brings to mind large housing tracts, big box stores and parking lots. But less characterized are these neighborhoods between the two. I’ve spent much of the last two years trying to understand the make-up of these urban neighborhoods, and been in many conversations about them. Here are a few general characterizations I’ve put together:

  • The urban neighborhoods are often still in the city proper, but not dense. Often, they were built after the rise of the automobile, so they are built around a car culture and look like the suburbs. This is the kind of neighborhood we live in in North Austin. They aren’t always in the primary city of a metro area — reflecting back to our time in Phoenix, I would say Tempe as I remember it feels more like urban neighborhoods than suburbs.
  • People living in urban neighborhoods value proximity to all the city has to offer. They are willing to pay more for less house to have that proximity if it means 30 minutes less commute to work or 15 minutes less driving to an event on the weekend.
  • People are more likely to drive inward than outward. Our neighborhood was right on the edge of Austin 40 years ago, and there are a number of churches built on the road alongside our neighborhood as the denominations saw the city growing. One of the pastors I’ve talked to from one of these churches noted that most of the people in their church don’t live in our neighborhood though maybe they used to. Most have moved further north in Austin, to a more favorable school district, or on to the suburbs.
  • This might be more true in Austin than some cities, but it’s almost assumed you lean left politically. We saw very few McCain stickers or yard signs in 2008, and the day after the election, most conversations in my favorite coffee shop operated on an assumption everyone voted for Obama. Even though Texas is considered a red state, the urban districts of all the major cities were blue in that election.

There are more thoughts, even less formed than these that I’ll work out in time. I’m curious what the experiences are like of others who live in the urban neighborhoods of other cities. What is common to these areas regardless of city, and what can we learn from each other?

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