I have a talent for stating the obvious, so I might as well tell you right now that when I visit a well-designed community, it just feels right.
Recently I visited Grass Valley, Calif., and its sister city, Nevada City, which are approximately 60 miles northeast of Sacramento in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada. I spent quite a bit of time driving through the residential areas, and it struck me that they’re very well thought out. Site engineers, land planners, and architects preserved many of the mature trees and worked with the grade, which in many cases is quite steep. The streets are curved to calm traffic and create more visual interest.
In subdivisions where you would expect to see repetitive elevations, the architectural styles are so diverse that you don’t get that “subdivision” feeling. Victorians are side by side with Craftsman, modern, Spanish, and other styles. Ranches and two-story homes mix it up. Every home seems to have an outdoor living area, even if it’s a small one. A little two-bedroom house on a side street caught my eye. Given California’s severe drought, no one has a huge lawn. This house had its little patch of green, but most of the landscaping consisted of large trees, shrubs, and flower beds strategically placed among the open space to provide a variety of focal points. The yard wound around the sides and front of the home to give visitors a peek as they drive up.
I should mention that I did not visit any of the newer master-planned or golf-course communities that are prevalent in the area. I’m referring to the close-in neighborhoods near downtown—and “downtown” doesn’t accurately describe the quaint city centers. Grass Valley and Nevada City started out as gold-mining towns and still retain some of that flavor. Their hilly main streets are lined by repurposed old buildings, coffee houses, restaurants, and boutiques. The nearest big-box store is in Auburn, about a 30-minute drive away.
It’s not hard to see why people want to live in such locations. Even with all the infrastructure improvements and new nonresidential construction, they’re charming places to be. I attribute a lot of that to sensitive design.