Diversity Road

I spent last Wednesday morning working in the profoundly pleasant Prairie Cafe in Middleton Hills. This is the kind of unassuming place that you’d assume would make really first-rate breakfast and soups and maybe a heavily besprouted chicken-salad sandwich, but where you might hesitate to order a hot lunch. In fact, the corned beef hash, while homemade, was just so-so, while the reuben was really first-rate. The cold black-bean and corn salad that came alongside in lieu of coleslaw was even better, a crisp contrast to the thoroughly correct hot goopiness of the reuben.

Middleton Hills, it turns out, is a Duany Plater-Zyberk development in the “New Urbanist” style. Which means mixed retail and housing, walkability, density, stores fronting directly on sidewalks, cheap houses and expensive ones on the same block, and so on. Basically, if you take every feature of America’s soul-killing suburbs that people like to complain about, invert them, and build housing developments based on the result, you get something like New Urbanism.

As for me, I grew up in one of America’s soul-killing suburbs, and I like them! One of the nicest features of the Near West Side of Madison is that you can get on your bike and be in an authentically urban landscape in 15 minutes; or, after a 15-minute drive in the other direction, you can pull up in the oversized parking lot outside the even more oversized grocery store and load your station wagon until it groans.

Anyway, Middleton Hills. My first impression is that it’s charming; the houses all share a mild kind of Prairie style, but no two on the block look exactly alike. The main drag, Frank Lloyd Wright Boulevard, winds around a big and agreeably wild pond; lots of cattails, lots of birds, grass not too kempt. The street names do a good job of congratulating you for your participation in sustainable development — John Muir Drive, Aldo Leopold Way, and, best of all, Diversity Road.

My second impression is that it’s completely empty. You can see that the streets are laid out to encourage pedestrianism and unplanned human interaction, as in Princeton, a favorite town of Duany Plater-Zyberk’s, and mine. But at three in the afternoon, the only people I saw were a trickle of kids coming home from school, and a birdwatcher. The birdwatcher and I watched a sandhill crane for a few minutes. Then I sat down to continue revising a long-overdue paper with Michel and Venkatesh about sums of three squares. (Among other things, the paper features a careful explanation of the group structure — more properly, torsor structure — on the set of representations of a squarefree integer n as the sum of three squares. More on this when the paper’s finished.)

What makes Princeton’s streets lively and new-urban, of course, is that it has a big and interesting downtown, whose shops and restaurants serve not just Princetonians but residents of the surrounding towns. Middleton Hills has a grocery store, the Prairie Cafe, a pizza place, and a Starbucks — not enough to draw foot traffic away from Madison, or, for that matter, downtown Middleton. If this post pulls in a throng of reuben-lovers, I guess I’ll have done my bit for the New Urbanism.

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7 thoughts on “Diversity Road

  1. Your link for Middleton Hills is broken, probably you meant to link to this.

    As for your impressions, I”d speculate that one difference between Middleton and Princeton is that more of the people in Middleton work in other cities, which would tend to quiet the place down during the day.

    When I used to live in CA, I saw a number of residential buildings (but not communities) designed by Moule and Polyzoides, who are also among the founders of New Urbanism. These did impress upon me the difference between a really skilled architect and the folks (often just the contractors themselves) who design much of our build environment.

  2. JSE says:

    Link fixed, Nathan, thanks!

    Re Princeton, you’re right, of course — having an employer of thousands of people directly adjoining the correctly laid-out downtown is a big headstart. I wonder if colleges without nice college towns ever hire DPZ to build them one? Aha, it seems that Hendrix College in Conway, AR is doing just this:

    http://media.www.theprofileonline.com/media/storage/paper264/news/2005/01/28/News/Does-It.Take.A.Village.To.Save.A.College-844275.shtml

  3. anon says:

    pretty cool post…..

  4. arithmetica says:

    When n is squarefree, if I remember correctly, the solution set of n=x^2+y^2+z^2 is *almost* a torsor for the class group of \mathbb{Q}(\sqrt{-n}), but I don’t remember what ‘almost’ means here…

  5. JSE says:

    This is exactly right, but my question is, do you know another place where this is well-explained, or do you know this because you heard it from me, Askhay, or Philippe?

  6. David says:

    Oops, I read it in the intro to your local-global paper.

  7. Steve says:

    By “working in the cafe” I assume you mean “doing math in the cafe,” not “preparing tasty reubens in the cafe.” Because were the cafe a co-op involving even its newest customers, which I guess is possible in Madison, you would have mentioned that.

    Speaking of co-operation, the problem with New Urbanism seems to be that to get a true Jane Jacobs effect– mixed use by mixed incomes, residents become better citizens because they learn to love diversity, “eyes on the street” at all hours, etc.– in a place built from scratch, you need to have reasons for people to come to the neighborhood– reasons to spend money there or to earn money there– even if they don’t live there. Otherwise you get someplace that’s empty all day even if it is (as Middleton Hills might well be) hopping on a Saturday afternoon: “better,” from my point of view (and from an energy-efficiency point of view) than the kind of place where you have to drive half a mile to get milk and bread, but “worse” than Princeton.

    If businesses want to put offices in Middleton Hills, it will probably look much more New Urbanist than it did on Wednesday. But it might cost more to live there, too. (Cost of living being rather a problem in Princeton, no?)

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