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Life and Times of an itinerant slacker in Sacramento. Thrills, Spills Galore coming soon. Not to mention lots of opinions.

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Friday, October 08, 2010

Lessons in Urban Planning – Madison, Wisconsin's Crestwood Neighborhood

Sometimes, "place" is important. Being in a good place can nurture a good life.

I visited my friends J and C in Madison's Crestwood Neighborhood (Officially known as the Wisconsin Co-Op Housing Association Neighborhood). I love visiting here, in this most beautiful neighborhood. I always try to spend a little extra time with J and C at their house.

I had to ask myself why I like being there (beyond the fact that J and C live there). After all, J and C's house is nothing special, actually, it's pretty similar to my house in Sacramento. Around 1,000 square feet, just enough room for a few bookshelves, living room, and kitchen. Everything is in ship shape, because that's J's way. However, that's not it.

Crestwood is located in a leafy part of Madison's near west side, full of wooded parks, hills and narrow meandering streets. The trees are definitely part of the attraction,. But that's still not it. There's something more. A sense of place. As soon as I stepped out of my car, I knew I was somewhere special, somewhere different, yet reminiscent of my childhood summers, spent playing ball and collecting caterpillars in vacant suburban lots. (OK, I spent wasted hours in front of the toob, too).

Crestwood is a neighborhood where the most common sounds are birds flying from feeder to feeder and kids running on grass hooting and giggling and just being goofy like kids do. The light is that calming green aura of sunlight filtered through sprawling trees. It is quiet. It reminds me of wooded campsites in some Wisconsin State parks'

How can a suburban neighborhood feel so pleasingly sylvan? To be honest, I have no idea how the association works, but I can see the how the land is used. I think that's a big part of the story. Crestwood''s individually owned lots are pretty small, and the houses are modest and varied in design . Most lots are heavily wooded. Between each pair of streets a grass area about 20 feet wide runs between the rows of back yards, leading from Bordner road to the wooded parkland behind the neighborhood. These narrow strips of land are used as public play areas for kids and offer an automobile-free route from each house to the wooded park. I remember using the strip behind J and C's house as a cross country skiing express rout to the park one nippy winter day long ago.

I guess the lots could have each been ten feet deeper, and everyone's house could have been that much bigger. They could have planted fewer large trees and poured wider streets with curbs and gutters so prospective home buyers could get that nice, clean, sterile, safe suburban view from the curve that real estate floggers claim sell houses. Maybe almost everywhere else in America, but not here. Yep, I imagine that folks who live here chose to give up the normal architectural paradigm where your house is a badge of success (i.e. , how many gables do you have, I have four, you two - gabled loser).

Here we have a more quiet environment, and the feel of a southern Wisconsin deciduous forest. This is where I go to watch the birds visit J and C's feeder. I always see at least one cardinal. I always leave happy and calm.

There is no other place in Madison where people live and I can feel so connection to his beautiful land,

That's my story and I'm sticking to it.

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