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Walkable Streets Are More Economically Productive (strongtowns.org)
662 points by oftenwrong on Jan 18, 2018 | hide | past | web | favorite | 415 comments

This is something that certain cities have understood for many years. Chicago, for example, mandates that all new development from a simple three-story building to a 100-story skyscraper has retail at its base to improve the walkability of its streets and make its business corridors vibrant. This also helps push down retail rents even in the CBD, allowing local upstart businesses a shot at reaching the masses.

Chicago has also come around to the notion that streets aren't "for cars." Streets are public property and belong to all of the city's citizens, including the hundreds of thousands who don't own a car. CDOT evaluates streets and sometimes decides that private property storage (parking cars) isn't the best use for some of that land. So it turns parking spaces into miniature parks or seating areas, or public art.

Weird - I visited Chicago a couple years ago from NYC and was shocked at how pedestrian-unfriendly central parts of Chicago seemed (e.g. River North). There were parking lots everywhere, with aggressive drivers pulling in and out. I walked through a parking lot to go to a liquor store and was almost run over. Sometimes crossing a large street felt like a race against the green light. Jaywalking signaled to drivers that they should speed up, which is the mark of a driver-run city IMO.

The whole experience contrasted heavily with the east coast cities like DC, Baltimore, Philly, NYC, Boston. Maybe it's changed in the last few years, though.

This makes sense to me. Street-level retail != walkability. Anyone who has tried to walk from a suburban stripmall to another right next door can attest to this.

I was thinking more of people sitting outside bars and restaurants blocking the sidewalk, as often happens in the center of Amsterdam.

That's where it's important to consider the often sprawling nature of suburbs and how they're inherently unwalkable. While that is definitely a problem, it seems to be a sprawling problem.

Its not a suburb or sprawl problem. It's a car problem.

I now live in Manhattan, the most densely populated chunk of the US. Any time I walk somewhere I spend about half the time waiting for lights so that I can safely cross a street.

Cars are massively subsidized by government.

Well, I don't disagree at all, but would argue that it's kind of a circular dependency problem. Sprawl would exist without cars to be sure, but cars make it much easier to expand, which increases dependency on cars, which supports sprawl. Then the people who have moved outward use their cars to work in the city because there's nothing in the suburbs and a poorly designed city (or one that is dependant on the people with cars) prioritizes that.

Definitely. Suburbia could not exist without cars.

Well, suburbia started becoming a thing long before cars and comes from the Greeks. However, I don't think the kind of cities you see today would necessarily have expanded so far without cars. They are not a book to cities or density from what I can tell.

As someone who walks in Manhattan, I see where you're coming from, but my experience differs. Specifically, 99% of the time I'm walking in Manhattan, I'm not trying to get somewhere on the same street or avenue I started on, so I can turn and walk along whatever block to avoid the lights. Plus (at least in the 40s), there are plenty of subway entries/passages where you don't need to pay but can pass through to get underneath the street - and buildings you can pass through as well. Of course, figuring out this maze is half the "fun" of walking in Manhattan.

In Singapore they are experimenting with putting all traffic beneath the ground in new residential neighbourhoods.

River North is also an unusual neighborhood in Chicago - there are dozens of walkable little downtowns in other neighborhoods across the city, but RN is an abomination and I usually try to get out of it quickly whenever I find myself there.

A lot has changed. In the last five years dozens of new skyscrapers have been built in the CBD (The Loop, River North, Near North, West Loop, etc...). Scrolling through Chicago Architecture web site [0] will give you an idea of the level of rapid development.

[0] http://chicagoarchitecture.org

Chicago is huge. River North is a good example of what you're talking about, but most of the city is not as you described.

For example, Rogers Park is extremely walkable, safe part of the city.

Interestingly, Strong Towns published an article a bit more than a week ago about why mandating ground-floor retail is also not the best way to go:


He's one of the Market Urbanism ( http://marketurbanism.com/ ) guys, so a bit more on the libertarian edge of things, but it's a good point in any event: cargo cult urbanism is probably better than "suburban experiment" urbanism, but flexibility and adaptability are even better.

Edit - one of the really cool things about the growing movement that - broadly - includes YIMBY's, Market Urbanists, Strong Towns and so on is that it really crosses the ideological spectrum. For instance, this quote:

"Reforming local land use controls is one of those rare areas in which the libertarian and the progressive agree. The current system restricts the freedom of the property owner, and also makes life harder for poorer Americans. The politics of zoning reform may be hard, but our land use regulations are badly in need of rethinking."

From https://www.brookings.edu/research/reforming-land-use-regula...

Edit 2 if you're interested in Strong Towns, it's a pretty cool group, with Slack ( https://www.strongtowns.org/discussion-board/ ) and local groups that are starting to form: https://www.strongtowns.org/local/

Pretty sure progressives are strongly aligned on opposition to any housing construction unless it’s specifically set aside for low-income residents, and are okay with low density zoning as an anti-gentrification measure.

YIMBYism is more center-left than progressive.

Are you from San Francisco? I've noticed that "Progressive" has taken on an extremely weird meaning there, which is contrary or at least orthogonal to how it's used everywhere else in the world. Nowhere else that I know of is opposition to urban infill development billed as "progressive".

It's non-uniform there, which is a little weird because "progressives" in the Bay Area are arguing strongly for more infill development while other "progressives" are arguing strongly against new development.

I think it's because San Francisco was "progressive" back in the 60s, which means that there's been time for the past couple generations of progressives to become entrenched NIMBY's with a vested interest in the status quo while still maintaining their "progressive" identity. It's a very weird yet oddly lovable city.

IME it's because SF homeowners have created a narrative that says any new development threatens (and can only ever threaten) rent control. There are many theories--induced demand, Ellis Act evictions, destruction of rent-controller properties--but the narrative is the same.

Therefore, if you're worried about protecting the security of renters (who constitute about 2/3 of residents) and especially low-income renters then unless you know any better the predominate political narrative is to oppose new development.

The narrative is deeply entrenched. For example, the narrative says (among other things) that new development destroys rent controlled properties as any building newer than 1995 is exempt from rent control under state law. But rather than lobby to change the state law to make it easier to expand rent control (i.e. some sort of quid pro quo--expand rent control at the same pace as new development so total rent-controlled units stay the same) people just reflexively oppose new development.

Because homeowners have co-opted the disparate opposition groups, the potential for compromise and novel solutions is stonewalled and never communicated through normal channels (community groups, neighborhood papers, ballot initiatives, City Hall backrooms, etc). All the voters know is to oppose development. Full stop.

Surely it's not that surprising that a single label can't describe all opinions people may have?

It's more complicated than that. The recent Minneapolis mayoral race had housing policy as a major issue, and Minneapolis is nothing if not progressive.

Affordability and gentrification are interrelated, but so is quality. I live in a relatively low-density neighborhood of mostly 80-110 year old houses. Lately, we're getting new development in the form of cheap older rentals being torn down, and large-for-the-lots (typical lots are 1/10 acre) new houses being built. These new houses are considerably more expensive than neighborhood average. My above-average house is worth about $300, but a new house two blocks away just sold for $475k before construction was completed. So I have concerns. On the other hand, that new house replaced a run-down rental. A lot of these old houses simply have worn-out bones and will never be good again. Left on their own, they'll contribute to the neighborhood drifting "bad", with cheap rentals.

And developers? There's no money in building "affordable" housing. They'll build upscale if they can, because it's much more profitable.

What do I want? A better neighborhood, yes, but one where the people who already live here can continue to afford to live here.

Jane Jacobs, one of the historical thought leaders behind modern urban planning, discusses in her book (The Life and Death of American Cities) how thriving neighborhoods have a mix of cheap old real estate and expensive new real estate. The old real-estate allows for places like dive bars, and general affordable housing to exist, where new buildings house chain stores, high end boutiques, and allow the neighborhood to grow to match current demand from new residents.

The key issue here is that this cycle works best in the long term, but can cause pain in the short term. Additionally, if the new housing doesn't match the complete incoming demand for the neighborhood, the prices of the old units rise as well furthering displacement. In turn, she advocated for the removal of zoning, for as it stands right now, there is an extreme demand for housing in neighborhoods that are zoned in such a way that restricts their density from matching the demand in addition to pushing commercial activity to fixed locations where prices will always be high due to demand to living within walking distances to stores.

So there are multiple policy options that you could do.

There's deregulation; deregulate anything that isn't explicitly for safety purposes. Schools and sewers and congestion and all of that should ideally be paid for with impact fees, not reflexively blocked out of hand. Every additional regulation is a cost on the developer passed down to the owner and the renter, and with enough small costs eventually you start pricing people out.

There's also more regulation; a lot of the current appreciation is because America places a lot of strange emphasis on housing as an investment product, rather than a commodity. It wasn't always this way; go back a few decades and property performs more like a bond than a stock, none of this speculation and house-flipping BS. And in most housing markets, housing works this way. Tax or restrict purchases of non-primary homes and such.

And then there's the final thing; lot size regulation. You can cap how big a lot can be for a project of a given size. You could build a very comfortable house at 1/10 an acre, or even 1/20th of an acre; it's hard to justify a single-family house much bigger than that. And in general, buildings should take up at most a quarter of a normal city block.

My neighborhood is old. Lots are generally 1/10 acre, and many houses are under 1000sqf. So questions for us aren't about building new, but rather about how to maintain the neighborhood for the future. How do we replace old houses that are falling apart without changing the essential character of the neighborhood? How can we get some more small businesses and restaurants without giving way to strip malls and big boxes? And the current controversy... there's a possibility that a light rail route will pass within a block of my house, down the major in-out drag for the immediate neighborhood. The light rail does us no good, but because it's a relatively short residential pass, we will have a hard time resisting.

Well, building today's affordable housing has never been a goal anyone aspires to. We're building 2040/2050's affordable housing:


There was an article on this very subject the other day:


Thanks, that was a really interesting read!

It's kind of a grab bag. Some people get it, some don't. Same on the right - some are aghast at the idea of poor people moving into their neighborhood, others are more "ok, freer markets, that's cool!".

I think some cities (suburban Atlanta, for one, probably the city in Kentucky from TFA as well) have the "if you build it, they will come" approach to mixed-use development, which is just backwards.

It doesn't work if you throw up isolated pockets of mixed-use buildings in the suburbs that one still has to use a car to traverse.

I feel especially bad for entrepreneurs that open places like bakeries or restaurants in these islands. Those are the sorts of places you draw passerbys in with colorful window displays and hunger-inducing smells. People whizzing by in their cars aren't enticed by either as they speed by. These places all close shop within a year or two, and we end up with empty retail shops on the ground floor for years.

I also found this article really interesting: https://www.strongtowns.org/journal/2017/11/27/the-paradox-o...

I'd heard this argument before that places are kept vacant to justify loans, but no-one had mentioned the key point that these buildings are financed with 3-5 year loans that need to be constantly refreshed, which makes the charade make more sense.

Much of this is the result of high retail rental prices where there are no vacancy taxes to push property companies to rent out their units. The key issue here is that in rapidly gentrifying neighborhoods, the term on most retail leases is too long, where property owners know that if they wait it out, they will eventually find a tenant willing to pay a high premium on the space.

If they were willing to offer the space to a dive bar for 1000 a month, they would have no problem finding a tenant. The issue is they are asking for far more than that, where they only want tenants such as boutique stores or restaurants that are relatively clean.

#2 and #3 seem reasonable, but are largely out of the local government's control and both are chicken-egg situations. If it was the most profitable use of the space to do mixed retail then developers would, but its not, so they don't. But the city wants mixed use retail because its better for the citizens, and they have the legal authority to force developers to make slightly less money in exchange to improve the city for its citizens, just as they do with any other taxes, so I don't see why they shouldn't. #2 and #3 (and probably #1) should then follow?

#1 is a cop-out. We can't require mixed use retail because none of our developers (who are experts at residential leasing) will admit to having the expertise to do mixed use retail leasing. Its not that different nor is it rocket science.

You can see that in parts of London. If you have more retail-only space than demand, the area quickly deteriorates. It's much better to have some retail space mixed with offices. That allows to react more flexibly to changes in demand.

The best urban environments I've lived in so far are the ones in the ex-USSR. They had moderate amount of street retail, not too much, but were very walkable. Today, in the area around me they began retrofitting the lowest levels of the condo buildings with cafeterias and such and it is becoming too busy, too messy and uncomfortable the people who lives in these buildings. Generally, what you need is not a retail in every building, but smaller size stand-alone stores and strip malls, in bigger numbers. Also, American condo buildings rarely have separation lawns between the street and buildings themselves, sidewalks are extremely narrow and not asphalted (asphalt is much nicer to walk on and prevents the grass shoots from poking through the pavement), the whole city blocks layouts are bad (no courtyards, playgrounds inside, all have traffic going through them - unsafe for children).

TL,DR: If you want to get a nice, family friendly, comfortable urban environments -check the former USSR and the other Eastern Block countries.

> The best urban environments I've lived in so far are the ones in the ex-USSR

You might want to read more about Microdistricts (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Microdistrict), if you haven't already, as a resident of one of those former communist Eastern-European cities I can attest to their usefulness. For example, until a couple of years ago I used to live in one of those apartment buildings that used to be part of a microdistrict (building was built in the 1960s), and I can tell you that I had an elementary school right bellow my window (I was living on the 7th floor) and a kindergarten 50 meters from the building's entrance. Don't have kids, but if I had one at the time he/she could have gone to kindergarten or school in record time (the elevator-ride would have probably taken longer than the actual walking, it was an old elevator), so no need for me, the parent, to need to leave work earlier in order to pick my kid up from school or kindergarden (or to hire someone else to do it). The tram station was also pretty close, like 50 meters or so.

But, yeah, a microdistrict requires that you live in a not-so-big apartment (not-so-big compared to owning an actual house) so if you're the sort of person that usually buys and accumulates lots of stuff then it's not for you, because you'd have no place to deposit said stuff. I guess that's why it kind of worked in the former Communist countries and why it's so difficult to impose in places like America.

I am living right now in one. Very convenient, compared to a Brooklyn city block.

This sounds similar to what Barcelona is trying to with something called "Superblocks"

I'd rather say if you want that, visit new (post car-fetish era) developments in central and western Europe, like in many German towns. Essentially any German town I've been to is better than most of the Eastern Europe I know. While Eastern block estates were built mostly without cars in mind, they were also rushed, low quality buildings, without enough retail or comunal spaces, built in space won by razing old buildings or whole neighborhoods, without regard for the history. Especially in the 70's and later the quality of planning and execution went rapidly downhill, leading to problematic estates like Jizni Mesto or Petrzalka.

Never been to Western Europe, but although Eastern European building probably look dull, but they are not low quality, at least not compared to what they built in the US; you need also to keep in mind that the Eastern Block was poorer. I do not think there is not enough communal spaces in general, but there are problematic areas, true, but in observation, all the problems in urban development started appearing mostly after the fall of the USSR. Today they are building up with little regard for proper urban planning.

I have lived in a few 'plattenbau' and other Eastern European buildings through the years. Some of them, mostly from the 50's, are high quality by any standards. Anything newer is lacking at least in some respect (sound isolation being a very acute problem mostly, but also other issues). In the more affluent EE countries, owners invest into upgrades, but some things cannot be improved easily or at all. I have also lived in London and building quality of older/cheaper housing stock there was shockingly low compared to EE estates. Germany is much better.

>TL,DR: If you want to get a nice, family friendly, comfortable urban environments -check the former USSR and the other Eastern Block countries.

I was in St. Petersburg, Russia a decade ago, and the parts of the city I saw that were built in the Soviet era looked anything but friendly and comfortable.

They might have looked dull, but not duller than any American city, esp. built in 20th century. Besides, the whole point is not the looks, but the layouts are nice. Still, currently living in a large Soviet city, and to me it is much nicer than Philly or NYC.

>They might have looked dull, but not duller than any American city, esp. built in 20th century. Besides, the whole point is not the looks, but the layouts are nice. Still, currently living in a large Soviet city, and to me it is much nicer than Philly or NYC.

The only comparable places I've seen in the US, in terms of sheer ugliness, are large high-rise government housing projects.

I will say this about St. Petersburg, in all sincerity: The woman (35 yrs and under) there seemed to be, on average, notably more attractive than in any other place I've been, before or since.

OTOH, I have not seen anything uglier that cookie cutter American suburbia.

I still cannot figure how NYC (https://nyulangone.org/files/city-street-in-bay-ridge-brookl...) in nicer than Almaty (http://www.walkingalmaty.com/uploads/2/3/7/9/23797930/886799... or https://3.bp.blogspot.com/-uoAK6mvo248/VHUZgL6rFuI/AAAAAAAAW...) keeping in mind that the houses in Almaty have common areas, playgrounds without traffic going thru, benches etc; in case of Brooklyn it is just a building facing the street and there is nothing behind it. Oh, and that building has moldy walls made out of paper.

> The woman (35 yrs and under) there seemed to be, on average, notably more attractive than in any other place I've been, before or since.

This just means you've never been to ex-Yugoslavia!

(Been there with my wife; she agrees wholeheartedly)

I'm from ex-Yugo (Croatia) and even though I'm heavily biased, completely agree.

You should just confine yourself to whatever built before 70-s.

After that you have huge cities' outskirts packed with 9 to 17 storey apartment buildings with some greens between them, but no other amenities. Everything is far apart and (these days) packed with cars. There's public transport but roads are wide and far between, so going to bus stop is painful. A lot of cold winds too.

More central districts with ~5 story buildings are ok. Guess what, they're going to bulldoze those in Moscow, replace with aforementioned.

Not sure about the outskirts, but the urban cores are definitely not desolate and with no amenities. But I agree, ex-USSR urban planning is getting worse. Still not bad, compared to NYC.

Most of apartments that late USSR built would rank as "projects" in the USA. Yes there's less crime because their mixed occupants usually have work and life, but they're far from comfortable.

Most of NYC's homes are suburbia or town houses I guess (over tunnel and bridge) which for all of their shortcomings provide much better quality of life.

First of all, the projects often do not look bad, and if you fill them with more or less decent public are nice buildings. Now, speaking of "better quality of life" -- no they do not. I lived in condos in NYC (brooklyn), and they all universally were bad - built in 1920s, made literally from paper, stinky, could hear my neighbors, required constant maintenance, had no public areas to speak of. Soviet condo buildings may be dull on outside, but they require almost zero maintenance. My building is built in 1965 and it is still like new - no mold, no stink, no cracks. American plywood condos do not last even 25 years without starting looking rundown. Besides, I have nice playground nearby, beautiful greenery, a small park across the street.

I guess you were lucky. 1965 was a top year for USSR after all. I used to live in the flat like that in Moscow, everything you listed was there, but it was kinda frustrating there was nowhere to buy fresh bread or eat out in the walking distance. I may sound grumpy at that, I guess. You could walk 25 minutes for a mall with multiplex.

Now I'm living in apartment in historic Saint Petersburg borough, and that makes for a huge difference. I have maybe 20 bars & restaurants in the walking distance! A few farmers' shops too. I can walk to three different cinemas and a theatre! I live next door to an university!

So I think that european-style urban cores should continue to be The Thing.

The better formula is 'no empty walls'. Vancouver does this. Retail doesn't fit in every single location when that's the case ground floor is replaced by street level townhouse style entrances to individual units..

Exactly, NYC has a glut of unused ground floor retail space and a housing shortage, simultaneously.

It's so bad most commercial listings usually have something along the lines of "Not suitable as living space" in them. That's because you can rent a small ground floor office in some of the further north neighborhoods of Manhattan for almost half the price of the same square foot apartment, with similar amenities.

The kitchen will be tiny (so is the one in your apartment), the bathroom will be tiny (so is the one in your apartment), and the offices might be tiny (so is your bedroom in your apartment).

I understand you need egresses in case of fire and things like that which many offices don't have such things, but I feel they would be better served as apartments since they stay vacant for years at a time.

Indeed. My wife and I explored opening an "art gallery" in Mott Haven/South Bronx in a cool old warehouse that cost less than our small apartment. It didn't work out for a number of reasons but the size of the space was a tremendous value.

I wonder, what is the realistic chance of being caught and penalized for doing this anyway? Maybe it’d be worth it; maybe some folks are already doing this.

There is a "professional office" in a storefront two blocks from my office that I believe is just a guy's house. In my exploration of doing the same I found the following problems:

- no lease protections due to the lies you need to tell in order to get the commercial lease

- vermin issues in ground floor units (not bad until you need to store food and have bedding or clothes around)

- lease terms that are usually much longer than a residential lease

- lack of a shower in many commercial units (fixable but adds to the cost and may tip off a landlord)

- generally undesirable living situation (poor ventilation, light, loud businesses next door, layout)

- expense - these units are cheaper than similarly sized apartments, but they aren't usually cheap enough for one person alone, and the floorplans usually don't make for great roommate situations

I think it would work really well as a pied a terre though, if you have another place close to the city and can afford the commercial unit. Sleeping in your office is totally legal and does not run afoul of most commercial leases. Using it as a residence violates the lease.

This article discusses the damage that empty walls (or blocks) do to the pedestrian realm. You might find it interesting.


I moved to Chicago last year from a small non-walkable Southern city and I was thrilled by the public transit. I'm thankful I don't have to drive when ice gets everywhere.

My gripe is that public transit is largely optimized for getting to and from downtown. I think the city could benefit from a half ring train line from, say, Rogers Park through Garfield Park (it'd have to be bulletproof), past Midway with a terminus in Hyde Park. It'd be nicer and faster than negotiating all the complicated bus lines. Just an idea if the city ever has $20 billion dollars just lying around.

A developer friend told me that one of his biggest problems are accounting related. I probably have this wrong, but I think he was saying that if he has commercial tenants, everything can be depreciated over 20 years. If the building is residential, then the depreciation schedule is 30 years. When you have a building that contains a mix of the two, it gets complicated.

27.5 residential and 39 commercial, but the problem remains. It isn't that big of a deal. Creating different depreciation schedules for different items on a property should be done no matter what (fences are 5 years, for example).

I’m going to ask for your source. Not because I doubt you, but because I wonder what other interesting depreciations exist. I never knew a fence had a 5 year tax lifetime.

Have you ever seen a fence with a post about an inch from a building wall? That is great to reduce decay, but it also makes it a separate structure and depreciable as a fence instead of an extension of the building. Or so they say. I find it hard to imagine it would actually matter to an auditor. And yes, best source is the IRS. Appliances for example have their own depreciation schedule, etc. What I do is on any larger purchase just quick search in the depreciation tables to help make the decision on how/whether to do it. But many items are now 100% depreciable first year with the new tax codes, and I am not up to snuff on that at all.

It should be on the IRS website. They determine the "useful life" of various capital goods and the set the depreciation schedule. Another example I believe is that cars have a 7 year life for tax purposes.

That's an interesting point. I wonder if tax-incentivizing mixed use development by allowing a short depreciation period could create the same desired result as mandating it.

I did not know that about Chicago amazing.

I think its interesting how people complain loudly if they lose a stretch of beach, but don't seem to complain if a stretch of the street becomes a blight for the next 100 years (or the life of the building)

If you have a chance to go to Chicago, try taking a couple of architecture tours, preferably one on the river and one on the roads. They're easily worth the money, and explain how Chicago's planning is done.

Agreed. The river boat tours are very well done and unique. I lived there for years without doing one and have been twice since on return visits.

It may push down retail rents but it will push up other rents, as now developers have to set aside retail space that there may be no demand for, when it could otherwise go to increased supply (lower rents) for residential or office or whatever.

Adding an additional floor to a multi-story building during construction is not overly expensive (helped a friend with a building project in Lincoln Park).

EDIT: Caveat is once you go from mid-rise to high-rise; price jumps, but your per sq ft costs will continue to decline from ~$200/sq ft to $175/sq ft (Chicago market).

> Chicago has also come around to the notion that streets aren't "for cars."

I wish drivers in my city would realize this. Some of them act like anything other than a car in the street is a personal insult.

Houston is unfortunately the same. I've been run off the road, honked at and chased while riding my bike on the city streets. We have police on cycles (and horses for that matter) but not enough so Houston has sort of punted and created dedicated bike lanes. It's a start.

They key to the best neighborhoods for walk-ability isn't just retail. It is retail with narrow store fronts. By keeping the store fronts narrow you create a situation where you have a lot more variety per walking distance. SOMA (south of market in san francisco) is way less good than it could be because there is so much less variety than say 24th street in the mission, or valencia in the mission or Green/Union etc. in North Beach.

> mandates that all new development from a simple three-story building to a 100-story skyscraper has retail at its base

This presumably drives things away from market equilibrium (a mandate wouldn't have been needed otherwise). What is it that gets to bear the cost of this? Does the cost come in the shape of, say, fewer homes, or fewer offices? Is the intent to make the city a better place, but for fewer people (compared to what a market would have done)?

> This is something that certain cities have understood for many years. Chicago

There is a big contradiction here, I haven't really seen walkable streets in Chicago (lived there for a year and a half). When I think of an American city with walkable streets I think of Boston for example.

Unless you lived in some far-out neighborhood and never went downtown, I really have a hard time believing you. I lived there ten years, after growing up in New York, and it was very walkable. I ended up getting rid of both of my family's cars because we could walk or CTA everywhere.

I'd say the loop is kind-of-walkable. But you always end up having to cross large streets made for cars and at night it's empty.

Compare that to a city like London or Paris.

London and Paris also have large streets made for cars, and also has lots of streets that are empty at night. Even the Champs Elysées and Oxford St will be empty at certain times during the week.

Oxford St wasn't made for cars (horse carriages rather) and will likely be closed to traffic in a few years. There were some projects in the 70s-80s to make the city more car-friendly (mainly via one-way roads) but they're about to reverse that to slow down traffic. One of the busiest junctions in the city (bank) has already been closed to all traffic except buses during the day.

Having slow traffic helps pedestrians and increases the incentive to use the tube instead of a cab or car.

> London and Paris also have large streets made for cars

Haha. In London Zone 1, not so much. Some of those streets date back to the Romans. And it was not re-laid out after the fire of 1666.

The wider streets in inner London pre-date 1900, and were made for animal-drawn carriages.

> London and Paris also have large streets made for cars


> also has lots of streets that are empty at night

of course, but the parts that are lively are huge, try walking in Soho.

I moved to Chicago last July and am in the process of getting rid of my car. I hate driving here.

I'd be curious to hear why you say that. What makes Boston more walkable than Chicago?

I lived there for about six months, that was the first time I realized it was possible—even preferable—to live in a city without a car.

I'm mostly comparing to european cities. Chicago is definitely more walkable than a lot of cities, but it's nothing like european cities where you can walk around for hours and still be amazed at how much life there is around you.

As much as I want the correlation to be causation looking at any of the maps in this article makes me almost wonder how much of the effect is due to the fact that downtowns get made walkable rather than anything else.

New York City is the archetypal example of this kind of policy.

Even better, look at Hong Kong. Almost every single high rise has a mall at the bottom with a dim sum restaurant.

Note that you said high rise. A 2 story building with half dedicated to retail has too much retail in general (in some specific situations it might make sense, but if every building did that there simply isn't enough need for retail space). However a 100 story building with only one floor retail needs more retail space to satisfy the residents' needs.

That also depends on the location. In a residential neighborhood, that might be too much retail, but in Times Square it might be appropriate. There are walkable low-rise neighborhoods in Queens where the main drag is all 1-3 story buildings with retail in the ground (and sometimes second) floor and sometimes apartments above the retail. Meanwhile, around the corner are entire all-residential blocks. This works and is still walkable because getting from all-residential to retail is just a quick walk around the corner.

Agreed, which is why cities should ensure a certain level of population density around retail.

Reminds me of https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=16158918

"How Automakers Invented the Crime of “Jaywalking” "

It's always a tradeoff...

- super dense cities like Tokyo or New York can feel suffocating. A lot of people can't bear it. The lack of green space, and the overcrowding of people and cars increases the stress levels by a lot. Yet, being able to walk around the city is excellent for exercising and mindfulness, it's easier to meet with people, etc.

- super sparse cities (like LA or Brasilia) on the other end tend to isolate people, and to mediate the experience of daily life. Life is constantly split by episodes of driving / parking. Yet, these cities offer a lot of space, greenery and privacy.

The fact that both very dense cities and sparse cities exist and are successful only shows that different people enjoy different kinds of cities, so it would be a bit preposterous to claim that one style is better over another.

That said, electric cars and self driving car fleets will most likely help reduce pollution (both noise and air) by a lot and make living in dense city much easier.

People always focus on these extreme endpoints, but to get a vibrant walkable neighborhood you don't need anything remotely close to New York or Tokyo densities.

My street in Somerville, MA has a WalkScore (91) that's higher than the average score for New York city (89), yet every building in my neighborhood is detached and three stories tall. I have a back yard with grass. Not a big one, but it feels nothing like lower Manhattan. And I can walk or bike to literally everything I need in a given week.

People equate "crowded" and "ugly" with "walkable" when it's just not accurate. Being more green and more attractive is literally one of the components of being walkable, because people need to actually want to walk.

Is it really fair to compare Somerville to NYC? For example since you post on Ynews and live in Somerville, there's a high chance you work at MIT or one of the offices at Kendall. It's almost like someone who lives on 70th street in NYC, and works on 55th saying "NYC is perfectly walkable, most weeks I can get everywhere I need to by just walking." I.e. I don't really know whether it's worth talking about small towns or neighborhoods in the context of this thread.

In terms of density, yeah, I think they are comparable. At least, as much as any other place in the US is comparable to NYC. Somerville's astounding density is one of my favorite facts, since it seems so neighborhood-y to walk through. Somerville is the most dense area in the US outside of the metropolitan areas of NYC, LA, and Miami. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_United_States_cities_b...

The GP's point was that we should look at extremes between super dense cities and super sparse cities, and Somerville fits nicely there.

Somerville is a very dense city by American standards. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_United_States_cities_b...

It would also be illegal to build almost any of Somerville as it exists using current building codes, in Somerville. Discussion from a year and a half ago: https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=11918230

You remember an apartment fire there about a year ago by any chance?

> super dense cities like Tokyo or New York can feel suffocating. A lot of people can't bear it. The lack of green space, and the overcrowding of people and cars increases the stress levels by a lot.

I strongly suspect when people say that, they're thinking of the day time population of the tourist/business districts in those cities. The daytime population of Manhattan is nearly 4 million people, mostly concentrated below 130th street. The density is probably 200k-250k people per square mile. The resident population density is actually only 70,000 people per square mile. I was there after Hurricane Sandy, when the commuters and tourists were gone, and it was empty.

Here is a typical side street in Rogers Park Chicago: https://www.google.com/maps/@42.0103744,-87.6640436,3a,75y,2.... At 30,000 people per square mile, it's about double the average density of Tokyo.

Here's one of the newer business districts in Tokyo: https://www.google.com/maps/@35.6807167,139.7630674,3a,75y,9.... That area probably has way above the average population density of the city.

Agreed. I would feel suffocated if I lived in Midtown Manhattan.

In my Brooklyn neighborhood the density feels fairly low (10-15 visible in the street). Green space isn't great for most but I happen to live two blocks from a park.

Many places in Manhattan also feel like this if they aren't business or nightlife heavy.

> That area probably has way above the average population density of the city.

Interestingly, Chiyoda, the Tokyo ward in which the street view you provided is located, has the lowest population (by which I mean the `resident' population density) among all wards in central Tokyo[1]. I believe that this strongly supports your point that the `suffocating' parts of a city does not really have many people living there.

[1]: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Special_wards_of_Tokyo#List_of...

The same goes for Hong Kong. Shopping districts like Causeway Bay https://www.google.com.hk/maps/@22.2784287,114.1833788,3a,75... and Central https://www.google.com.hk/maps/@22.2821186,114.1578335,3a,75... can be suffocating.

And yet the most densely populated districts don't feel all that bad for the most part. Kwun Tong https://www.google.com.hk/maps/@22.3138909,114.2268051,3a,60... and Wong Tai Sin https://www.google.com.hk/maps/@22.3435765,114.1929784,3a,75... for example. But Mong Kok is a subdistrict in Yau Tsim Mong, famous for being the most densely populated place in the world.. AND it's a shopping district too, with huge influx after working hours. https://www.google.com.hk/maps/@22.319367,114.1699535,3a,75y...

Even from the perspective of personal preference, I think it's fair to say that, at least in the US, there is a wide variety of sparse cities for people to choose from, and only a few actually dense cities. This leaves those preferring density at a relative disadvantage.

Unrelated: it's unclear to me how self-driving cars can help pollution. They're a solution to the problem of the high cost of labor, and not much else. If anything, self-driving cars will make it cheaper for everyone to ride cars everywhere, and so people will more often ride cars everywhere, and more pollution will be the result.

> This leaves those preferring density at a relative disadvantage.

100% agree. I much prefer to live in a dense, urban, walkable area, but most built environments that satisfy these criteria violate modern zoning regulations.

So, the USA's supply of pleasant, dense environments is dwindling because every time an olde/walkable area revitalizes enough to attract new development, that new development must comply with modern zoning, and kills the thing that that makes the area attractive.

It's thoroughly frustrating.

The only city I've been in the US that made me think "wow, that's kind of walkable" was Boston. Are there any other dense cities I should visit?

There's lots of old, walkable downtowns in the midwest that have a feeling of appropriate density.

Most of them are part of old cities that are past their prime in economic vitality, so those areas don't have the same liveliness as what you might get in downtown Boston. (I used to work for a company based there, and would spend hours walking around at night.)

I'd recommend Pittsburgh for walkability, too. It's one of the most delightful cities I've wandered around recently.

Unfortunately, even Boston, Pittsburgh, NYC, and the lesser-known but walkable/dense areas are pretty unappealing when compared to some cities in south/central america and Europe, that were built before cars took over everything.

I suspect once a few large cities go bankrupt and cannot enforce their zoning regulations, new construction will move in the direction of rational density again.

There are a couple pictures from the article that are in Hoboken, NJ. (My home-town although the article doesn't call it out.). The city is consistently rated among the most walkable cities in the US. It's right across the river from NYC but feels even more walkable than NYC.

This said, the only reason why Hoboken and many other walkable cities can get public-support for being so walkable (and encouraging city planning as such) is the ample public-transit options.

This leads to no need for having a car which leads to most people not having one which leads to most people preferring walkable versus drivable. It's kind of a chicken-and-egg problem.

Lots of DT areas of cities are walkable, but Boston is kind of unique in that it has miles and miles of walkable streets. Its urban core is just really big.

Portions of Seattle are very walkable (From the International District going north, quite a few miles), and individual parts of Chicago are walkable. Heck there are 2 or 3 mile stretches of San Diego are walkable (there might be more than that, I only spent a week there!)

Seattle is among the most walkable cities in the US but San Diego is not. The nominally walkable areas of San Diego are for tourists with tourist desires; locals don’t live there for the most part and for good reason. I loved living there but walkable it was not.

Seattle, on the other hand, is a city where I’ve never really needed a car no matter where I lived or worked. I think that part of the lifestyle is brilliant. I have a car, but the battery goes dead between usages as often as not.

Northgate, West Seattle, Delridge. There are lots of suburban enclaves within the city.

Seattle has plenty of walkable parts, but I grew up in a working class suburban neighborhood within the city where driving to the store was most certainly necessary.

I wouldn't call Chicago and San Diego walkable (I'm talking about like european cities walkable)

> Chicago

Some individual portions of Chicago are very walkable. Likewise with some small bits of San Diego, though you are right, not as good as European cities.

I don't know about European cities, but it's generally easier to walk around the San Diego Gaslamp Quarter than it is to drive.

Gaslamp is a tourist area, you wouldn’t want to live there, there isn’t much around. It used to be really dodgy, no one sensible would go there, but they rehabilitated it to a significant extent. Unfortunately, it is mostly only frequented by 20-somethings getting drunk at the myriad bars and tourists.

I was there two weeks ago. It’s pretty much one street with a dozens of bars. Quite empty during the week.

San Francisco is quite walkable -- when I lived there, within a 5 block radius (roughly a 10 minute walk) I had 2 grocery stores, at least a half dozen corner markets, miscellaneous shops (dry cleaner, shoe repair, a cigar store, produce market, etc), numerous bars and restaurants.

The entire city is only 7 miles wide, so about half the city is within a 30 minute walking radius.

Most cities have a walkable area someplace, normally just outside of downtown (close enough to downtown that residents walk downtown), but often note actually downtown. Often is is just a few blocks so it is easy to miss (and there is a lot of traffic which is not ideal)

Brooklyn. Provincetown, MA. Charlestown, SC

Isn't this pretty much true by definition, though? People who want density will tend to all go to the same relatively few places (that's how you get density), whereas people who want to avoid density will go to different places (because if they all went to the same place it would become dense).

Most people have much more complex wants and density if at best a small part of the picture.

People want the best of all worlds. I want to own 100 acres (for my pet goats - even though I don't have the time to care for them I want them). I want my kid's school to be a most 200 meters from my front door (with a playground). I want my office, church, a dozen restaurants, and 30 other retail stores to be at most 500 meters from my front door. I'm not rich enough to afford that though so I have to compromise. Even if I was that rich, it is not possible for more than 2 people rich enough to afford that to live within 1000 meters of each other, and to support that requires thousands of not rich people living in 1000 meters.

People will choose a walkable neighborhood when they think it is a good compromise. Some valuable large livestock more than others and so will be late to move to the walkable city. Others want to spend their free time at the theater and will move to the walkable neighborhood early just because it is the fastest way to bed after the late night show. Most people are not so into either choice that one answer is obvious.

If you want a walkable neighborhood to work you need to fix the local schools. At least in the US most walkable neighborhoods are old areas of town where the schools are bad, those who want children feel compelled to move to the suburbs and the car lifestyle just because of how much better the schools are.

If you want walkable neighborhoods you need to fix zoning so that it is possible for them to happen. Strongtowns has a lot of analysis of what makes it possible - there are thousands of subtle things required, heavy handed efforts tend to leave a lot of the subtle problems in place.

When the streets are only used by self driving cars, then traffic will flow much more smoothly. No accidents, no police stops, one speed, smooth computer merging. Less hard acceleration and braking, less idling, less time spent in a running vehicle by each user.

You have a lot more faith in technology than I do -- there will still be accidents, as good as self-driving cars are, they are still subject to the laws of physics and sometimes cars will run into each other or other objects or people.

We already have effectively self-driving cars with Uber and other car-sharing services, and all you need to do is go to SFO's departure level during peak travel times to see the traffic havoc that self-driving cars will bring -- too many cars and not enough curb space to drop off/pick up everyone.

When self-driving cars are cheap and plentiful then downtown streets will look the same -- self-driving cars will more than double car traffic since instead of 200 employees driving to work and parking into the parking garage (making one trip), now 1000 employees will be dropped off by their self-driving car, which will then have to drive away to park or look for the next passenger, making a second trip on already crowded streets.

The key really is self driving only. No human drivers. Communication between cars and road systems. At that point, collision avoidance becomes only about pedestrians, animals, and other random objects that enter the street unexpectedly. The self driving car will be able to see, predict, and respond to that, and communicate the need to stop to the cars behind far faster than a human driver.

With inter-car communication, there won't be any confusion about where each car intends to go. No long waits for an opening.

Car design will push towards passenger comfort, and no longer towards "power" and "handling". This could mean smaller cars overall. 1-2 passenger vehicles could be common.

Yeah, it's definitely far down the road, and there will be a lot of forces that'll make it difficult to reach, but I think self driving cars are a chance to make things better.

random objects that enter the street unexpectedly. The self driving car will be able to see, predict

How does a self-driving car predict the unexpected? Braking distance of a 30mph car is 45 ft (ignoring reaction time) so anything that happens less than 45 feet in front of a self-driving car is going to need evasive action. On a busy street with cars in all lanes, the self-driving car is going to need to decide whether to hit the object (which could be a person darting across the street), or swerve into the car next to it.

You're forgetting that the cars in front need to break as well.

With an intelligent mesh the emergency lane abort order will propagate from one to many within the local area and a standard algorithm will determine what each traveling vehicle must do as they all react at the same time to avoid the intruding objects and bring energy in play to a minimum, hopefully zero, value in the affected area.

At the same time emergency response services would automatically be notified as well.

You're forgetting that the cars in front need to break as well.

I don't understand? A pedestrian steps in front of a 30mph self driving car that's 20 feet away. There's a sidewalk to the right and oncoming traffic to the left.

The car needs 45 feet to stop, so it's going to strike the pedestrian. Which I assume you recognize this since you said EMS will be called.

You may think it's unlikely that a pedestrian will step right in front of a car, but wait until pedestrians are trained that the car will always stop for them.

yes this particular prediction of the future doesn't make too much sense to me.

if a car were to drive as if every thing in its vicinity has the potential to move rapidly in front of the car, and hence it takes precautions for all potential accidents, it can't be moving very fast can it? if it is traveling on a busy street with a lot of vehicular traffic and pedestrians on the sidewalk, must it take precautions for each and every vehicle and person around it? how fast can such a self driving car possibly go, if this were to be the case?

Yes, it must. This is why speeds drop in downtowns and residential areas, because lower speeds provide more safety for pedestrians. A good human driver also takes account of this by reducing speed and paying better attention.

Self-driving cars can significantly reduce the need for parking space, which in itself is not great for the environment and causes many transit distances to be longer.

I think it's possible that self driving cars could increase total driving like you explain, but i think it's also possible that they will drive down car ownership. Once you pay primarily based on usage (parking, insurance, depreciation are mostly fixed costs), you are more likely to drive sparingly.

Self-driving in itself won't help, but it's much more feasible for a fully autonomous system of cars to be totally electric since you can plan for the charging logistics as part of the system's design.

A walkable, pro-self-driving-car city could also theoretically tax self-driving-car rides to offset environmental impact.

Maybe I'm wrong on that one, but I'm thinking that when cars and bus drive themselves, there will probably a lot more cheap options to go from one place to another than using one's own car.

Dense cities will most likely restrict access to personal cars by a lot (using congestion fees or whatever), that's why I think that self driving cars will bring down the number of cars in the city.

> Unrelated: it's unclear to me how self-driving cars can help pollution.

Well, d--b said "both noise and air". Drivers can contribute a fair amount of noise in busy cities when they get irate and lay on the horn...

Some corrections...

Tokyo is not a super dense city like New York. It has half the urban density as New York and doesn't even show up in the top 20 most-dense cities.

You also cannot put Los Angeles and Brasilia together. Brasilia has 1/8th the urban density of Los Angeles. Brasilia might as well be a suburb.

Furthermore, I am not sure how you are defining success but population and even GDP are not guaranteed measurements of a successful cities. A city can be both populous and miserable, such as Beijing, or economically insignificant and happy, such as San Luis Obispo, CA. So I would reconsider your claim... in truth, the happiest cities are among the most walkable.

>super dense cities like Tokyo or New York can feel suffocating

Not all of Tokyo looks like Shibuya Crossing! Do a Google search for "Tokyo residential neighborhood". You'll find mostly two- or three-story buildings. The main difference? Streets are extremely narrow by North American standards and represent alleyways. This sort of development is what urbanists describe with the buzzword "human-scale".

I don't think it is some decision or planning that leads to this. New York is so dense because it is geographically constrained, and as the city grew it had no where to expand out to, so it had to become more dense to grow. Los Angeles, on the other hand, was created as smaller cities grew outward and connected to each other.

They are both successful in growth for different reasons, but their density was determined by geography, not by 'what people enjoy'.

Los Angeles has extremely strict parking requirements, and green space requirements. People often have no choice but to build out due to expense. There was a fantastic write up on Reddit by an architect on the issue here https://www.google.com/amp/s/amp.reddit.com/r/LosAngeles/com...

Chicago was built densely, and it's flat Illinois land as far as the eye can see for 180 degrees. Zoning codes force people to build more densely than they otherwise would. The average lot size in my neighborhood (laid out before zoning codes) is 2,800 square feet. The minimum lot size in the county today is 15,000 square feet (five times less dense).

> their density was determined by geography, not by 'what people enjoy'.

But whether people choose to live in them is determined by what people enjoy.

No it's not.

People tend to stay in the area they were born.

People tend to stay near their family.

People tend stay were they can find work.

People can't always afford to just up and move.

Not everyone is living on a six figure salary with a slew of job offers to chose from. Most people don't have the options you may have.

People don't make decisions in a vacuum. I don't get to choose where I want to live based solely on what I enjoy. A big part of what keeps people in a city is the network effect; cities are where the jobs are, so the people have to live there, which makes companies want to move to where the employees are, which makes people live there.....

Plus, you have families, cost of moving, home ownership, etc, that keeps you in a place even if you might enjoy living somehwere else more.

You're probably just thinking of Times Square. The vast majority of people that live even in Manhattan do not live in horribly suffocating/overcrowded neighborhoods. To give you one example, I live in Stuyvesant Town, which has a population density of 200k/mi^2 (which is greater than the overall population density of Manhattan at 170k/mi^2), and yet Stuyvesant Town feels positively residential. It's full of parks, playgrounds, trees, green spaces, walking paths, etc., and it certainly never feels overcrowded. If anything it feels like a respite from the parts of Manhattan that do get super-crowded, which are inevitably the commercial/tourististic hubs.

It takes population densities of greater than 1M/mi^2 to truly feel overcrowded, and even in NYC you only see such densities in localized incredibly high-traffic spots, like Times Square and Herald Square. The vast majority of Manhattan is never so crowded as to feel suffocating.

Ironically, the suburb/city of LA my parents live in (Glendale) felt extremely walkable and not suffocating.

My parents live in a residential area that looks like your average American suburb - no stores, just houses and cars. But if you walk west of their house for 10 mins, you go to a large boulevard full of restaurants, shops, and people hanging out. It felt like a nice balance, but I doubt there are many jobs in there for the residents, so most do make the highway trip to LA proper.

It's more what the gov't is subsidizing than what people enjoy. EG in the US it's easy to get a loan for a new single family detached house, gas taxes are low, lots of "general fund" money goes towards building highways, ample free/underpriced parking in every downtown. Contrast to Denmark where there is 100% taxes on cars, little parking, big investments in biking and transit.

Autonomous cars are going to give the suburbs a new lease on life. They will make it easier than ever to live in far flung places because you'll be able to work from the car on the way to work. Autonomous cars will require less parking downtown, but I imagine they'll convert the parking to driving lanes for the widely anticipated massive increase in vehicle miles travelled.

"A lot of people can't bear it"

You wouldn't know if by the tens of millions of people who live in those densest cities. It seems like an astronomical numbers of people can "bear it" just fine.

>super dense cities like Tokyo or New York can feel suffocating

I guess to some people but I love NYC and find strolling in central park very unsuffocating. The main problem with NYC is most people do like it and would quite like to move there so the prices are bid stupidly high. Property prices being high because people want to move to a place are generally a sign of successful design.

I didn't think Tokyo felt that dense when I was there but very big to get around - over 100km long and taxis costing something like the price of international flight within europe.

Manhattan feels way more congested than Tokyo. In Herald Square and Times Square, pedestrian traffic is so overwhelming it often halts to a standstill. I never really felt uncomfortably overcrowded in Tokyo.

I live in Boulder and attribute much of the quality of life here to walkable (and bikeable) streets. We have hundreds of miles of multi-use paths that are used extensively for getting around and for recreation. Our main road downtown has a pedestrian mall for a number of blocks that keeps traffic away and lends itself to street performers, community events, and a generally calming atmosphere.

Downtown parking lots are free on the weekends and just $1.25 / hour during the week — this keeps people from circling around looking for the absolute closest spot to where they are trying to go.

You can bike (or technically walk though it's >25 miles) from Boulder to Denver on a dedicated path nearly the entire time.

Boulder's a great place in many ways, but it's also what got me really interested in urbanism, and getting involved at a local level, because it is an abject failure in terms of being affordable to even middle-class people who didn't buy in 30 years ago, with average house prices somewhere around 700K or north of that.

This is, in part, because they refuse to add denser areas like the downtown in more parts of the city, despite there being ample room to build 'in and up'.

I mean... if Aspen or something like that is expensive, it is what it is, but a larger town with ample space like Boulder or Bend (where I ended up) or Palo Alto should not have these crazy prices.

I don't disagree. Boulder does well by the people who can afford to live here but seemingly (I'm still new) does little to offer affordable options.

You go around Boulder and it doesn't feel like a city — this is part of the charm and also part of the problem.

They don't need skyscrapers or other big city stuff. Just more 3/4 story buildings that use their available lot well. You don't even have to mandate that; just get rid of the restrictions and market forces would gradually drive things in that way.

A lot of the population of Boulder doesn't even get to live areas that are especially walkable. Gunbarrel and all the neighborhoods East of 30th sort of require a car. Technically you can still bike but downtown or the campus are a long way, especially in snow or rain. And, unless it has changed, the bus doesn't run all night...

Oh no, Boulder housing and land use is a mess of issues. For instance, imagine the 2011 flood with 10x the population density or the craziness of the Hill with even 2x more students. Let's not get started on Maple Hill's snootiness.

The prices would level out if other towns would also work on becoming more attractive. It seems Americans are conditioned to build towns that are mainly used to drive through and not live there.

This book discusses why that's easier said than done:


There are 'network effects' at least in terms of jobs and that environment. You'd have to convince a bunch of VC's to move to wherever along with a bunch of tech workers.

I think the case of Boulder it was first a nice place that then attracted companies.

There's usually a catalyst (New York was a good port or something), but after that it becomes difficult to replicate.

> multi-use paths that are used extensively

Is that really true?

I live in a smaller version of Boulder. University town, we have a walkable downtown, trails and paths, and yes you see people using them. But the reality is that it's a tiny, tiny fraction of the people who live here. Same with buses. There are a few routes that service big apartment complexes and go too and from campus. Those get used. The others drive around empty, or with a few people on them.

There is a ton of money being spent on this kind of feel-good-ism, for the benefit of (relatively) very few people.


Trails and paths are considered (or should be considered) part of a city's recreation system as well. Chances are that the trail and bike path was converted from railway right-of-way meaning it was built for fairly cheap. I'd argue that even if a trail wasn't used for commuting it has served another purpose: to make people feel good.

Also, there's a lot of reasons why people might not bike to work; a lack of biking infrastructure is just one of those reasons.

>Same with buses. There are a few routes that service big apartment complexes and go too and from campus. Those get used. The others drive around empty, or with a few people on them.

One goal of public transportation is to provide a mobility alternative to private car ownership for those who, for whatever reason, can't drive (or bike, or walk). For those relatively few people, a bus that runs every half-hour or so is much more useful than a bus that only runs twice in the morning and evening. But it's likely they depend on it. So yes, a lot of bus routes will be empty by design. It's a lot like how Amtrak uses popular routes like the Acela to subsidize train routes to very small towns.

There is a ton of money being spent on vehicle infrastructure as well. People complain about empty buses, but we must consider that cars with a single occupant are only operating at 20%-25% capacity. Also think about all the land zoning for large backyards, and how often they are void of kids or people. Shared community parks and trails are probably a better use of space.

> Is that really true?

No I made it up to help prove my point. :)

Yes, people young and old use these paths for nature walks, running, biking, commuting, taking the dog out for a stroll around the neighborhood, and more. We even have people do roller skiing (which I hadn't heard of before I moved here).

Your town might not have self-selected for people who like the outdoors. It seems even the students at CU have chosen to attend the university because of the prevalence of multi-use paths (there are loads of them cutting through the campus and college housing areas) and proximity to nature trails (many can be reached by bike or bus).

I've waited 50 years for an organization like Strong Towns to combine a) sound accounting and b) urban architecture in a USA context. These guys are sobering consequentialists, testing principles against their realized potential. That's a breath of fresh air cutting across party electioneers, subsidy seekers, wishful thinkers and noisy promoters. Great publication.

I pay a pretty hefty premium to live in the only walkable neighborhood in Atlanta, Midtown, and even then I'd only call it "barely walkable." There's still not nearly enough density for me to spend a whole lot of time walking around.

Still, you can't put a price on having a grocery store, train station, liquor store, neighborhood bar, and cheap Mediterranean restaurant all within a 5 minute walk. As much as I'm paying, it's worth it.

Now if only I could convince my favorite coffee shop proprietor to open up a shop nearby...

I've started my search to buy a place in Midtown, precisely because of the walkability. The prices really do reflect it..

Yeah, and if you're not right inside the Juniper - Spring St Corridor, you may as well live in West Midtown. Brutal.

Kicking myself for not trying harder to buy into the Metropolis back when 1-beds still went for <$250k

>Still, you can't put a price on having a grocery store, train station, liquor store, neighborhood bar, and cheap Mediterranean restaurant all within a 5 minute walk.

Whoever you're paying money to did just that.

And they should think about a hefty rent hike when it's time to sign the next lease. From the GP's comment it sounds like they left money on the table.

With all the new construction going on in this part of the city, I'd be really surprised if rents stay at this level over the near run.

It's nice to see her mentioned here. If you've had any architectural education you got to read Jacobs. It's also amazing that we need to rediscover her 60 years later.

I've often wondered why somone moderately wealthy doesn't just start a super dense town, e.g. everything within 100 acres, and be within 10 miles of a major city.

Create tons of these at a 50K people/sqmi density and implement some sort of hub spoke transportation with the major city being the hub and it could work!

That concept has already been implemented. Urban planners who practice it call it "new urbanism".

It has been a mixed bag, but is better than the "malls-connected-by-highways" approach of many suburban development s.

Too much density decreases the quality of life. Overcrowdedness, very long waiting times at every establishment or government office, increased ease of pickpockets etc. to "disappear into the crowd", higher prices. You already see all this in many existing cities; you want that, but worse? I'll take malls connected by highways over that any day. Malls are nice and cars are a better experience than transit/walking in every facet besides the fact of not being able to web browse on a phone while doing it.

I don't know where you live, but you clearly never experienced a city the way it's being described by the others in this thread. I currently live in the US in a small town in the midwest after a long stint in California (socal first then bay area).

Previously I lived for a few years in Madrid, an extremely dense city by western standards. I used to walk home from the office (roughly a mile and a half) when the weather was good, took metro and walked in bad weather. Bars and restaurants were all over the place, and it wasn't unusual I would walk by a store with something nice in the window and decide to go inside to see if I wanted to buy (young dude with a lot of disposable income, that was nice).

Over time I got to create relationships with the owners of the stores I would visit more frequently, and it wasn't rare to meet coworkers randomly by getting a beer in a bar with a friend. We would join groups and my social circle would naturally change over time.

Fast forward to now: I go from home to work, then back. I never meet anyone I haven't made plans to meet. I buy everything online. I haven't made a new friend in 3 years, and the variability of my social circle is also very limited. I'm bored all the time, and I eat too much and watch too much tv because I have no idea what to do with some of my free time. It sucks, and I wish I could go back to that lifestyle because it was a lot more fun than anything I experienced in the US.

To play devil's advocate, I have a lot of your current problems and live in NYC in a pretty dense area.

Back when I lived in a far more suburban city I was able to play golf with friends, go hiking, and take road trips to see places and people. Restaurants were much more affordable and I rarely needed a reservation, stores weren't completely swarmed with people during the times I could visit them (which makes buying everything online easier). Everyone had a washer and dryer. People invited friends over for BBQs in their backyards. On weekends it was actually faster to go places than on weekdays, so I could visit people who lived in faraway parts of town and it was no big deal (in NYC I barely get to see my friends in Queens, it takes forever to get there). After dealing with so many people and broken down subways a lot of days I'm just tired and want to go home, so I end up just being home a lot.

Now, there are a lot of reasons I like living in NYC and choose to do so, but there are serious trade offs to living in a very dense environment and there are some awesome things about living in a low density environment.

The kind of challenges you face in a city surely depends on its size. NYC is very big. Fortunately, Madrid is smaller, cheaper and its public transit system is incredible for the size of the city, so you'd probably find it more manageable.

And some of us hate cities with a passion.

I'm a strong introvert. I enjoy being alone, and I'm happy living a quiet atomized life. I don't like being social, and a quiet suburban lifestyle is perfect for me.

>Malls are nice and cars are a better experience than transit/walking in every facet

This isn't even remotely true. You are forgetting the time spent finding a parking spot, the opportunity cost of having a parking lot instead of more housing or commercial space, transit/walking also provides exercise, which matters in an epidemically obese society. This doesn't even get into the pollution aspect of driving or the costs of car ownership/maintenance. Cars become a depreciating asset as soon as you buy them, should we be encouraging that type of investment?

>time spent finding a parking spot

Not a lot of time at all in my experience, certainly less than waiting for public transit or an uber to arrive.

>opportunity cost

To me it's worth it.


You walk inside the mall. And what about people with certain disabilities? Do they get left out of this walking-only city?


Emissions are improving all the time, and electric cars are on the rise.

>depreciating asset

So? Along with almost everything? Buy a used car if you're so concerned about your "asset" depreciating. You get value from it when you use it.

>Certainly less than waiting for public transit or an uber to arrive.

I can track train, bus or Uber/Lyft arrival on my phone.

>To me it's worth it.

You made that clear. For the rest of society, higher rents, heat capture and poor rainwater drainage make parking lots a net negative.

>You walk inside the mall. And what about people with certain disabilities? Do they get left out of this walking-only city?

I see plenty of disabled people on public transit and using sidewalks in my city. I'm not sure what cities your experience comes from, but my experience is different. I also don't see many obese people on public transit, but I do when walking around suburban malls.

>Emissions are improving all the time, and electric cars are on the rise.

Transportation (cars and trucks) is the biggest contributor to CO2 emissions in the US as of the past two years. https://www.vox.com/energy-and-environment/2018/1/11/1687469...

>Along with almost everything? Buy a used car if you're so concerned about your "asset" depreciating.

Except education, real estate, stocks and other large purchases people make. I actually can't think of something other than cars that people routinely pay over $10k (in December, the average new car in US sold for $36,495) for and expect it to decline in value immediately. Used cars are as much a depreciating asset as new ones. Typically the more used a car is, the more you will pay for upkeep.

Yes, you can track a train bus or uber on your phone, but you're still working around their schedule. The uber will take some time to get there and there might not be any available, and the other transit may be between scheduled departures. If it's 4:05 and the bus comes every hour, you're sitting on your hands until 5.

Rent is usually correlated with density, what do you mean by that?

My car was $1000 used, and in terms of maintenance, the most expensive repair it's needed was $30 (not missing a zero, it's thirty), having the transmission line replaced with a hose because it broke. There have been fluid changes, new tires, DMV registration etc. but that would all be the same in a newer car. I could probably sell it for more than $1000 if I wanted, but I don't want to - 28-38ish MPG and very reliable, a 1998 Ford Escort ZX2.

Haven't recent events in the housing market shown that expecting your real estate to appreciate is a mistake? Real estate can't just keep appreciating faster than inflation forever; greater fool theory only works in a market for so long. If you buy a house, plan around it depreciating.

It increases rent because it is unused half the time and takes up land that could be used for other things like housing. This limits the supply of land and increases property costs, thus increasing rents.

>If you buy a house, plan around it depreciating.

Unless the country expands or population stops growing there is a limit on the supply of land in the US. It is safe to assume a steady increase in property values over time. Certainly not 90s and early 2000s level, but steady. Even with the recession, housing prices have continued to climb in the US.

Waiting on public transit is definitely a drawback in many places (not in my city), but things like more frequent buses are something we could have if we adjusted priorities as a nation.

You seem to have made good economic decisions (specifically on your car purchase) and should be applauded for that. What I question is a society that explicitly encourages car driving over other forms of transit. This encourages people to make poor economic decisions (ex: car loans, maintenance, depreciation, insurance) because they need a car to survive in our built environment. I do not mean to question your personal decisions.

You are comparing the wrong thing. When you are in a walkable area most of the things you want to get to are closer than the distance that you walk form your car to the store in the mall.

When there are 2 good restaurants on your block, and a small grocery store: you don't need to go to the mall anymore.

It was like that at college, on-campus eating places within a 5 minute walk of my dorm. Having experienced both, I prefer driving for 5 minutes to walking for 3.

This is your prerogative; but understand that very many people do not think like you.

Entirely subjective - I will walk 20 minutes to avoid 5 minutes of driving and parking.

I completely disagree. I am far more comfortable with suburban shopping malls than any kind of urbanized environment.

I'll take a nice indoor climate-controlled environment over being exposed to the elements. I live in a part of the country where temperatures are regularly in the triple digits in the summer. I can't tolerate heat at all, which means I can't go shopping in any kind of downtown area. And then there's rain in the spring and cold temperatures in the winter... thanks, but no thanks.

And in urban areas, the streets are still full of cars, and crossing them is physically dangerous. When I worked downtown, I was nearly killed multiple times by some psycho trying to make a right turn while I was crossing the street. There are no cars inside malls, just foot traffic.

And I just love the whole aesthetic of malls. I'll walk around malls just for fun. I even work right next to a mall, so I'll sometimes go to the mall for lunch and walk a circuit or two.

Also, cars should not be considered investments. A car should be considered a sunk cost, just like any other appliance. When I buy an appliance, I'm not investing in anything or expecting to get anything back. I paid money for a tool, and that's it.

Not to mention how many people cars kill each year.

It's also much harder to safely solve crosswords, do math problems, or carry on a conversation when driving a car as compared to using transit.

> Malls are nice and cars are a better experience than transit/walking in every facet besides the fact of not being able to web browse on a phone while doing it.

This seems extremely subjective. I don't like malls very much, and won't set foot in one without good reason. I enjoy walking, and have no problem with public transport. I'd really have no interest in living somewhere where I couldn't either walk to work or take a short train/tram. Different people like different things.

    > Too much density decreases the quality of life.
Too much of anything decreases quality of life.

Everyone has their own taste, but generally speaking, if every journey out of your home has to begin and end with a parking space because you live in a pedestrian-hostile environment, that will certainly damage quality of life and the social fabric of that place as a "town".

What do you mean by the social fabric of the town? It doesn't sound like something I'd care much about. I just go to work and sometimes the grocery store, maybe a restaurant once in a while.

    > It doesn't sound like something I'd care much about. 
That's OK. It's a free country you can live where and how you want.

But recognize that many, especially increasing numbers of millennials, feel differently and this is now reshaping the demographics of cities.

I want to know what it's supposed to amount to. Talking to people randomly on the street or on the bus?

Pretty much like a Normal Rockwell painting. A community near to you and all the advantages that come with it.

- The ability to just stop by a neighbor for a drink or a chat

- Somebody to give your house keys to while you're on vacation, without inconveniencing them since they live so close

- Being able to call your doctor off hours in an emergency because you have a personal relation beyond your yearly visit

- The grapevine that will let you know if somebody saw your kid hang-out with the trashy teenagers

- Ability for your kids to walk to school, so you're not wasting your time driving them. Same for your parents, they walk for their daily groceries, instead of whining about how they no longer can drive and making you feel guilty for not chauffeuring them around

- Ability to use your neighbor's car when yours is in the shop, because he doesn't need it since he generally bikes to work

Basically, supreme convenience. A small town has everything you need for daily life, at your fingertips. There's redundancy and fallbacks literally around every corner for life's little setbacks, because you have actual convivial relationships with your neighbors.

Some people really don't care about that. Other people really do. In America, the second group is SOL. If they want that convenience, they'll pay dearly for it. In other countries, it's the other way around. The norm is the walkable town, and the exception is the sprawling burbs.

This seems to imply that most people in the US don't already have many neighbors within walking distance. I don't think that's the case at all, even in the sprawliest of suburbs. For most people, if you don't stop by your neighbor's house for a drink or a chat, or you don't have anyone nearby you can give your house keys to, it's because of lack of interest on one or both of your parts — not because you can't conveniently reach their door. Changing street layouts won't fix a problem that doesn't stem from street layouts.

No, but car-suburbs don't give you the convenience of having transportation options for all ages. It also doesn't give you the convenience of having services and amenities in walking distance.

Living close-by does strengthen informal ties, because you're more likely to run into eachother, literally. The alienation of the car-dependent suburb is admittedly a literary trope, but it is rooted in reality.

Different people, different strokes, suburbs have a different appeal. But it's a sliding scale. People that don't enjoy car-dependency have very little inexpensive options in this country. The market has spoken, and the demand for town-living is far greater than the supply. It's reflected in the house prices, virtually any metro, the walkable areas are more expensive than the car sprawl.

Most of that sounds like a normal small town, besides walking to school, which I don't think I'd ever let a kid of mine do in the city before maybe late high school.

In most towns there are school buses that have routes in the morning to bring kids to school from their houses. It's not a choice between only driving and walking.

It indeed sounds like a normal small tow!

From my perspective, we have bitter few of them. For me and many others, walkability is fundamental. It's fine if others don't agree. Our segment of the market is woefully underserved though, and we can see that in the fact that walkable neighorhoods and towns are always almost more expensive than areas that require car-dependency. I also think that price-differential is because of the constrained supply of walkable towns because collectively we prioritize speedy car travel at the expense of everything else.

Well, there's "small towns" and there's "large cities" and there's "suburbs". All three are different and within each there's significant variation.

A small town or "streetcar suburb" in Jane Jacobs parlance functions very much like a city microcosm in terms of walkability, amenities and vibe. Most modern American suburbs are entirely different than small towns.

I think it would be hard for us to understand each other, but I can respect that you very feel differently about cities.

The strength of the social fabric / level of community engagement in suburbs is way higher. Not even close.

Any data to back that up? I'd be curious to know what the ideal density is.

There is some debate on that point:


Passage begins on page 171 but I can't link to it via Google Books.

> cars are a better experience than transit/walking in every facet

I'm not sure how you came to this conclusion. There are plusses and minuses to both. IMO, the big plus with a car is freedom, but then there are many negatives like parking, traffic, and speed to destination.

If I ever move again, it will be to a location where I do not have to own a car. I hate everything about driving, and realized it's a huge source of general stress for me personally.

Parking, traffic, and speed to destination depend on where you live and your specific situation, but for a lot of people, speed to destination is always faster in a car, including parking. My commute is only 5 minutes by car and it would take a lot longer on transit.

Subjectively, I prefer being in my own space with personal temperature controls and music, and a bit of traffic would be worth it. Compared to transit, where it's often crowded, you have to look out for your stop coming up, the seats aren't generally as good, the ambient temperature is liable to be uncomfortable, etc. I've also found that I just like driving lately.

> depend on where you live and your specific situation

So it's not better in every facet. It's better for your exact current situation. Most people do not have a 5 minute drive to work [1].

On the whole, I think if we took the best car situation and the best city/public transportation situation (some EU city like London for example), the car situation does not scale and lags behind the car situation.

[1] https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/wonk/wp/2017/02/22/the-a...

Driving isn't bad. Depending on the trip I prefer a car trip with traffic jams over a transit trip without. I really do love driving and cars, but just the stuff they show you in the commercials. The long cross-state family trip, the leisurely drive in the country, hauling a dishwasher, ...

But car culture in the aggregate has absolutely killed american cities. My city tore down its downtown to accommodate highways and parking lots. It's ghastly. Nobody wants to live in a place like that, nobody wants to visit a place like that. Traffic should be calmed in the city, so it's slow, predictable, quiet and safe. We'd get our towns back. Instead of building cities so they're convenient for cars, we should build them so they're convenient for pedestrians.

We can still use the car for all the other fun stuff.

Malls typically lack quality local retailers. Local artists renting out a store front to sell their works, local gyms, martial arts studios, dance studios, that small store stuffed to the brim with cute little decor items, clothing stores for local fashion designers, and of course small restaurants.

Malls have none of those. Maybe a couple local jewelers, and everything else is large nation wide (or regional) chains.

Density of construction drives down rents. Large parking lots are huge lost opportunity costs. They don't give much tax revenue, and they don't contribute to the economy, there is nothing on them.

When I lived in an urban core, I was able to get everything I needed within a 5 minute walk. That included an outdoor mall, integrated into the walkable city, that was a mix of local stores and nationwide retailers. In contrast, the malls I drive to have none of that.

I've seen small local coffee shops and small restaurants do fine in malls. Especially "mini malls" which have a lot more variety on that front.

Some of the parking lots by where I lived were used for flea markets on the weekends. Regardless, I think parking lots sprinkled with islands containing trees/greenery make the landscape look nicer than if that area were packed full of buildings.

Here's a really cool story about a mall that has almost all local retailers.


Malls and freeways aren't really financially tenable, long term.


I feel like I have talked about cars and transit quite a bit, and everyone else has covered this down thread. But I'd like to address your other comments:

> Overcrowdedness

Again - when we are talking about increasing density we are not talking about forcing people to get rid of their car or making a sleepy suburb look like Manhattan. Townhouses, for instance, increase residential density a lot compared to the tract housing popular in American suburbs and, if well-built, have very little downside.

> very long waiting times at every establishment or government office

Maybe to line up at a nightclub or an exceptionally popular restaurant. But the beauty of increased density is choice - if a place is busy, just walk to a less busy one.

>increased ease of pickpockets etc. to "disappear into the crowd"

Notorious pickpocketing hotspots in Paris or Barcelona mainly prey on tourists who are confused and disoriented and jet lagged. Keeping aware of your belongings at all times will greatly lower your chance of being pickpocketed. Also, I'd argue that if a crime occurs in a less dense area, there might not be anyone else who was there to witness or report the crime.

If quality of life is so bad, then why are prices high?

If it sucks to live somewhere, you would expect it to be CHEAPER than living in the surrounding area.

But thats not what we see. What we see is that prices in urban areas are pretty much universally higher than living in the surrounding, less dense area?

Do you know what that means? That means that the market has spoken, and it proves that people want to live in these areas, as proven by the fact that they are willing to pay a lot more money to do so.

When it is just as cheap to live in the city as it is to live in low density areas, THEN we can talk about relative demand and the benefits of low density.

You're oversimplifying the economics, elevating one aspect of it above all other considerations. Cost of living doesn't prove that people "want" to live in these areas. What about taxes? Different strictness of regulations? Parking fees? Some may want to, but how many are a captive audience due to their field of work? How many simply have family ties? How many can't afford to take the steps to move out because they're living paycheck to paycheck?

I am sure that is true for some people, but is it true for MOST people?

If anything, the examples you give mean that it is even more important to increase density.

This is because, for all of those reasons you mentioned, there are people who need to live in certain areas, but they can't, because they are priced out of the area!

The suburbs take up the majority of the world. If people want to live in low density areas, they can't live literally anywhere.

The problem is that the demand for high density is unfulfilled. Cities take a very small amount of space, when compared to the rest of the living space.

Thusly, there is nothing to lose. Don't want to live in a city? Then don't! You have 99% of the rest of the land to choose from.

If density is so awful, why have malls been closing left and right for years? Why have so many people been flocking to more dense neighborhoods?

I'd guess because of the economy. The high paying/skilled jobs are there so people were forced to move. Outside of this strange vocal minority that shows up here, very few people would actually prefer to live in an urban area instead of a small town or suburb or whatever given the choice.

> Outside of this strange vocal minority that shows up here, very few people would actually prefer to live in an urban area

If that was really true it would create a huge arbitrage opportunity for people to make billions of dollars by building their businesses out in cheaper areas.

> The high paying/skilled jobs are there

Yes, but the question is why? If most people don't want to be in cities as you say, that would also include business owners, who could save a ton of money by moving their businesses into cheaper areas and paying lower rents and wages.

But that's not happening, on net. We're seeing the reverse. Businesses that fled to the suburbs 60 years ago are steadily moving back into cities.

https://www.economist.com/news/business/21706285-lots-promin... http://fortune.com/2011/07/14/companies-head-back-downtown/ https://www.nytimes.com/2016/08/02/business/economy/why-corp...

Many of these are sober, fortune 500 companies that wouldn't be moving if they didn't see a clear economic reason to do it. It's not some "strange vocal minority" position.

We are returning to the long-term average for civilization since the first cities began 6000 years ago: cities are the centers of economic activity and power. America went through a weird inversion for two generations where that wasn't true. We're now reverting to the mean.

> If that was really true it would create a huge arbitrage opportunity for people to make billions of dollars by building their businesses out in cheaper areas.

If the desirable employees, and the capitalists who want to actively oversee their investments weren't already in the more expensive areas, or if there weren't costs to both associated with regular travel or relocation (which taken together negates the short term opportunity), or if jobs moving to the new place wouldn't actually turn it into a more expensive, denser place (removing the long-term opportunity), that would be true.

> If the desirable employees, and the capitalists who want to actively oversee their investments weren't already in the more expensive areas

Most of those people were out in cheaper areas 40 years ago, when suburbia was still ascendant. So "they just happen to already be there" doesn't explain what we observe today.

> or if there weren't costs to both associated with regular travel

That is just restating why walkable cities are nice to be in: travel has costs, being close to things means less travel.

> if jobs moving to the new place wouldn't actually turn it into a more expensive, denser place

That clearly didn't actually happen when the jobs first migrated to the suburbs. The suburbs remained suburbs. The jobs were in low density office parks.

> That clearly didn't actually happen when the jobs first migrated to the suburbs.

Yes, they did; not so much in terms of density, but the suburbs that had substsntial local quality jobs rather than being bedroom communities for more distant urban areas (or other other suburbs) did become substantially more expensive (as is expected, because convenient location to work is something people value), and, conversely, when jobs have moved away (including in the return to cities) they've gotten less expensive.

There's also the fact that major cities tend to be located in places which are geographically conducive to physically supporting largee numbers of people and large volumes of material trade, and even if an industry doesn't itself need or produce lots of physical goods directly, it often supports or is supported by others that do, and, in any case, the ability to support people effects the economics of moving jobs.

Because a certain amount of local density is needed to support any establishment's existence. The more specialized it is, the more local population is needed to sustain it. As the middle class shrinks or other economic changes happen, the margin of this can get narrower, as shops consolidate into having less locations in denser areas. There apparently used to be a lot of full time IBM positions near where I grew up, but now those buildings are mostly abandoned.

Do you have stats to back that up? A lot of the recent polling I've seen implies the opposite, especially for younger generations.

More density allows more establishments and offices to exist, and of more different kinds.

In a city with 10x the people, you can have 10x more shops, restaurants, etc, and you’ll as result also get 10x more variation.

...and a [shop, street, park, restaurant, school, etc] will have 10x as many people that are living within walking distance.

This point is made well in this article:


>Our basic goal, in all this, is to deliver roughly triple the density as this “New Urbanist” model, while still preserving what looks very much like a “traditional Small Town America single family house,” including a nice backyard and lush, tree-lined streets. This is what gets us from 8,000 people per square mile, for a typical Los Angeles suburb (with 5000sf plots), to maybe 10,000 for the New Urbanist example and more like 25,000-30,000 for our example. We have already seen how our basic house plot shrinks from 4000sf to 2000sf, which doubles the density right there. We even have some smaller house plots of 1,250sf and 625sf. Then, we have a huge amount of land now being consumed by vastly excessive roadways and associated Green Space, that we can replace with Really Narrow Streets, thus freeing up more land for houses. For example, if the house plot/total land area ratio rises from 50% to 75%, that is a 50% increase in density right there. The combination of half the lot size plus a 50% increase in density due to reduction in land used for streets/Green Space/parking lots gives us our triple density bogey. Triple the density means that every store or restaurant now has 30,000 people who are within an easy walk of 15 minutes or so, which means that they can have a viable business without a parking lot. It means that every school now has three times as many students that are within an easy walk. No more chauffering your kids to school. No more school buses. At 30,000 people per square mile, and if 15% of the people are school age (6-17), that means 4500 kids are within walking distance of the school. It means that the four-year high school would have about 1500 students, all within a half-mile walk of the school. It means that, if a train station is introduced later, three times as many people will be able to walk there as well. In short, everything becomes a lot more “walkable.” By making it walkable, we thus eliminate the need for cars unless travelling outside the immediate neighborhood, which eliminates auto traffic and also makes the neighborhood much more peaceful, quiet, and suitable for kids, families, and seniors.

The way i see it you are basically describing south Brooklyn with the 30k/square mile. Something like Bensohurst (https://www.google.com/maps/@40.620487,-74.0093661,3a,75y,20...) or Western part of San Francisco.

I think the issue with this approach is it doesn't take away individualism. Everything is still too far away. Most people still have cars and look for parking for hours. The parks are few and something like 30 minute walk away. Your friends and gym are also going to be 30 minutes walk away. It's not dense enough for subways everywhere and buses stop on every block so it makes just as much sense to walk. Nobody walks anywhere besides their neighborhood and there is usually nothing in their neighborhood.

So it's really worse than suburbs and worse than city center that has buildings. Worse than city with buildings because you don't share common resources so everyone is still for themselves. You also don't get nice things like common public playgrounds and parks.

It's worse than the suburbs because you still get the same problems of it being difficult to get places but now it's even harder. You still get "what's mine is mine and I don't want public things" but now you have less of your own stuff and fewer public things because real estate is expensive. You also don't get the diversity of food or clothes that you would get in a city.

I think the ideal is 90k/sq mile in the places where people live with 4-6 story buildings.

I do see your point. The author is modelling this as a transitional form of a suburban neighbourhood that could later be intensified. Additionally, it should be read with understanding of his previous writing on cities [1]. You'll see he capitalizes a lot of terms (e.g. Really Narrow Street) which are intended as references to concepts he has fleshed-out in other posts. A major component of his vision for cities is the idea that (most) streets should be pleasant, attractive Places (as opposed to Non-Places) to spend time, and should be public spaces in their own right. Rather than have urbanites "get away" from the city by visiting parks, he would have the city be a place that people do not need to "get away" from. A street could

[1] http://newworldeconomics.com/category/traditional-city-post-... He has written a lot on cities. Unabashedly opinionated, but compelling. I especially like his extensive use of photos.

Have you been to a mall recently? One that isn't dying? Where is it?

In a region with multiple malls within a 30-minute drive, the strong will survive (longer, at least) but the weak are dying. The most upscale in a region is probably doing fine.

Near SV, for example, Stanford Shopping Center and Santana Row are fine for now. In contrast, Westgate and Vallco are mere shadows of what they once were.

Can confirm. Dallas had a lot of malls. While a bunch are dying, there are a small handful that are as strong as ever.

The Galleria, NorthPark, and Stonebriar are thriving (and Willow Bend is doing OK for now, though it's had turbulence in the past). The Galleria and NorthPark are both somewhat upscale (but with non-upscale sections), but Stonebriar isn't. Basically, all of the non-upscale shopping is being consolidated in Stonebriar. The people who used to shop at dead or dying malls like Prestonwood, Valley View, or Collin Creek now shop at Stonebriar. The market has shrunk a bit, so multiple locations aren't desirable, but the market for these stores does exist, just all concentrated into one location.

The Galleria at Crystal Run in Middletown, NY, the Poughkeepsie Gallerie in Poughkeepsie, NY, the Newburgh Mall in Newburgh, NY, and the Palisades Mall in West Nyack, NY are all some that I've been to either within the past months or few years and they were all doing fine.

It's been some time since I was in that general area, but my impression is that many people in those suburbs commute via train for their employment. Surely those malls, if they are indeed thriving, owe some of their success to the rest of the NYC metro area, which is noted for being the most transit-oriented location in USA? Malls in the transit-free hinterlands you seemed to prefer, are not thriving.

>Surely those malls, if they are indeed thriving, owe some of their success to the rest of the NYC metro area

I suppose, but I'm not sure this proves your point. If anything, it shows that these commuters are choosing to go to the mall up there instead of window shopping in the city. I never said I prefer "transit-free hinterlands"? That general area is actually the specific example I had in mind all along.

When I went to the Bellevue Square mall it was crowded beyond belief, it was like going back in time to before eCommerce.

Something like this maybe?


Also, Amsterdam is creating a new neighbourhood like that:


>The goal for Haven-Stad is to have everything within walking or cycling distance. "As a resident you can bring your children to school on foot or by bicycle and you can work around the corner", the city said.

It's very difficult to successfully bootstrap an upmarket city: when everything is new at the same time, everything will also stop being new at same time. And still be a far cry from any nostalgic value. For sustainable quality, you want organic growth and a steady replacement pace that will provide a sprinkling of new and shiny over and over again, while leaving some survivors that will eventually reach nostalgia.

There have been efforts along these lines, but with big hairy projects that need to involve city planning, public transport, building and other big hairy parts... It's hard to get everything perfect.

Anyway, things like this are happening to an extent. Israel is currently well in a building boom. A lot of the new development within the Tel Aviv and Jerusalem areas are like this, especially on the outskirts of suburburban towns. 100 buildings on a couple hundred acres, near train stations. 50-100 families per building.

Some good, some bad. It's very land efficient, which is important considering population density. Its easier to plan, and produce housing stock fast.

Being big corporate development, it can feel a little soulless. You get high density on the outskirts of suburban towns, which generally average 3 stories in the older centres. Still, all the walkable, shopable, cafeable streets are in the old centre, not the outskirts regardless of density.

That gets to the last point.... there's a limit to how much these things can be designed. Architects sometimes seem to think (when they get excited) that peoples use of places is dictated by the design of those places. I think causation runs both ways.

Grafton Street (Dublin street often used as an example of walkablility) is a packed, lively, window shopping and street performance centre because of its culture. Pedestrian only, and all its things other physical characteristics got way because of the culture, not just the other way around.

Culture takes time, and is not always designable. This is a gotcha with a lot of big ideas in planning & architecture. Cities are how they are for reasons other than just buildings, often causation runs the reverse way...

The PLSS grid favors doing this in chunks of exactly 40, 160, or 640 acres.

That sort of thing has happened before, as a "planned community" or "company town". Sometimes it works out, sometimes it doesn't. It really depends on the folks running the show, and their goals in doing it.

I think the usual failure mode is when the interests of the residents and the corporate founders diverge. The founders then shut down and move out the major employer business, and the town fails because almost everything in it was predicated on that economic support pillar being there. It's like they built shopping malls with only one anchor store.

The Woodlands, TX is the closest thing in the US. 2,500 people/sqmi 100k town outside of Houston. Started in 1974. At least as far as large scale current corporate city developments.

I was there recently, I don't think it hits the mark. Way too corporate, too expensive, something about it is fake or trying too hard or something. It's also just a few islands of walkable spots interspersed with 4 lane divided roads. I felt like it was Exxon trying to impress business travelers, not something we can really replicate everywhere.

I agree. Exxon came late to the game think more Chevron and Anadarko. And the city is straight out of the 1970's Texas developer thought process. And yeah it is a new money striver town. I know one person who built a 14k sqft house only to build later the largest house in the Woodlands at something like 30k sqft. Then the weird lake front new urbanism project. Where you can live in a high rise.

Yeah I was running down that walk during construction, very odd area but I guess cool if you work at one of those corpos, dig whole foods, and don't mind a lack of local character. That walk would be beautiful to run on if it weren't Houston, I am not used to that humidity!

I should have listed the urban development in Oklahoma City happening. It is just small 3k people urban district near downtown. https://www.wheelerdistrict.com

But it is basically a town built by a rich family right next to the river and five minutes from downtown OKC and the rest of the metro.

The Woodlands has 1.5 dwellings per acre. Urbanity begins at 20 dwellings per acre, and even that isn’t particularly dense and may not enable walking as the primary mode.

Seeing it at the larger end of the spectrum with Bill Gates [0], will be interesting to see whether all of the smart city tools people are developing will lead to the rise of really dense, human-centred cities..

[0] https://www.theverge.com/2017/11/14/16648290/bill-gates-smar...

Interesting, what would incentivize people to live there, as opposed to the city?

I'm still figuring that one out, hah. I think if the culture was strong enough and public transportation was "perfected" within the cofines of the 100acres people might gravitate their under normal market pressure.

Otherwise I guess you could just make it cheap. For those reading -- what would incentivize you?

Well, what incentivizes people to live anywhere? Wanting to live near people like themselves, and wanting to not live near people unlike themselves. Living where they can afford to live - most people would like to live somewhere like where they currently live, but nicer (which they can't afford). Tradition... live where you grew up, where your family has "always" lived. Etc.

Something to think about here... Noodles and Company. You know what their ad budget is? Zero. They're entirely location-driven. They build only in areas that satisfy certain economic criteria. People who frequent those kinds of areas recognize them from style and previous experience. They know who they want their customers to be.

So you don't start with "I want to build a certain way". Start with "I want to build a community of a certain type of people, with particular incomes and social values".

For example, my spouse and I live in a hundred year old house in a quiet Minneapolis neighborhood. We could have two or three times the space (inside and out) if we were willing to live in the burbs. But we live in the city proper for shared values... access to the artistic communities we love. We live where we can count on most of our neighbors to share our political values. Where we can get the diverse food we like. Etc. And if we had more money, we'd just live in a more expensive version of the same area (heck, my wife's dream house is about four blocks from ours, an old mansion on the Mississippi).

As a millennial, incentives for me would be a well paying job market for my career, diversity of food options, accessible outdoor activities, and an efficient metro system. Though one could get all that by living somewhere cheaper in the suburbs but sacrificing time to commute to work in this dense metropolis. Also, I do appreciate having a reasonable front/back yard. Maybe its an outdated feeling, but owning land that you can do almost anything with is empowering.

I personally would not mind living in this hypothetical place while I am young, but I would definitely not want to stay there in the mid-long term.

Car optional lifestyle vs car dependent.

Presumably it would be cheaper.

Jobs. Then lifestyle.

Why, when I can get a job somewhere much more comfortable to live?

I'm not sure I understand. The jobs are in the city, correct?

In a lot of Americans cities jobs are spread out in the suburbs. In my southeastern US, a bank recently located a large office presence from downtown to a suburban area right off the interstate. I understand a lot of it was to do with a lack of space. However, in the past an employee had the option of living and working downtown at this bank. With the new office location, that option is non-existent.

They aren't in many cases.

White flight

Yeah there are tons of 100-500 acre subdivision projects - surprising none of them are for this type of city. It would be like a new age streetcar suburb.

Sounds like Celebration, Florida.

So like a mall, but bigger?

Malls are high on retail and low on the day-to-day sorts of shops.

> a super dense town

Sounds like a nightmare. Ugh, just thinking about it makes me shudder.

Why would someone wealthy want to live that way?

The largest concentrations of wealthy people in the world are in large high density "world cities" (New York etc).

Wealthy people do that all the time. It is called "Living in downtown New York".

The high prices of living in the city prove that people actually prefer to live in high density places.

Why else would they be willing to pay so much money to live there if they didn't like it?

In many cases, it's because they don't want to have to commute in from Westchester every day although certainly some like to live in the city for the cultural opportunities and other aspects of a major urban lifestyle. Of course, no small number of the wealthiest also have a weekend place out in the Hamptons or wherever so they can escape the city. (Which I can certainly empathize with based on the summer I lived in Manhattan.)

To be fair it's possible that they just want to maximize time, which is done by living as close as possible to where they work.

.... Which is a benefit of high density cities, correct?

This isn't particularly a benefit of high-density cities. I work in a fairly low-density city, but some of my coworkers still live close to work. My mom grew up in a small southern town in the '60s, and my impression is that many people there lived pretty close to work.

>My mom grew up in a small southern town in the '60s, and my impression is that many people there lived pretty close to work.

In the 1960s there was approximately half the population in the United States that exists now. The problem is that living close to work and extreme low density doesn't scale. For a majority of people to live close to work, something has to give, whether it be density or perhaps companies allowing telework.

What does one's wealth have to do with how dense of an area in which one prefers to live?

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