Do Walkable, High-Density Suburbs Exist?

by Katia Savchuk

In a post on "Zoning and Sprawl" on his Mother Jones blog last week, Kevin Drumm wonders if walkable, high-density suburbs are the unicorns of the planning world. He argues that zoning and land use regulations that contribute to sprawl exist not because the government imposes them from above, but because "people really, really, really want them."

He has a "serious question: outside of a big city core, has anyone ever successfully built a walkable, high-density suburb? Not a village or a small town. I mean something really dense and walkable: a place where sidewalks are busy, mass transit is good, and there are plenty of high-rise apartment buildings. I know the New Urbanist folks talk about this a lot, but do any actually exist? Educate me, peeps."

I also wonder to what extent public pressure (read: pressure of affluent, influential constituents) versus planning ideals have had a role in producing and maintaining zoning regulations.

Does anyone have serious answers?

Credits: Photo from Mother Jones.


  1. hmmmm....zoning is interesting. i'm not sure if it was historically driven by public demand. maybe it's one of those things that seem brilliant in the planning stage but not really in daily life, because it's so absolute. sprawl is more likely driven by demand (with assistance from heavy lobbying on the part of related business interests). but a community with the features listed in the mother jones article sounds more like a city in itself.

  2. What would be the difference between that kind of suburb and a small town?

  3. Discovering Urbanism has an interesting post on a recent info-graphic from GOOD Magazine, which explains that the entire US population could reside within the state of New Hampshire at the density level of Brooklyn.

  4. The comment that "people really, really, really want them" needs to be qualified.

    The people who typically want land use controls are existing homeowners in the area in question - not those who are left out.

    The logic of exclusionary zoning: Homeowner moves in to a neighborhood based on the amenities he sees there. He quickly realizes that if others do the same thing he just did, he no longer gets the space he originally wanted. He realizes he has to petition the local authority to use force to prevent newcomers. Borders are closed and newcomers have to move to the next open area outward from access to jobs and services. Cycle continues. There's also class, status, and racial dynamics going on here as well.

    The trouble is that existing residents get to vote in local elections but potential future residents don't. Since we have no regional planning, each local area wants to just push the newcomers out to somewhere else in the metro. This will be the case, because the logic of sprawl is self-negating at its core. You have to live somewhere you don't want too many people to live in.

    At least that's how I see it

  5. "The way a city grows, the direction in which it spreads, is a factor not so much of zoning or real estate activity or land values but of highways." J.B. Jackson