When Lynn Rossy moved back to Columbia 13 years ago, she said she drove around town like a maniac.
After living in San Francisco and Los Angeles, cruising casually was not in her nature.
“It finally dawned on me: It only takes 10 minutes to get across town,” said Rossy, now 48 and a clinical psychologist who founded the Mindfulness Practice Center at MU. “It won’t take me an hour to get somewhere.”
At age 35, Rossy chose to move back in with her parents in Columbia, where she could start the doctoral psychology program at MU. The affordability of a quality education was her motivation, but the sense of community in her hometown was a welcome relief.
Rossy was seeking a larger life in a smaller town — and Columbia, it seems, might be an ideal place to find it, if you believe in Top 10 lists. The city has been cited on enough “best of” line-ups — best college town to retire, best small city in America, most healthy place to live — that Columbia could be crowned a virtual mecca for those seeking to settle down without settling for less.
In August, Rich Karlgaard, the publisher of Forbes magazine and one of its three editorial columnists, put Columbia on another list: Top 10 Porch-Swing Communities in the United States.
The title isn’t meant to be taken literally. Karlgaard said a porch-swing community is distinguished by family-oriented activities, good schools and the hometown feel of its neighborhoods, not by the furniture dangling in front of its houses.
In his newest book, “Life 2.0: How People Across America are Transforming Their Lives by Finding the Where of Their Happiness,” Karlgaard hypothesizes that metropolitan dwellers are (or will be) flocking to cozy communities like Columbia to find peace.
Porch-swing towns are marked by seven characteristics: easy accessibility; cheap cost of living; high job availability; strong K-12 education; neighborhood friendliness; family activities; and that incalculable “Norman Rockwell” atmosphere. They enjoy good health care and low crime rates. They’ve got sports and cultural events and places to exercise.
Columbia fits the description on all counts, Karlgaard said in a recent phone interview.
Architect and MU professor Michael Goldschmidt said the porch-swing label is on target. Sort of.
It fits the neighborhoods that grid MU and downtown, but not the suburban areas on the perimeter, said Goldschmidt, who teaches classes on psychological and environmentally sensitive neighborhood design.
Neighborhoods built in the early 20th century were marked by grids of narrow streets, where houses with large porches faced one another, Goldschmidt said. The design invited residents to keep what Goldschmidt called “eyes on the street,” a sociological term for watching neighborhood surroundings.
The result was a safer, child-friendly community.
“In porch-swing communities, yes, they enjoy the porches, but they also look at the neighborhood. They know when houses are falling apart, when kids are out drinking,” he said. “They know that there’s a new person in the neighborhood to welcome.”
The older neighborhoods around MU — such as North Central, East Campus and Benton-Stephens – have a high density of housing and, with few exceptions, front porches, said Goldschmidt, who worked at Peckham & Wright Architects in Columbia before teaching at MU.
But in Douglass Park, north of Broadway, the Rev. Ray Warren says his neighborhood isn’t the kind of community where neighbors congregate on each other’s doorsteps.
The pastor of Mount Celestial Baptist Church grew up in Columbia and attended Douglass High School. He said he has lived 27 years in his home in the predominantly black Douglass Park area, and the houses around him have been occupied by an endless cycle of people.
“There is not a lot of personal ownership,” said Warren, who is acting president of the Douglass Park Neighborhood Association. “And lack of ownership creates lack of porch-swinging folks.”
Suburban building began in earnest after World War I, liberating people from the crowded, unhealthy conditions of city life. But the spurt of cookie-cutter neighborhoods also created problems. Traffic increased. Garages were built in front of homes, blocking residents’ views of their streets. American city planners designed larger roads and smaller sidewalks.
Neighbors’ houses ceased to face each other, and porches became nothing more than pieces of covered concrete, Goldschmidt said. In a suburban neighborhood, the sum of most interaction became waving to neighbors from inside your car, he said.
Like the rest of the United States, Columbia experienced the boom of suburban life.
While Columbia’s pollution, traffic and congestion might not be on the same scale as in other cities with suburban sprawl, the city’s expansion nonetheless typifies a consequence of suburbia — fewer porch-swing neighborhoods.
Since 1992, the local population has grown from 70,490 to 90,066, according to city statistics. 2000 U.S. Census data indicates Columbia’s population has grown by 22.3 percent in 10 years.
One solution was to go back to the old design.
New Urbanism focuses on planning neighborhoods that boast the qualities that once prevailed in community design: houses facing narrower streets, more green space, wider sidewalks, town squares and, spacious porches big enough for six to eight people.
Goldschmidt said New Urbanism has come slowly to Columbia. Only one traditional neighborhood — The Village of Cherry Hill — exists within city boundaries. Another neighborhood, NewTown, rests on the city’s southern edge on Route K.
In the Village of Cherry Hill at Scott Boulevard and Chapel Hill, residents must adhere to a building design code, said Don Ginsburg, one of the neighborhood’s developers. Houses must sit no more than 15 feet from the street. Front porches are encouraged, and garages must be built behind residences. Cherry Hill boasts a restaurant, bakery and dentist’s office within walking distance of homes. A town square with an immaculately white gazebo is the neighborhood’s centerpiece.
All 69 Cherry Hill residential lots were sold as of last year, Ginsburg said.
The city encourages building traditional neighborhoods, but there has been mostly typical suburban, single-family home development, said Chuck Bondra, acting director of the city’s Planning and Developing Department.
“It just seems to be what the Realtors are marketing, seems to be what the market calls for, more than anything,” said Bondra, noting there has been more development than ever in Columbia this year.
According to the latest Census data, total housing units in Columbia have risen by 30 percent, from 27,551 units in 1990 to 35,916 in 2000.
Goldschmidt said the city is at a crossroads.
He said the city is approaching the point where the smartest development move might be to “infill” — to build in lesser-developed pockets inside a city — rather than to expand on its perimeter.
“I think if we continue to develop the way we developed in the late 20th century, we’re heading in the wrong direction,” he said. “If we look back at how the cities were developed 100 years ago and look at why those worked and continue to design what I call sustainable neighborhoods — porch-swing communities — then we’re going to be OK.”
Rossy chose the calm of Columbia over the West Coast bustle that left her feeling lost.
“I’ve never looked back,” Rossy said. “If you’re spending a lot of your time commuting from work or just trying to take care of your daily living activities, you don’t have time to actually enjoy those connections and relationships that make up some of the most important aspects of one’s life.”