Post-COVID, let’s build neighborhoods that value human connection in the Treasure Valley

Here are six ways we could improve the quality of housing in Idaho neighborhoods, writes guest columnist Sarah Cunningham.

June 29, 2021 4:00 am
Downtown Boise from the Boise Depot

Downtown Boise seen from the Boise Depot on May 5, 2021. (Otto Kitsinger for Idaho Mountain Sun)

Now that we’re (mostly) on the other side of the pandemic, we need to make different choices around how we build housing and create connected neighborhoods across the Treasure Valley.

It’s no secret frenetic growth and a lack of housing supply is driving up the cost to own a home. In Ada County, the median price increased almost 30% to $481,208 since April 2020, while in Canyon County, the median price jumped 46.7% to $399,586.

As the owner of a design and build firm that specializes in sustainable construction that lasts for generations and a Realtor, it’s interesting to me that it was Meridian and Nampa, not Boise, which made the 2020 list of top ten fastest-growing cities in the U.S.

Would people choose to live in Boise if they could afford to? Or do they want the cookie-cutter development that suburbs are known for? If Treasure Valley communities invested in public transit and sensical growth policies that could lower the costs of renting close to Downtown Boise or owning a home in a neighborhood brimming with coffee shops, entertainment, and dining, would they?

I believe the answer is a resounding yes.

COVID-19 taught us all a lot about isolation, and as we return to this “new normal” we have choices to make when it comes to how our built environment will reflect our values and what it will mean for how we interact with one another.

Idaho’s suicide rate, notoriously one of the highest in the nation, dropped the year before the pandemic, only to rise again. When people are prone to isolation and struggle to ask for help, living in vibrant, connected neighborhoods becomes a very real public health issue.

Yet suburban communities are not giving people the choice to live in ways that foster a sense of belonging and connection.

Drive from Boise to Nampa and you’ll see rows of homes that all look the same, and don’t appear as though they’ll last more than 30 years or even through the next big wind storm. Much of the valley’s housing stock lacks any of the design principles that would create a deep sense of community among neighbors.

Here are six ways we could improve the quality of housing and sense of community in Treasure Valley neighborhoods:

  1. Eliminate parking requirements on new construction that is near downtowns or along transit routes. It makes zero sense for the individuals and couples seeking, say, a 300-700 square foot apartment to have two additional parking spaces. People who desire to live in this type of unit do not need or want two, let alone one, car.

  2. Don’t build garages in the front of homes. Designing homes with a detached garage removes the car from the home in a way that clearly delineates who the home is for. My home is for me, not my vehicle. Cars exist for the individual, signaling “me, me, me.” Designing a home as though it is a box connected to a garage reduces the ability of a home to be the social, communal, and connective space it is meant to be.

  3. Create beautiful, useful front yards. This became even more relevant during COVID-19 – who didn’t buy a fire pit or outdoor heaters in the past year? An engaging front yard, with places for people to sit, plants or garden boxes, or a shared courtyard (formal or otherwise) became a staple for neighborhood connections that could happen outside at a six-foot distance these past 18 months. A detached garage in the back of the home facilitates this type of neighborly front yard experience so many of us grew to treasure during the pandemic.

  4. End the seas of parking lots as people continue to work remotely. As downtowns and major commercial complexes grew quiet with workers staying home, the seas of parking we’ve chosen to build became even more offensive to the eye, not to mention depressing to the heart.

  5. Incentivize mixed use neighborhoods. Instead of building homes for individuals, let’s create homes that promote neighborhoods rooted in belonging and connection. I wish every vacant parking lot could instead become a mixed use building, with the vibe of Garden City’s East End, redeveloping areas of the Boise Bench, or the West Downtown neighborhood treasure we once knew as Jerry’s 27th St. Market.

  6. Incentivize mixed-income housing. When we concentrate low-income children in housing developments or push them out to outlying neighborhoods with less community connectedness, educational attainment drops. I’d love to see more children be able to access the resources more readily available to the Boise School District, where they can accommodate special needs, learning delays, and issues of poverty (with a higher ratio of school counselors per student, for example). Greater income diversity in neighborhoods reduces the stigma associated with the poor schools and poor neighborhoods and helps children aspire to greater success. For example, one specific unincorporated school in South Boise has a disproportionate amount of children with special needs, experiencing homelessness, or who have attempted suicide than those in more expensive neighborhoods in the heart of Boise. Housing diversity can help end poverty and decrease unhealthy neighborhood behaviors that bad design or no design encourages.

As a community, we can’t lose sight of what we value when it comes to solving the issues related to housing. Nothing less than the health of our community and its children is at stake. Everyone deserves a stable, healthy place to live in connection with people who care about their wellbeing and success.

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Sarah Cunningham
Sarah Cunningham

Sarah Cunningham was recognized among the 2021 Idaho Women of the Year. She is the owner of Ethos Design + Build and lives on the Boise Bench.