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  • The Suburban War on Walkability

    by Dom Nozzi

    New urbanists point out that there are several different “lifestyle” choices that members of a community seek out, and that these choices generally correspond to various geographic locations within the community.

    What one finds in a community, generally, is that those seeking a more walkable, compact, higher-density, and sociable lifestyle tend to live in or near the community town center. Others seek a more “drivable” lifestyle which features lower densities, larger setbacks, homes separated from jobs and shops, and shorter buildings. This more spread out development pattern tends to be found in more remote locations.

    Areas, in other words, surrounding the more walkable, compact town center.

    Another lifestyle tends to be that which seeks “rural” amenities such as farms, small towns, and environmental conservation areas.

    It is important, from the point of view of diversity, sustainability, and equity, that all of these lifestyle choices be provided for by the community. Unfortunately, most American communities have severely eroded this choice of lifestyles by adopting development regulations throughout the community that are one-size-fits-all.

    And that one size tends to be suburban.

    New urbanists rightly seek to restore the timeless tradition of providing for not just the suburban lifestyle, but also the rural and walkable lifestyles.

    A serious problem persists, however.

    For most all of the 20th Century and continuing on into the 21st Century, America has been aggressively a one-size-fits-all suburban nation. This mindset is self-perpetuating in many ways. Most importantly, the mindset is perpetuated due to America’s heavily-subsidized roads, parking lots, gasoline, and financing. These huge subsidies have led to over-sized, high-speed roads and parking lots, as well as low-density and dispersed single-use development patterns that substantially reduce travel choices so that today, most Americans find that car travel is the only reasonable way to travel for almost every trip.

    Consequently, most all Americans have a drivable, suburban mindset. Which means, oddly and tragically, that many who live in walkable, compact American town centers have lifestyle preferences that are more centered on driving than walking. Many expect to find an out-of-place suburban lifestyle preference to be provided for in inappropriate community locations such as a town center.

    While such people often enjoy the walkable, sociable, convenient amenities of their town center location, they bring their incompatible suburban values with them to a town center location that should be serving a walkable lifestyle rather than a drivable lifestyle. They want big building setbacks. Extreme privacy. Low-density, one-story housing. Seas of free parking. Wide and high-speed roads. A requirement that offices and shops be located far away from their residential neighborhood, rather than embedded within the neighborhood. And they assume that these suburban features can only improve their town center location.

    Who could oppose larger building setbacks, for example?

    Unbeknownst to them, they seek community elements that undercut the ability to provide a quality walkable lifestyle. A walkable lifestyle that seeks and needs modest (or no) building setbacks. Higher density, multi-story housing. Scarce, out-of-the-way (and priced) parking, narrow and slow-speed streets. Relatively high levels of convivial sociability. And neighborhoods that incorporate relatively small, walk-to shops and offices.

    Because such a high percentage of Americans like suburban attributes, many of those who move to a town center (and often end up enjoying the compact, walkable attributes of the town center) often bring with them the incompatible desire for a suburban lifestyle. And by insisting that they “have their cake and eat it, too,” the suburban mindset – in a town center – ends up degrading the walkable, compact lifestyle that many properly seek to find in a town center location. When communities cave in to suburban demands by providing for the suburban, drivable lifestyle in a town center, they tend to degrade and reduce the availability of a walkable lifestyle in the community, because the above-cited suburban attributes are entirely incompatible with a walkable lifestyle.

    Fairness, sustainability, and diversity are thereby lost.

    One result of this state of affairs is that the walkable lifestyle is increasingly unavailable — to the point of being nearly extinct in American communities. So much so that because there are millions seeking such a compact lifestyle, it has become so rare that the tiny slivers that somehow remain in American cities are almost always unaffordably expensive because there is far more demand for walkable housing than there is a supply of it in America. Walkable housing gets fiercely and competitively “bid up” in price because there are far more buyers than sellers.

    Ironically and paradoxically, many intelligent, well-meaning community activists seeking a better community quality of life end up harming quality of life in instances where they passionately insist on incorporating suburban values in compact town centers. Their suburban mindset blinds them to the needs of a walkable lifestyle. It is a mindset which assumes it is “common sense” that abundant, spacious landscaping be provided everywhere. That “crowding” be avoided by keeping residential densities low. That “free-flowing” traffic be maintained by widening and speeding up roads.

    The suburban mindset is utterly incapable of seeing that these “common sense” interventions are harmful to non-suburban lifestyles. That not all want a suburban lifestyle. That there are actually others in the community who seek a non-suburban lifestyle.

    It is essential, then, that we “let the city be the city.” Only in outlying areas is it appropriate and fair for the drivable suburban (or rural) lifestyle to be provided for. Let cities provide for all lifestyle choices – not just the suburban one.

    Dom Nozzi is a planner who is a Smart Growth, sustainability, Complete Streets and walkable streets specialist. He maintains an independent consulting practice in which he writes, edits, and speaks about street design, urban design, and quality of life. His book, The Car is the Enemy of the City, can be purchased here.

    He maintains Dom’s Plan B Blog, where this article appeared on October 25, 2011.

    Comments 8 Comments
    1. UrbanORegional's avatar
      UrbanORegional -
      Walkability demands flexibility : new approach to neighborhood planning. There has be different available exit choices for people, to make any pedestrian or walkable plan successful whether its planning of park or commercial complex or mega exhibition pavilion.http://planningurbanoregional.blogsp...ility-new.html
    1. stroskey's avatar
      stroskey -
      Here is an aerial photo of a "NU" development in Ankeny Iowa. Is it just me or do those alleys serve no purpose because the houses are set so far apart?
    1. Gotta Speakup's avatar
      Gotta Speakup -
      Quote Originally posted by stroskey View post
      Here is an aerial photo of a "NU" development in Ankeny Iowa. Is it just me or do those alleys serve no purpose because the houses are set so far apart?
      Seems like the label New Urbanist is just becoming a tag line with no meaning whatsoever. Makes me wonder what contemporary development looks like in those parts.

      You are absolutely right. No one is going to walk in this community.
    1. wahday's avatar
      wahday -
      Quote Originally posted by Gotta Speakup View post
      You are absolutely right. No one is going to walk in this community.
      I agree. This development looks like so many suburban developments NU is supposedly trying to get away from. Ok, there are numerous connections to the adjacent streets, but the place is completely surrounded by undeveloped land. Where would someone even walk to? The dynamic we have here is similar in that many of the superblock suburban developments (first ring - they are now part of the city) center around parks and schools, but there is absolutely no retail or commercial activity except along the arterials that form the superblock boundaries. And you can't easily walk from one superblock subdivision to another because you have to cross 4-6 lane arterials that have crossings only every 1/4 mile where the lights are (and even those crossings feel dangerous). Same in this example. So, people are left to only walk as a recreational activity - walking just to walk. Which is good and people should do that, but to be a walkable area, there should be a multitude of reasons to walk or bike, not just to go around in a big circle and feel like you got some exercise... I don't see that any of this will be improved if the surrounding areas fill in.
    1. ColoGI's avatar
      ColoGI -
      Quote Originally posted by Gotta Speakup View post
      Seems like the label New Urbanist is just becoming a tag line with no meaning whatsoever. Makes me wonder what contemporary development looks like in those parts.

      You are absolutely right. No one is going to walk in this community.
      Mee three. Speaking of tag lines, what should we call these sorts of projects that are NU in name only, NU being simply ad copy or greenwash? NUINO? Phew Urbanist? Faux Urbanist? Wannabe Duany-be?
    1. wahday's avatar
      wahday -
      Quote Originally posted by ColoGI View post
      Wannabe Duany-be?
      Nice one! We can just call them Duany-bes for short.
    1. Streck's avatar
      Streck -
      What is the greatest "walkability" distance most tolerated while carrying a quart of milk, a loaf of bread, a jar of mayonaise, and a dozen eggs?

      Maybe a pull cart would be practical, but I don't see anybody pulling empty carts to the grocery store to load them up.

      I see some walking to the store in our area, but rarely more than two or three blocks.

      I hate to think that we might need a grocery store every six blocks. Seems like this would put a lot of 18 wheelers in residential areas trying to make the route for frequent deliveries for small stores.

      I see some people riding bikes in the street occassionally, but it makes me very nervous every time I have to pass one of those wobbly things!

      Nostalgia for things long past sometimes just needs to be left as familiar rememberances.
    1. Streck's avatar
      Streck -
      http://maps.google.com/maps?q=west+d...a&t=k&z=19Here is an aerial photo of a "NU" development in Ankeny Iowa. Is it just me or do those alleys serve no purpose because the houses are set so far apart?
      Is this an example of what not to do?

      The alley, while perhaps a way to get garage doors and driveways away from facing the street, and providing a place for garbage cans if garbage trucks are allowed to use the alley, practically doubles the amount of paving in the area. And look at the size of the driveways! What back yard is possible for letting your kids and pets play in a protected fenced care-free area? The lots seem awfully deep.

      A better solution might have been to require garages to be placed for side entry. This would get driveways and garage doors off the front of the houses. It would also allow for turn around space so that you would not have to back onto the street. This also provides a space for a basketball goal over paving at the rear of the driveway. It provides for wider lots to allow for major trees between houses for shading while maintaining "tree shaded" appearance, and more separation between houses. It also preserves space for a better back yard. It would also reduce the amount of paving required for the area by eliminating the "alley." I notice that the street was not reduced in size even though an alley had been added. (And the alley would have to be strong enough for garbage and recycling trucks or you still have the garbage left in front of the house on the street, and the question of who maintains the alley - subdivision homeowners?) This would also allow for reducing the amount of hard-scape to provide for a higher percentage of natural ground surface for recharging the aquifer, and placing less demand on storm water detainage/retainage areas. Removal of the alley also reduces the concern about "Who is driving along our alley at this time of night?"! Does the city provide street lighting and alley lighting?

      The subject was "walkability." There appears to be plenty of opportunity for walking around the neighborhood for exercise, even if there is no apparent "destination" such as a store in the area.