It’s an exciting time to be a New Orleans transplant. You’re either bearing witness to a sea change in urban (re)development practices, or you’re bracing for the inevitable demise of a city that shouldn’t exist. The irony here is that for a city subsiding further below sea level in an age of global warming, for a city thus deemed among the least sustainable in America, New Orleans is perhaps poised to become a model of sustainability, a city (re)built on the values of a pedestrian lifestyle.

I got to thinking about this over the weekend while visiting family in the Houston area. Houston gets a lot of flak for its suburban sprawl, and I don’t mean to rehearse another round of clichéd jabs at the “Golden Buckle of the Sunbelt.” But as we continue to develop our vision of a renewed and redeveloped New Orleans, it’s important to maintain a critical comparison with our Southern neighbors. What’s really important to keep in mind — and the comparison with Houston is instructive here — is the way in which a suburban style of redevelopment can breed alienation and foreclose the possibility of any meaningful sense of community and civic-mindedness. I’m thinking something along the lines of Robert Putnam’s concern in Bowling Alone.

Remember, I’m from New Jersey. And part of what I love about the Garden State is the density, which seems to contribute to a sense of community throughout the counties, boroughs, towns and cities. This is part of what I admire about New Orleans, where the historically narrow lots support shotgun houses that sit side by side, where the neighborly proximity undergirds a sense of community that goes far beyond the stimulants of food and drink. We live so close to each other that we simply must deal with each other. We’re more likely to care about what’s going on around us, more likely to make our voices heard. While mainstream American culture has led us to privilege enormous lots, bigger houses, taller fences, longer driveways, fewer sidewalks, more convenient drive-through windows, more distant shopping malls with vaster parking lots, I can’t help but worry about the sustainability of this suburban — or perhaps anti-urban — lifestyle.

In Houston, the continued sprouting of new and unnecessary subdivisions pushes the city farther and farther away from any semblance of pedestrian sustainability. With no real public transportation option, I can’t help but wonder how things will play out for Houston’s future generations as the earth’s oil reserves dry up and families can no longer afford to inch their SUVs through miles (and hours) of traffic congestion. More significant, perhaps, is the isolation, the alienation, the lack of interconnectedness among neighbors, all of which threaten to deplete the social capital necessary to help citizens develop and redevelop their own communities.

I’m no architect, and I’m certainly no urban planner, but from what I gather, there’s something authentic about the way in which some of the older American cities came of age, before the advent of the automobile and certainly before the advent of the interstate highway. Schools and parks were built within walking distance from modest homes. Just about anything one could need or want was made available within a short bike or streetcar ride. Although many newer American cities seem to have abandoned this approach, placing their bets on the promise of the freeway system, there’s something about the older model — the New Orleanian model — that might provide a good foundation for how cities develop — and for how New Orleans redevelops — in the years to come.

When I first moved here, I bought a bunch of New Orleans-themed T-shirts from a local clothing shop, a little joint I could walk to, just around the corner from my house. One of the shirts said, “New Orleans: So far behind we’re ahead.” I’m still not entirely sure what this means. But I think I’m figuring it out. Perhaps we should respect the old pedestrian-friendly way in which our urban landscape came into its own. If renewed thoughtfully and creatively, this antiquated model, so far behind the curve of recent American development, might actually put us ahead –– at least ahead of some of our Southern neighbors.