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Does your neighborhood have good urban design? Employ the 'trick-or-treat test'


Halloween may be your kids' favorite holiday. They get to dress up as anything they want or anybody they want to be. But it also turns out for some urban planners, Halloween is also their favorite holiday. Urban planners are the folks who design new neighborhoods or reinvent old ones. And joining us now to explain why urban planners are apparently so into Halloween is Brent Toderian, the former chief planner for Vancouver in British Columbia, Canada. He's written about the connection between Halloween and urban planning. Brent, thank you so much for joining us.

BRENT TODERIAN: My pleasure - glad to be here.

KHALID: So you wrote once that Halloween is your favorite holiday as an urban planner. Explain that to me.

TODERIAN: The reason is because of what it reveals. And it has the potential of getting all of us to be out there actually looking at how well our neighborhood works, how well the design of our neighborhood supports our everyday lives, in particular, how it supports trick-or-treating. And there's an old concept called the trick-or-treat test. And, originally, it was meant to describe how easy it was to walk from the sidewalk to a door, ring the doorbell and say, trick or treat. And out in the suburbs, with the advent of what are sometimes called snout houses - the garages are so far out in front - it's really hard to find the front door and the doorbell. It was said that a house fails the trick-or-treat test if you couldn't even really find the front door and if your mom or dad couldn't see you from the sidewalk while your trick-or-treating because the front door is hidden behind the big garage.

KHALID: Oh, that's interesting.

TODERIAN: I've extended the conversation to about the design of the whole neighborhood. Kids know when a neighborhood is good for getting candy because there's a lot of doors near each other. It's really easy to get a big haul really quick. I call it door density. The actual density of doors in close proximity that you can ring the doorbells on and get as much candy as you can. What it sort of reveals is how well your neighborhood has supported walkability, has supported potential interaction and connection with your neighbors. So it reveals a lot about good design every day.

KHALID: So, Brent, do you find that this theory applies really only to suburbs? I mean, I will say, you know, from my standpoint, I live in a condo building. Unfortunately, there's really not a whole lot of places that my kids can go trick-or-treating here.

TODERIAN: The question is, can downtown buildings pass the trick-or-treat test? In a lot of downtowns, it's a fail because buildings don't address the street at all. They land on the sidewalk, often with blank walls presenting themselves to the street. Maybe there's not even much residential housing at grade at all. It's retail stores and restaurants and such. So how do you make up for that? Well, some main streets, some commercial areas in downtowns offer trick-or-treating. You can go from store to store and get candy. Those can be really successful.

KHALID: Yeah, yeah. You know, when you talk about a neighborhood that's good for trick-or-treating, a neighborhood that passes this trick-or-treat test - you know, some neighborhoods are not going to fit that description.


KHALID: So what do kids do in those neighborhoods?

TODERIAN: We already see the answer to that every Halloween. Kids know the good neighborhoods to go to, and they often travel. And ironically, that's not a great thing for cities because we don't want people to have to travel far distances to get the things they need. What I like to think is that if the trick-or-treat test reveals this conversation about how your neighborhood works, you can at least be empowered as ordinary citizens to advocate for better. You can be an activist and advocate when it comes to improving the street design, maybe traffic-calming your streets, lowering the speed limits on local streets, using design elements to slow down traffic and actually widen the sidewalks, add street trees.

KHALID: Do some of these tenants that you're describing - door density, recessed garages, etc. - are they kind of universally acknowledged in the urban design community as being good? Or is that up for debate?

TODERIAN: Well, there's still champions for suburban sprawl out there. There's folks in the professions that still advocate for car-dominated environments and the big garages and such. And, certainly, there's a constituency out there that would say these are still popular. People like to have them. But often, it's a matter of not fully understanding the consequences. Some people like to be introverts. They like to turn their back onto the street. But for others, we wonder how our communities have become socially isolated or just take up too much land and contribute to climate change and such. So my favorite thing about the trick-or-treat test is it's a great conversation starter.

KHALID: All right. That's Brent Toderian, a city planner and former chief planner for Vancouver in British Columbia, Canada. Thanks so much.

TODERIAN: My pleasure.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.