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We’re Dancing in the Streets Again!

In the treatise on towns and buildings titled, A Pattern Language, by Christopher Alexander and associates, the book advocates for communities where people can dance in the streets and where children can safely roam the neighborhood discovering things on their own.

Some years ago I penned an article expounding on the joy of building a place where families and children have regular opportunities to dance in the streets. Within the 595 acres of the new urban neighborhood of Norton Commons, 25% of the land is dedicated to parks, squares, and civic spaces. The tree-lined streets are maturing and we have numerous opportunities to celebrate civic and cultural activities. Our team of Town Founders experiences the reward of watching people enjoy the place as it grows.

I’m often asked how an active place like Norton Commons reacted to the confinement and closures caused by Covid. Many years ago, I attended a Harvard class taught by Andres Duany called The Technique of Traditional Town Planning. At the outset of the class Duany postulated this idea: “design affects behavior.” Being a skeptical developer, I thought it was a good sales pitch but wasn’t sold yet. Over the next hour, Duany convincingly proved his case, offering numerous examples of memorable public gathering places that we love to experience. From that point, I became a better observer of people and places where people were enjoying themselves and why some worked better than others. Duany and DPZ & Company would design Norton Commons a few years later.

Some observations on how the design of Norton Commons withstood the social changes caused by the challenges of Covid: Prior to Covid, Norton Commons had achieved social interactions and neighborliness not normally seen in most suburban neighborhoods. People were used to gathering with neighbors in open spaces. During Covid, they could easily adapt by bringing masks, lawn chairs, and socially distancing in a circle of friendship.

Families had time to slow down and enjoy being with each other. It was refreshing to see and brought back memories of my own childhood 60-70 years ago. Families out walking together, Mom and Dad not separating to drive the kids to the next practice or event. Countless little girls and boys learning to fish at the amphitheater lake. Residents taking time to experience remote areas of the neighborhood to adapt to places they hadn’t known existed before.

The neighborhood found new ways to adapt spaces for exercise, work, and play. Our amphitheater couldn’t be used for large gatherings but was still a loved and useful place. The stage and steps were used for individual and group exercise with plenty of outdoor space to spread out. I saw children using the stage as a place for original play-acting for parents and friends. The flat seating greens were places for teaching, homework, picnics, outdoor dining, or just a place to get outside and talk. It also became the place to see the sunset.

We couldn’t host our typical litany of large events but we adapted our North Village Market, a pop-up retail cottage area, by holding Food Truck Fridays where there was room for families to bring lawn chairs or a blanket and spread out in the park while eating and listening to a musician. The community was trustworthy because we knew each other. Masked and distanced we continued.

There was trust in knowing our restaurant operators and their staff. We didn’t want to see our restaurants fail, therefore, neighbors demonstrated great loyalty to them. We ordered carry-outs and experienced the daily organized, respectful pick-ups of the mass ordering. Some operators shared that they were doing more business than previous to Covid. Added tipping was the norm to support the help. Relaxed governmental regulations let us expand outdoor seating down the sidewalk and into the town square. Alcoholic drinks could be carried out. Margaritas, bourbon slushes, and bourbon or hot rum ciders were favorites.

Even in the coldest weather, I saw people sitting outside next to portable heaters, sometimes in tents or vinyl igloos to dine and drink. I thought we were becoming heartier people like those who live in Green Bay or such places. A few months ago, in a virtual meeting of the National Town Builders Association (NTBA), Cincinnati-based retail consultant, Kathleen Norris, warned her listeners to be ready when things opened up. At the time we were already feeling the beginning of the rush. Kathleen said people wanted to be waited on, touch products, and speak to live salespeople. Her predictions were correct and we are experiencing crowds larger than before the pandemic. Labor shortages exist, but we are tolerant and happy to see the comeback!

On another note, during the last 18 months, we have experienced the strongest real estate sales period in our history. We have also opened 15 new businesses during Covid. I can only speculate as to the reason for this, perhaps it is because people are tired of being cooped up and desire to live in an urban neighborhood such as Norton Commons.

Norton Commons offers many outdoor places for people to connect or just enjoy nature. Large crowds are happy to be dancing in the streets again with the resumption of the Sunset Thursday Street Parties. We have recently hosted two events, our annual Art Festival – skipped last year due to Covid - and an exotic and collector car show, at our new North Village Square where large crowds were happily enjoying the space.

In closing, common land is an important fundamental to the design and implementation of new urbanism. Pay great attention to the details because the design does affect behavior.

About the Author

David Tomes is a Town Founder of Norton Commons which is a 595 acre planned community eleven miles northeast of Louisville. David served as Co-Chair of the Host Committee for CNU 27, held in Louisville in 2019. He was a member of Metro Louisville’s Planning Commission for twelve years ending in 2020. David is active in the community and charitable life and has served on many boards. He was on the Board of Trustees for Catholic Charities of the United States for six years and chair of Catholic Charities of Louisville for twelve years. He, his wife and four generations of his family all reside in Norton Commons.

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