What is an urban village?

San Jose, California circa 1875. (Image is public domain)

San Jose, California circa 1875. (Image is public domain)

(Excerpt from an article I wrote for The Doable City Reader)

In 1940, the small farming community of San Jose, California, sat nestled between sloping hillsides and the rugged Pacific Ocean. Back then, its humble downtown core was surrounded by walkable neighbourhoods. But when the post-war boom came in the 1960s and 70s, San Jose was one of the fastest growing cities in America. This rapid expansion coupled with the mid-century demand for a suburban lifestyle resulted in San Jose, like so many other cities, developing around the needs of cars, not people.

The city became a network of ribbons of asphalt linking low-density suburban areas as it swelled from a quaint town of 70,000 to one million. By the 1970s the suburban exodus had taken its toll on the city’s once vibrant downtown. Businesses closed or moved to malls in the suburbs, buildings were demolished and the core became littered with vacant lots.

That meant that when 2008 rolled around and San Jose city planners were pigeon-toeing their way into a new age of urbanism—one less beholden to the rollercoaster of international oil prices, and focused instead around people and vibrant places—they were grappling with the same question that dozens of other cities across the country were grappling with as well. San Jose is projected to grow by nearly half a million people by 2035. How on earth would they accommodate that level of growth while starting to shrink a giant, sprawling auto-centric city to a walkable, human scale?

Their first step? Urban villages.

Urban villages are walkable, mixed-use neighbourhoods close to transit amenities. In San Jose’s urban plan, most housing and job growth is slated to take place in urban villages. The idea is to put these villages throughout the city to concentrate growth in strategic locations and enable both newcomers living in the villages as well as those in more traditional nearby neighbourhoods to be closer to day-to-day amenities. The goal is to create pockets of vibrant spaces where people can live, work, eat, drink, shop and be entertained all throughout the city, reducing the need for cars and making the city more livable as it grows.

Currently San Jose has approved one urban village, a few miles east of the downtown core in the neighbourhood of Alum Rock and has eight more in the works.

Learn more about San Jose’s urban village concept in the video above and below.


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