Housing for Walkable Cities

by Peter Sigrist

Is it possible to develop a conveniently walkable city of single-unit homes with private yards? I can think of neighborhoods like this, but if they were extended citywide, the space required per unit would limit access to a full range of amenities within walking distance. Given the scarcity and expense of land in large urban centers, does detached housing make expansion inevitable?


Single-unit suburban homes. Source: Encyclopædia Britannica

There are many advantages to multi-unit housing. Vertical forms cover less ground, leaving more space for nearby schools, parks, shopping areas and other community assets. With more people living in proximity, there is an expanded market for local businesses and a greater overall tax base. Although tax-related benefits are counterbalanced by increased public spending to meet the needs of larger populations, infrastructural efficiencies (that is, doing more with less) may reduce overall costs. With quality management, apartment buildings can also free up time for those who would rather not maintain a private yard.


Apartment buildings in Hong Kong. Source: Spicebrush

Despite the benefits of multi-unit housing, it will never be universally desirable. Many long for their own home with a plot of land that can be personalized more-or-less at will, an intimate outdoor setting where guests can be entertained and small children easily looked after. Detached housing is in many ways more safe for children than high-rise buildings. Apartment residents also suffer at times from inconsiderate neighbors who smoke in stairwells, leave garbage around the premises, equip their cars with alarms that go off day and night.

City-dwellers around the world show striking ingenuity in making the most of limited space. I see this as a hopeful sign that single-unit homes with private yards can coexist with walkable density. A mix of compact single- and multi-unit housing seems best, accommodating different preferences. New York City offers this, and I'm sure there are many other examples. Do you have any favorites or insights into their development?

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11 comments:

  1. i find walkable neighborhoods with detached housing and separate yards more common in smaller cities, take New Haven, CT, for example. the walkable neighborhoods in these kinds of cities are usually a bit gentrified and cars are still necessary. many neighborhoods could be walkable if it weren't for poverty and crime.

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    1. I see what you mean about walkable neighborhoods in smaller cities. Crime is definitely an impediment to walkability, and poverty can limit the availability of local businesses and tax revenues. I guess the opposite would be gentrification, but there must be a way to foster walkable neighborhoods in low-income areas as well.

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  2. Austin and Portland come to mind. Seattle. A lot of cities in England are pretty dense and have varying housing types.

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  3. I think the role of detached housing is a really important question, given how many people believe in the single-family dream. I think the answer to this question of whether "detached" can be "walkable" depends entirely on what we want our "walkability" to do for us. Do we want everyone walking everywhere? Some people walking sometimes? Or just neighborhoods where kids can get to the park on their own two feet?

    My gut instinct is that it's not density that makes a place feel walkable, but having lots of places I could go, if I so chose, along my route. I think it's some sort of prehensile flight instinct. (And yes, the two are clearly related). That makes me think it's the distribution of commercial space, not density per se, that makes a place feel walkable.

    Also Mark: sorry to get all parochial, but which part of Austin is walkable? I love my adopted hometown but there are only about um. . . wait. . . I have the figure here. . . 37 square inches of it that have sidewalks. And the doorway to every store except for a couple historic strips (SoCo and downtown) is at the back end of a 500-foot parking lot. Nothing makes me feel like I'm about to be dragged off under a bush by a saber-tooth tiger than having to cross a parking lot.

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    1. :) Dang, I admit I haven't been to Austin, it just has this image as a good place to live so I thought it must be walkable. Thanks for setting me straight.

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  4. Definitely the prehensile flight instinct. :) For me walkability means a practical alternative to cars in cities, and an environment that makes walking enjoyable. I think population density improves walkability in that it makes a neighborhood more likely to provide a local customer base for local businesses. Without enough people nearby, those businesses would either go under or have to build a parking lot, making people feel like they're about to be dragged off under a bush by a saber-tooth tiger when having to cross it. ;)

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  5. They can exist; the yards (and buildings) just need to be narrow and relatively deep, with some commercial buildings on the corners. The eastern part of San Francisco's Mission District has several blocks like this. (And the Sunset tries to be several miles of it, but doesn't work so well.)

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    1. Thanks for adding that example, Eric. Making them narrow and deep is a great idea, kind of like shotgun houses in New Orleans? Urban Omnibus ran an article recently on an experiment with "micro-apartments" in NYC (http://urbanomnibus.net/2012/07/adaptation-and-experimentation-new-housing-for-new-york/), maybe there should be more "micro-homes" as well.

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  6. Cambridge, Mass (where I live) is the most walkable city over 100,000 (4th out of all cities) according to Walkscore, 15,000 people per square mile, and a decent number of single family homes and many two- and three-family homes with yards and gardens (I'm about to check on my tomatoes, in fact). Of course, it's not cheap, and single-family homes are especially expensive.

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    1. It would be wonderful to see more neighborhoods like Cambridge, especially if they're more affordable. Pedestrians have a lot more leverage over cars there than anywhere else I can remember.

      I visited a neighborhood yesterday that is completely surrounded by a highway, two inaccessible industrial zones and uncrossable railroad tracks. Residents have to either drive, take the bus or walk for at least 40 minutes along the gutters of the highway or a desolate access road to reach the subway. Breathing the air and experiencing the potentially catastrophic speed of traffic along those routes gave me an impression of automobiles as death machines that reduce the quality of life in cities more than anything else. It sounds extreme to view them that way, and to propose major limitations on their use in cities, but I think it's worth considering.

      Anyway, let me stop railing against cars for a minute and send good wishes for your tomato harvest!

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  7. My neighbourhood in Istanbul in Beyoglu district is a walkable and dense area with 4, 5 floors apartment buildings. 2 km long pedestrian, Istiklal Street, and all the small streets connecting to it are indeed walkable and livable. It consists mainly of mixed-used areas with first floors of residential buildings are occupied with small businesses and cultural spaces, and some areas still have small production going on.

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