When we originally purchased our house in the Allandale neighborhood of Austin, it seemed really far from just about everything.  The neighborhood demographic was well above the median age for Austin – in fact, many of the original owners still lived in these homes.  But as growth in Austin exploded, the face of Allandale changed.  More young families moved to the neighborhood, home values escalated, and it has become one of the most successful residential areas in the city.  Obviously, the three rules of real estate are in play here: location, location and location.  The reason for the popularity and rise in home values is attributable, in part, to its proximity to downtown.  But there are other neighborhoods that are close to the center of the city that are not as successful in maintaining property value growth.  After living in this neighborhood for seventeen years, I have come to recognize a few things that are responsible for its success, and I believe it offers some insight in developing new communities.

The underlying concept that makes Allandale so successful is community connectivity – a concept which is embodied in different ways:

  • Physical connection – to people, goods, and services in the neighborhood
  • Virtual connection – with the regularly-distributed newsletter and the active list-serve forum
  • Civic connection – fostered through schools, a community center, a library, several churches, and major events such as the Fourth of July parade and picnic.

However, the number one thing I see that fosters a strong sense of connectivity in Allandale is direct conversation between neighbors.  This direct conversation happens frequently when people just happen to run into one another outside.  Whether they are out with the dog, going for a bike ride, jogging, or simply traveling from point A to point B, there is a surprising number of people out on the streets in this neighborhood.

There is also a surprising amount of information traded by these neighbors in face-to-face conversation.  My personal survey revealed that most of them get their information about what is going on in the neighborhood by talking to people while they are outside.  This is how they learn when a friend or neighbor is in the hospital, is having a yard sale, needs help with a garden, or is having a baby.  This personal interaction further enables people to act in ways that foster connectivity – they visit that neighbor in the hospital, or take a casserole to the family with a newborn baby down the street.  This idea of word-of-mouth interaction in neighborhoods was recently supported by a nationwide study conducted by the Pew Research Center and the Knight Foundation.  The study found that 55% of people surveyed received their local news by word of mouth.  This percentage was higher than other forms of information such as newspapers, radio or the internet, and second only to local television news.

Based on the way that people share information in Allandale, it would stand to reason that the neighborhood must be very walkable.  Though residents do walk a lot, Allandale presents an interesting paradox: there are almost no sidewalks.  Allandale was largely developed in the early 1950’s , when city code did not require sidewalks.  The few sidewalks that do exist in the neighborhood were added in the 1990’s along major thoroughfares like Shoal Creek Boulevard and near schools.  So in a neighborhood of approximately 8,000 residents, why are so many people comfortable walking in the street?  In this case, the answer is not so much how the streets were designed – it is how the streets were planned.  The following five features of Allandale address important concepts we should consider when planning future neighborhoods:

  1. Walking can get you somewhere.  Allandale is less than 1 mile east to west.  Its entire eastern border is commercial development and part of the number 3 city bus route.  So you can pretty much walk to most things – either directly or by using the bus.  This immediate adjacency to retail and transit can’t always be provided immediately in new projects, but it can be planned for.
  2. Community spaces are located for pedestrian accessibility.  Most schools, parks, and public buildings are located on local streets – not through streets.  All of these spaces have multiple points of entry for pedestrians in the neighborhood.  In many new communities, these spaces are found on major roadways that are easy to find and access with a car.  As a result, pedestrians will likely have to cross a busy street to get there, which begins to limit the number of people willing to walk to these areas.
  3. There are a limited number of through streets overall.  With the exception of FM 2222 that cuts through the neighborhood, there are only two east-west streets and one north-south street that traverse the neighborhood.  This has the effect of limiting the amount of vehicular traffic and making it feel safe to walk around.
  4. Walking can get you somewhere, Part II.  In a 1,300 acre area with 8,000 people and only three through streets, there are only eight dead ends/cul-de-sacs.  When you walk in Allandale, you can meander and loop to get where you are going (or back to where you started). You can choose the same route or pick a different one.  This configuration makes walking very popular in this neighborhood.
  5. Walking Begets Walking.  In Allandale there is always someone walking.  The mailman walks door to door.  The meter reader walks.  The sales people and petition carriers walk.  Elementary students walk to school with their parents.  There are lots of dogs that get walked.  The more people see other people walking, the more they are comfortable with walking themselves.  The more drivers see people walk, the more they change their driving habits to accommodate the walkers.  Pretty soon you end up with a walking community…whether or not the neighborhood was actually designed to be walkable.

Now, I’m certainly not advocating for neighborhoods without sidewalks or for walking in the street.  But as we have seen across Austin, the mere existence of a sidewalk does not mean a neighborhood is walkable.  I think Allandale presents an interesting case for many of the other components of walkability – all of which boil down to good neighborhood planning.

Walking benefits the health of the individual, but more importantly, it has the ability to contribute to the health of the overall community.  It can foster connections between people that may not happen otherwise.  Those connections can lead to a level of interaction that makes living in a particular neighborhood more meaningful, and the neighborhood itself more successful.