My husband and I recently moved into a great townhouse that is part of a Home Owners Association. It is the first time I’ve ever lived where one of these was present and didn’t really think twice about what it would be like. Of course I’ve always known the purpose of them: to manage communal property and open space while maintaining a pleasant environment. And of course I’ve heard the horror stories of power crazed individuals making people’s lives hell. I’ve never really had a reason to have an opinion, until now. After almost a month in our new home I thought I’d give a quick review.
On Wednesday morning after the first HOA meeting since we’ve lived here, I walked outside to find our small garden flag moved to another position in our small 2 ft. x 5 ft. green space in front of our home. It had been turned 45 degrees so the homeowners across from us wouldn’t have to look at it when they walked out their door. Now instead of using this post as a personal rant (which is tempting, trust me), I thought I would explore HOAs in the context of some urban design principles. That, I think, would be a lot more productive :)
In my opinion, the number one purpose of urban design is to empower people. Building a pleasant and connected environment gives people the greatest amount of choice in accessing their built environment. Making choices in our lives, is by far, the thing that empowers us the most. Deciding whether to take the bus or take the train, instead of having to sit in traffic, should be a choice. Deciding to walk or ride a bike to get a gallon of milk, should be a choice. Being able to afford to live in a neighborhood close to your work and school, should be a choice. Urban designers work everyday to make these real choices for people.
According to Responsive Environments, one of the founding books on urban design, personalization is one of the seven qualities that empower people in their urban context. The ability for people to personalize their own space, can cause them to not only be more committed to maintaining their property, but feel more emotionally connected to their neighborhood and neighbors. It can also enliven the public realm, and be one of the most influential factors in contributing to a neighborhood’s character. When we’re in Chinatown we know it, when we’re in New Orleans’ French Quarter, we know it. When we’re in the Manhattan’s Lower East Side we know it. Residents here have a personality, and they show it. Personalization at its best? Christmas lights.
Yes, they have many wonderful qualities I am sure. They probably have a huge role in maintaining higher property values and thwarting those with less than great taste from turning their front yard into “gnomes gone wild“. But in some cases, like mine, they strip people of power. Power to use the 2’x5′ patch in front of their front door to make their house feel like home. When I walked out the door and saw my personal property had been altered, I honestly felt dis-empowered. While I only live in a development of 10 units, my HOA will not have a huge impact on my neighborhood. But when HOAs strictly dictate the house colors, height of fences, and mailbox designs in a development of 4oo houses, that development will suffer for it. Multiply that by thousands, and you have the bland vanilla that is suburbia.
In great defiance and at risk of being equally passive aggressive, I moved my small garden flag back to its 45 degree position – because I refuse to let myself be dis-empowered by my built environment.