Charlotte Fagan '12 in St. Louis Park, Minn.

Do women living in new urbanist communities find them more empowering than typical suburbs? Charlotte Fagan ’12 set out to answer that question.

Growing up in a suburb of Providence, Rhode Island, Charlotte Fagan ’12 noticed that suburbia could be isolating and alienating for women, especially for stay-at-home moms. 

So as a geography major at Macalester, she decided to explore for her honors thesis whether a new kind of development called New Urbanism works better for women. Although she’s still sorting through her findings, the early evidence is: Yes, they do. 

New Urbanism is a form of community design that returns to many of the features of old-fashioned neighborhoods—front porches, sidewalks, walkable designs, a range of housing types, and easily accessible transit and retail. Fagan chose two New Urbanist developments in the Twin Cities area—Liberty on the Lake in Stillwater and Excelsior & Grand in St. Louis Park, and used a traditional Eden Prairie housing development as her control. “More than half of Americans live in suburbs,” Fagan points out. “New urbanism is changing how suburbia is being built and being done.” 

Advised by geography professor Dan Trudeau and funded by a Mellon Curricular Pathways grant, Fagan spent last summer door knocking and mailing surveys. Her findings: Liberty on the Lake, which boasts a grade school and many parks, has a strong placed-based sense of community; women know their neighbors and feel connected to them. However, those benefits are mostly for stay-at-home moms. 

Excelsior & Grand, by comparison, is a more empowering community for nontraditional women, such as singles or retirees. They found living on multiple bus routes and close to retail and restaurants very convenient and a huge time saver. The retirees also took advantage of a nearby community center and park as a place to meet people and find recreational opportunities. 

At the control site development, by comparison, people spend most of their time in their own homes, don’t know their neighbors, and have to call people outside the area if they need help. Fagan even had trouble getting people in this Eden Prairie housing area to answer their doors and speak to her. “It was demoralizing, to be sure, but Charlotte stuck with it and creatively enlisted participants to help her recruit other neighbors,” says Trudeau. “Moments like these revealed her impressive resourcefulness and knack for adapting.” 

Fagan, who is active in MacBike and spent a year working in women’s bicycling programs in Ecuador, also had an internship with the Minneapolis Park Board. After Mac she’d like to do graduate work in urban planning. 

“I’m really interested in public space, and in having the physical space for democratic exchange within our communities. We need to be reminded that there are people unlike ourselves in our communities, that we’re all in this together.” 

December 2 2011

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