polis: a collective blog about cities worldwide

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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