The Best Towns in the U.S.; The New American Dream Towns
Think Utopia doesn't exist? Maybe not yet — but these ten towns are making a play for perfection with adventure-friendly innovation and cool ideas for building smart communities. Plus the hottest concepts in urban revival, combating sprawl, and better hometown living.
By Mike Grudowski
Welcome to the Neighborhood
We've found a new way of living
IMAGINE YOU HAD THE CHANCE TO INVENT A PERFECT TOWN from scratch. You could choose whatever features you wanted to make it a stimulating and satisfying place to live, and borrow liberally from the best of what other cities have to offer. Anything goes: You might start with French Quarter streets lined with painted-lady Victorians from San Francisco. Maybe a river runs through it, with bridges and banks very much like the Seine's — except for the Class III rapids in the whitewater park downtown. Solar-powered streetcars whisk commuters through lush greenbelts to art deco office towers, whose exterior walls double as climbing gyms. There's free valet parking for bicycles on every block and a free-range chicken in every pot.
Creating an exquisitely livable town, of course, isn't quite that simple. But it's not a fantasy, either. When we combed the country for the sweetest innovations and the freshest ideas for making neighborhoods better places to live, work, and playwith tons of green space, easy access to the outdoors, and big-think visions for smarter, more sustainable everyday livingwe hit the jackpot. Plenty of real American cities, we found, are taking positive steps to soften the rough edges of our high-octane day-to-day. Communities of all sizes are waking up and relearning old lessons: That many residents want the option of walking or biking to get from A to B. That locals will swarm to a town's natural assetsits shoreline or lakefront, riverbank or foothillsif the paths and piers welcome them. And that change starts with a willingness to look hard at your weaknesses and then play to your strengths. Your town's paper-flat, like Davis, California? Build a network of bike lanes and paths. It rains a lot in Portland, Oregon? Transform urban rooftops into gardens of native plants.
To spotlight the new American dream towns, we started with a wish list of criteria: commitment to open space, smart solutions to sprawl and gridlock, can-do community spirit, and an active embrace of the adventurous life. We looked for green design and green-thinking mayors, thriving farmers' markets and healthy job markets. We found it alland then some: ten towns that might tempt you to box up your belongings, plus nine more whose bright ideas are well worth stealing. Check out these shining prototypes for what a 21st-century townwhat your hometown, perhapscan be: cleaner, greener, smarter. Better.
POPULATION: 65,000 // MEDIAN AGE: 25 // MEDIAN HOME PRICE: $333,000 // AVERAGE COMMUTE: 20.6 min.
If more developments resembled Davis's Village Homes project, subdivision might not be such a dirty word. Trees shade the narrow streets, keeping the asphalt (and air) cooler during the hot Central Valley summers than in less enlightened housing tracts. Nearly 75 percent of the community's 225 houses use solar power, reducing furnace heat in the winter. And it's all linked by broad common spaces, winding pathways, and — here's a term you don't hear enough — "edible landscaping": community vineyards and orchards yielding grapes, persimmons, cherries, almonds, and peaches. No town gives more leeway to bicycles: 51 miles of paths and 50 miles of bike lanes (among the first in the nation); special bike-traffic signals at intersections; even BikeTalk on KDRT-FM (K-Dirt). Citizen involvement is high on the list of civic values: Rush hour in Davis, goes a local truism, happens just before 7 p.m., when people are scurrying to their committee meetings.
PROGRESSIVE CRED: If you're tall, dark, and herbaceous, this is your kind of town. Davis maintains a Landmark Tree List and a Master Street Tree List — as well as 31 parks, 20 greenbelts, and a 400-acre man-made wetland. To compensate for every acre of farmland built upon, developers must preserve two acres of comparable land in its place. Culture gets a nod, too: 1 percent of all capital-improvement funds is set aside for public art such as sculptures. And Central Park's year-round farmers' market, says Mitch Sears, Davis's open-space planner, is "a community touchstone."
LIVABILITY: UC Davis, which employs one out of every three residents, keeps the local scene young and diverse. Land trusts, nonprofits, and green research programs, such as the National Institute for Global Environmental Change, abound. Davis's proximity to the Bay Area and the Sierra Nevada means that anything you can do on water, snow, rock, or dirt is never far away.
YOU'LL LOVE IT IF: In the standard American turf wars — bike vs. SUV, farm vs. strip mall — you always root for the underdog.
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