The Junk Science of Walkability

Sigh. Another day, another junk science paper from the smart-growth advocates. This time it is a paper titled Walking the Walk, which argues that the fact that housing prices are higher in so-called walkable neighborhoods proves that “consumers and housing markets attach a positive value to living within easy walking distance of shopping, services, schools and parks.”

In fact, all the paper proves is that the person who wrote it doesn’t understand basic economics. The report is junk science because it confuses cost with demand and presumes that correlation equals causation.

The report measured walkability by the number of businesses and other destinations — groceries, restaurants, drug stores, schools, libraries, parks, etc. — located within one mile of of a residence. Scores were highest if destinations were within a quarter mile, and zero of they were more than a mile away. In general, then, the most walkable neighborhoods were the ones with the highest commercial densities.

To understand the flaw in the report’s reasoning, start with a simple demand curve for housing. The curve says that at a high price, the quantity demanded is low, while at a low price, the quantity demanded is high.

Now add a supply curve showing how much housing will be supplied in a walkable neighborhood at different prices. The cost of land in areas with high commercial densities is going to be high, typically in the hundreds of thousands of dollars per acre. People wanting housing must compete for this expensive land with other uses such as shops and offices. One response to high land costs is to build high-rise buildings, but such buildings are also more costly than low-rise. For all these reasons, the supply curve for housing in walkable neighborhoods will be high, leading to a high price, shown as P1 on the above chart.

By comparison, the cost of land in low-density “drivable” neighborhoods is much lower. At the urban fringe of a city without growth boundaries, the cost will be no more than the cost of farm or forest land, perhaps around $1,000 an acre. Since there is plenty of such land, the supply curve for housing will be much lower, leading to a low price shown as P2 on the above chart.

The above charts assume that there is only one demand curve for housing. But most people probably put a different price on what they are willing to pay for housing in dense urban neighborhoods versus housing in low-density suburbs. Walking the Walk claims that the demand curve for housing in a walkable neighborhood is higher than for housing in a low-density neighborhood, ensuring that P1 is still more than P2.

But what if the reverse is true? What if the demand for housing in drivable suburban neighborhoods is greater than for walkable urban neighborhoods? Even if this is true, the above chart shows that the difference in the supply curves can swamp the difference in demand, so that housing in walkable neighborhoods would still cost more than in drivable neighborhoods.

In other words, the fact that housing in walkable neighborhoods costs more than in drivable neighborhoods says nothing at all about whether people are paying a premium for walkability. All it says is that land in dense commercial and retail areas costs more than land in residential areas, something that people knew more than 100 years ago. Downward-sloping demand curves mean that someone is likely to pay that price, but that doesn’t mean that overall demand for walkable housing is greater than for drivable housing.

The Antiplanner thinks the last chart is more likely to be realistic than the previous one. People drive for at least 90 percent of their travel in urban areas, so they are more likely to want drivable neighborhoods than walkable ones.

Smart-growth advocates argue that people can save money by driving less, which allows them to pay more for housing. But there are other costs of living in dense urban areas that make up for any savings from driving less.

For one thing, retail costs are going to be higher just because the retailers, like the residents, must pay higher land costs. Moreover, people with cars have access to numerous competing stores, while people on foot typically can reach a limited number of stores. A major supermarket typically needs virtual patronage of at least 10,000 people. A low-density community of 50,000 people might have five major supermarkets within easy driving distance of most of the people in that community, and most residents probably regularly shop at more than one of those stores. A University of Washington study (link goes to abstract; here is a short version), for example, found that 85 percent of Seattle-area residents seek either lower prices or higher quality by shopping primarily at grocery stores that average more than twice the distance of the closest stores to their homes.

A walkable neighborhood would need densities of well over 10,000 people per square mile to have even one full-sized supermarket within easy walking distance of those people. Except at extraordinarily high densities, few people will be within walking distance of two or more stores, which means they will be captive to one store that can then charge higher prices.

One way stores respond to lower densities is to reduce their product selection. But how many people are satisfied to do all of their shopping at a Trader Joe’s (which typically has less than 3,000 products on its shelves, compared with more than 30,000 at a Kroger or Safeway) or, worse, an Aldi (which typically has only about 1,400 products on its shelves)?

Higher housing costs, higher consumer costs, and more traffic congestion whenever residents resort to driving to find shops or services outside their neighborhoods all mitigate the supposed benefits of walkability. But, in the end, it doesn’t matter whether you agree with me that the demand curve for suburban housing is higher than for walkable housng. My main point is that the Walking the Walk report proved nothing except that its author either doesn’t understand supply and demand or hopes that his readers don’t.


38 thoughts on “The Junk Science of Walkability

  1. Dan

    Sigh. Another day, another junk science paper from the smart-growth advocates.


    Another day, another mischaracterization of “junk science” by ideologues who wish to demonize a paper that negates their ideology.

    At least the ideologues rely on the same ol’ BS excuses to make it easy to see their false argumentation.

    (BTW, the UW study is by a old buddy of mine, an amazing GIS wizard)


  2. Borealis

    I am surprised the Antiplanner attacks the analysis of the study rather than attack the conclusions. If the study shows that walkability is valued in the price of housing, then the conclusion should be that there is no need for government to do anything — the market long ago figured out walkability and includes it in pricing.

    The paper’s recommendation (“If we’re looking to shore up value in local housing markets, it appears that promoting more walkable neighborhoods is one way to do so.”) does not flow from the data. At most the data would support the proposition that investing in walkable neighborhoods would increase some property values while it lowers other neighborhood property values.

    And remember, walkability in the study means distance to stores and services as the crow flies, not connectivity, quality of sidewalks or safety.

  3. Dan

    the market long ago figured out walkability and includes it in pricing.

    Ah. That would explain all the American walkable neighborhoods built in the 50s, 60s, 70s, and 80s then.

    The paper’s recommendation (“If we’re looking to shore up value in local housing markets, it appears that promoting more walkable neighborhoods is one way to do so.”) does not flow from the data.

    Sure it does. Read it again.

    And remember, walkability in the study means distance to stores and services as the crow flies, not connectivity, quality of sidewalks or safety.

    As the UW folks show, connectivity in older urban neighborhoods is already there, a component of older, mixed-use neighborhoods pre-auto dependency. Connectivity was a must before auto dependent suburbia came along. As I say in my presentations, Smart Growth is the return to pre-WWII built environment patterns.

    Nonetheless, one good point implicit in borealis’ assertion is that regular Euclidean zoning is in the way of good built environment patterns. That is what a number of us here have been saying since the beginning.


  4. Scott

    The study missed some items, particularly, to pinpoint causation, rather than other factors pushing price.
    For dense areas, how often do people actually walk to stores, rather than drive? The merchandise to be bought is severely limited by what can be carried. How many of these residents have cars, & their income? VMT?

    Here’s a personal example: I once lived in a house, between a Super-Kmart & a Walgreens, each 2 blocks away. I almost always drove. Most shopping needs were there. The housing prices nearby were not higher.

    Adding to the supply & demand analysis: there are many variables on each side which result in the price.

    Certain views just look at the demand side, & if the price is high, claim that it’s because “X” is demanded. The supply side (often limited) is neglected, as well as many reasons for demand.

    According to this “demand only view”, then all places with high growth rates should have high housing prices. That is far from being true.
    Particularly, look at Texas & Georgia.
    Also, near avg prices, despite high growth, exist for Phoenix & Las Vegas; they experienced only a temporary bubble, mainly due to interest rates & speculation. LV has supply restrictions too, due to shortage of desert being sold; it’s about the 5th densest UA.

  5. msetty

    Dan’s point about less Euclidean zoning is correct: current zoning practices generally precludes creation of walkable neighborhoods. And the solution is the government to do less, e.g., reduce restrictions on building. Of course, how The Antiplanner really reconciles such more “market-oriented” solutions and principles also with his stated desire to honor the “democratic” demands of many neighbors (NIMBYs) to continue zoning and density restrictions in many areas continues to baffle.

  6. Borealis

    Dan, I don’t find “sure it does” to be a very convincing argument.

    Try going to a grocery store’s bakery section and collect data on bread prices. You will find that on average the bread that is not sliced commands a significantly higher price than sliced bread. The logic of the article applied to bread would recommend that the store stop slicing the bread, or perhaps that the government should mandate that bread not be sliced.

  7. C. P. Zilliacus

    In every dense (and “desirable” [as defined by the Smart Growth industry]) urban neighborhood that I have ever seen in my life, in the U.S., Canada, and several EU nations, why is it that on-street and off-street parking is always in great demand, with most or all legal (and many illegal) spaces taken by parked motor vehicles. Why?

    One reason might be that these desirable neighborhoods tend to be expensive (think of Georgetown in D.C. or the East Village in New York), and people that can afford homes in these places can also afford one or more motor vehicles.

    Some cities where I have observed this include:

    – Sacramento, Calif.
    – San Diego, Calif.
    – San Francisco, Calif.
    – Los Angeles, Calif.
    – Washington, D.C.
    – Miami Beach, Fla.
    – Atlanta, Ga.
    – Baltimore, Md.
    – Annapolis, Md.
    – Minneapolis, Minn.
    – New York, N.Y.
    – Portland, Ore.
    – Philadelphia, Penna.
    – Charleston, S.C.
    – Alexandria, Va.
    – Arlington County, Va.
    – Richmond, Va.

    – Toronto, Ontario
    – Montreal, Quebec

    – Copenhagen, Denmark
    – London, England
    – Tallinn, Estonia
    – Helsinki, Finland
    – Stockholm, Sweden

  8. johngalt

    We had a similar study here in Portland by the Earth Advantage people claiming that “green certified” homes sell for a big premium and that they sell more quickly. The study makes similar “causation” errors and is riddled with flaws.

  9. OFP2003

    It’s like…some people just don’t have children or they don’t care about them or something. My kids consume a gallon of milk every 2.5 days. So I’m supposed to walk a mile to get home carrying a gallon of milk every 3 days? NUTS I want to shop once a week, I want to buy a whole lot for a low price and have a machine do the work of getting it home for me.

    Maybe when the kids are gone, and if I’m working in the city, I’ll look for a place in the city and walk places.

  10. sprawl

    Many years ago I lived inner Portland with a grocery store one block away and lots of restaurants and shops.

    I still had to drive to do most of my shopping and or eating out and visiting friends, because the shops, restaurants and my friends and family, were not in the area.

    I don’t think it is possible to put everything everyone needs in one area because everyone has different tastes and needs.

    We are all individuals and we all want something different.

    Back then the houses were cheap and I prefer to live in the burbs away from all the people in a quiet area away from shopping.

    I’m still 5 minutes away from the grocery store.

  11. Scott

    So, if zoning was stopped, that would increase walkability & density?
    People don’t really like to have yards & to be away from noise & traffic?
    Current residential areas will have businesses come in & build stores & factories & offices.
    There are huge problems with that: neighbors don’t want that development; not open land (unless the current parks are built on); insufficient roads & parking for new development; not enough customer base; housing value will drop with interferences; not an incredible amount of “stuff” can be within every 1/3 mile walking radius area.

    The market & walkablity does not mean that all housing will be built that way, as Dan wondered why that didn’t happen, if true. Well, for the higher price (whatever reason caused it), many people will avoid, plus many see more benefits to lower density.

  12. ws

    CPZ:“In every dense (and “desirable” [as defined by the Smart Growth industry]) urban neighborhood that I have ever seen in my life, in the U.S., Canada, and several EU nations, why is it that on-street and off-street parking is always in great demand, with most or all legal (and many illegal) spaces taken by parked motor vehicles. Why?

    One reason might be that these desirable neighborhoods tend to be expensive (think of Georgetown in D.C. or the East Village in New York), and people that can afford homes in these places can also afford one or more motor vehicles.”

    ws: Because on and off-street parking is in limited supply, therefore high demand — plus high densities. You also assume that the parking there is only coming from the denizens of the area and are simply extrapolating that they are all car drivers.

    How do you know the parking isn’t at least coming from outside visitors? Most trendy neighborhoods do have lots of visitors to their shopping districts. I think it’s erroneous to believe that modest “smart growth” advocates want to rid the earth of automobiles, and that the display of on and off street parking in these neighborhoods is proof that people want car-only transport (if that is what I am gathering). Most advocate for more options than the default of taking your car everywhere, and I would bet those who do own a car in dense neighborhoods also use other modes for a share of their trips.

    I personally do not take offense as an “advocate” for quality land-use and developments when dense neighborhoods have lots of cars running around and high demand for on-street parking.

    I at least know that beyond that, there are plenty of walkers, bikers, and transit users who are utilizing options based on their preference and destination. I drive all the time, but I also walk and take transit. Does that mean that I think that the car is best for all trips? No it depends on what I am doing and where I am going.

  13. ws


    Most dense neighborhoods do have yards. Higher prices are a reflection of demand. Nice neighborhoods (that are often walkable) are in high demand. These are market functions at work, and display preference.

  14. MJ

    One of the problems I have with this this paper is its loose use of terminology. “Walkability”, as measured here, is actually a measure of pedestrian accessibility. I have heard this term used in other contexts to refer to the design of the street network and/or the availability of certain pedestrian infrastructure.

    The cross-section regressions are fine as far as they go. I don’t find it too hard to believe that in certain neighborhoods, there is an (localized) association between pedestrian accessibility and land value. However, I agree with Borealis that the recommendations in the report are a bit of a reach. The conclusion about “shoring up land value” is not supported by the analysis. The title should also be re-worded, for exactly the same reason. The paper shows an association between “walkability” and land value. Because the evidence is based on cross-sectional data, no causal inferences about that relationship can be applied, nor are the empirical models structured to do so. The title and conclusion about shoring up land value would be more believable if the data had a longitudinal component to it. That is, if the data could be used to demonstrate the effects of changes in “walkability” in the same location over time — a natural experiment of sorts.

  15. Scott

    ws, Most dense neighborhoods have yards? False, overall.
    For single-family housing at, say, 10 DU/acre (which is disgusting), sure there are tiny yards. BTW, nationally, the median house lot size is 1/3 acre, based upon Census; obviously for single-family, detached.
    The larger part of high density is multi-family housing, which has no yards. You should know that obvious fact.

    What kind of comparison is a 1/10 acre parcel being just as good & desirable as a 1/2 acre? How many 1/10 acre are there & who really wants that? It’s a matter of price & availability when people have to “settle” on such a small, crappy yard. In San Jose, I see many 1/6 acre lots & think disgusting.

    Personal example: Grew up on 1/2 acre (suburban Chicago); avg lot for hood, but slightly larger for area. Any non-residential was over 1-mile away–a big plus. Grocery was 3 miles. The largest mall in the nation (at the time, 80s) was 3 miles away. A 3-mile driving radius is no big deal. My Dad worked 10 miles away, which is less than avg work distance.
    _ For comparison (by rough estimate) to my cohorts, from the HS that I attended (2400 students), that housing description was probably in the 80th percentile; with the higher % having larger yards & being farther away, & with those living in multi-family housing, composing the lower 15%. Probably 98%+ of parents had a car.

    Most “nice” hoods are not walkable, [to stores], because of larger yards & separation of uses. Well, “nice” is subjective, but based upon price (relative) & construction…

    ~”People demand ‘nice’ hoods”? No shit Sherlock?
    Study hard for that conclusion?
    Missing, are the alternatives available [or not]. In other words, those cramped living conditions might be the only options.
    One can find many “nicer” hoods at much lower prices in Texas metros vs NYC region or CA metros.
    For those who find it “nicer” to walk, & carry home: groceries, furniture & all other sorts of goods, one has to give up many other “nice” items, pay a higher price & deal with more negatives (noise, crime, traffic).

  16. Scott

    ws, Oh, I omitted your most egregious error, about prices resulting from demand.
    Dan, you can learn from this too. You have the same misconceptions.
    Hman, you’re lost on everything, Forget trying to learn.

    O’Toole explained this in his opening & so did I, on post#5.
    Please try to pay attention. If you don’t comprehend, try some econ texts.

    Here’s an example: Consider a beer stand at a big event.
    First off, there’s no competition, so prices are higher than elsewhere. (That’s similar to there being fewer housing units offered.)
    _ Mainly, look at a limited supply. Suppose there are only 100 pints left, offered, by auction to the 500 people in line. Price can even go higher because people will “bid up”; 100 people will have to pay higher [above the lower 400] to get the scarce resources.
    Get it? Demand stayed, but supply was reduced.

    Takeaway: Price does not result solely from demand. Supply is 1/2 the equation. Change in either affects the price.

    There is a fairly easy measure to look at, indicating a supply shortage or limitations on supply–the housing vacancy rate (see Census Factfinder) for each region.
    When the vacancy rate is below, roughly, 6% (US avg is 11%), prices will most likely be higher than avg. And if the rate drops even more, prices rise. That has to do with not enough supply. There are also factors preventing building sufficient supply to meet the demand.
    -More elaboration on vacancy: Consider the housing for sale in a market that has 5% vacancy. On avg, there will be more than double the offers for similar housing in a market at avg vacancy. So, more offers will command a higher price. Of course it’s not just simply offers, but it’s basic econ & common sense that scarcity leads to higher prices. Look at diamonds, gold, oil etc. There is more than just the cost of producing &/or extraction that lead to price. It’s a combination of amount available (supply) & the desire to have (demand).

    Lesson over. Hope there was learning. Search web for more thorough education & from experts.

  17. ws


    In a given metropolitan area, traditional neighborhoods cost more than outlying suburbs. There are various reasons why this is based on different dynamics, but one is there is a higher demand for traditional neighborhoods compared to post WWII neighborhoods because of what they offer to its owners.

    Let’s assume that all types of development in a metro area are a city core with outlying “traditional” neighborhoods only ( block/grid system, complete streets, mix of housing, pedestrian accessible, etc.).

    Assuming this scenario, current inner-ring suburban neighborhoods would see an immediate drop in their prices (from today’s numbers) because this type of living arrangement has increased in its supply and is offering people more of what they *generally* prefer. I can’t say that this fits everyone’s preference, but if you took a group of 10 people through a traditional neighborhood and then to a typical suburbia neighborhood; which neighborhood would most of the people prefer to live in?

    As it stands now, many inner-ring traditional neighborhoods are in limited supply compared to typical “suburbia” neighborhoods, and people pay top dollar to live in a smaller home with less square footage with dilapidated amenities. People move to the suburbs because they’re cheaper homes per sf; but this completely disregards the fact that if those homes were designed to incorporate better urban design principles that their costs would be about the same (probably even less because of the maximization of infrastructure).

    Criticism of some NU neighborhoods is that they are expensive. Well duh they are because it is a reflection of the very topic at hand: People will pay top dollar to live in neighborhoods that are pedestrian oriented because they are in limited supply compared to typical post WWII neighborhoods.

  18. TexanOkie


    Don’t bother trying to bring up good urban design with Scott as a factor in housing preference. He won’t have it. He will either ask you to define what good urban design is in hopes of finding some specific item he can use against your argument (not to mention that no definition will be complete or valid enough for him), or he’ll start changing the subject (in this case, I’ll think he’ll start ragging on about location, completely ruling design elements out of the equation).

    Oh, and for the record, the quintessential document that the New Urbanist movement has created to assist in implementing it’s vision, the SmartCode, is completely customizable for different regional growth patterns. In my community, the 3rd transect zone (Sub-urban Zone) was calibrated to allow for 1/4 acre lots because it matched the predominant development pattern in our region (Austin, TX metro), so theoretically you could have 1/4-1/3 acre lots and still have a good design in a neighborhood.

  19. Borealis

    This is a great substantive discussion today.

    I do think it would be helpful to avoid thinking about this issue in terms of trendy and swank sections of large cities, such as DC’s Georgetown. Those places are incredibly expensive and far beyond the means of people that government should help. Businesses and services can exist in those neighborhoods that would not survive in even an upper middle class neighborhood. There is a small number of people wealthy enough to support such neighborhoods and it is very deceiving to try to model a middle class neighborhood after them.

    I am surprised by how there is a strong presumption that a majority of people want to live in pre-WWII style neighborhood. Sure there is appears to be more demand than supply for those neighborhoods, which drives up property values. The study cited today found a weak (less than 10%) increase in property value, and it would not take much demand in excess of supply to obtain a 10% premium. Considering the overwhelming revealed preference toward suburbs since WWII, a 10% premium on pre-WWII neighborhoods is figuratively a drop in the bucket.

  20. Dan

    Walk Score is included in Zillow and many Realtor listings for a reason.

    One wonders why the ideologically committed aren’t spamming Zillow or local Realtors touting their listings’ Walk Score as a reason the high connectivity and low tortuosity is capitalized in their price.

    Where are the outraged, harrumphing letters to the Editor from our favorite pet crazies, complaining about the Realtor listings being Junk Science(TM)??

    Where are the protests at real estate conventions that have Walk Score booths?

    Come now. Such silliness should be backed. Walk the walk, boys. Lets see those letters to the Editor. Your protest signs. Your spam on realtor blogs and ULI.


  21. Scott

    It’s good that you now realize that distance from CBD is a factor in price, as well as is limited supply. However, you should recognize that direct constructions costs are fairly constant, and the imbalance for supply & demand affects the land price.

    TexOak, Thanx for input, which added nothing. “Design” was not part of our discussion, until ws’s last post, because I proved his demand-only point wrong. Although high density was, along with proximity. We didn’t even mention layout. I don’t recall typing anything about location [in past], as you claim, although that is important for the S & D mix.
    Keep up the shoddy work at missing points & conflating subjects. Typical public employee, like Dam.

    Good observation about “a strong presumption that a majority of people want to live in pre-WWII style neighborhood.” If that was true, more new developments would be modeled after them & developers would even make more money, becasue of less land, among other factors.

    Overall, just because there are areas in the core city & inner ring suburbs, that are smaller in size, does not mean that people prefer the high density & walking. There are many variables that each housing area has.
    Dan, the ideology is freedom to choose & pay for choices in transportation & housing, and to not be coerced.
    How would spamming realtors have anything to do with that? Or newspaper letters?
    You seem to want to make others have anger towards many targets. What injustices do you think that realtors & newspapers perpetuate?

    Protest what about this walking? Who wants to protest? Why?

    Not sure why you think that a walk score is silly. It can be a valuable resources for those moving & wanting to see what’s nearby.

    In closing Dan, are you going to be cowardly as normal, after I smoked your points?

  22. ws

    TexanOkie:“Oh, and for the record, the quintessential document that the New Urbanist movement has created to assist in implementing it’s vision, the SmartCode, is completely customizable for different regional growth patterns. In my community, the 3rd transect zone (Sub-urban Zone) was calibrated to allow for 1/4 acre lots because it matched the predominant development pattern in our region (Austin, TX metro), so theoretically you could have 1/4-1/3 acre lots and still have a good design in a neighborhood.”

    ws:Oooh, this is a good topic to discuss: density is not the end-all-be-all of good urban design. And I agree with SmartCodes on this one for sure.

  23. Scott

    ws, You cannot have high walkability without high density.
    Also, planners are somewhat learning that TODs don’t provide near enough customers for stores.

    Urban design, including layout & mixed zoning can facilitate walking to wanted destinations. Weather & carrying purchases is still an issue.

    It still sounds like pedestrian access to places is the ultimate goal for your desires.

    For those Austin areas of 3-4 DU/acre, that cannot have much walkability. It would still be a great place& great design though. TexOak has his own subjective measures of design, without mentioning any details.

    TexOak, You didn’t answer previously: How is even possible for Phoenix to not have an urban design? They are not living in the ground caves.

  24. Andy

    Dear Editor,

    Government Planners are extremely proud of themselves for coming up with walkability ratings and a computer generated “Walk Score.” Great for them. They are just so smart. So much smarter than any of us. They have discovered that location is a factor in property values and that people consider how far a home is from jobs, stores and services when they make bids for buying property.

    Pity the poor, stupid, uneducated, ignorant, unenlightened-by-planners realtors and public. They have for centuries advertised properties as “near downtown” or “next to grocery store” or “lake view” or “next to park.” All those ads were not understood by the poor, stupid, uneducated, ignorant, unenlightened-by-planners public until the “Walk Score” came around. Only now, due to the wonderful miracle of professional planners worthy of the Noble Prize, does anyone realize that the three most important factors in real estate is “(1) locaton; (2) location; and (3) location.” Thank God for planners!

  25. TexanOkie

    Scott, if your points and arguments were as good as you claim they are, you wouldn’t need to say things like:

    * “tiny” (a subjective term, as you deride others for making)
    * “obvious” (if you had to bring it up, perhaps knowledge of it may be obvious, but perhaps acceptance of it is not)
    * “I think…is disgusting” (Well good for you, but you just shot any chance of objective credibility)
    * “No shit, Sherlock” (ouch, man, 80’s sarcastic phrases really bite hard in a “serious” conversation like this)
    * “…which added nothing” (aparently it added something if you felt the need to respond to it)
    * “…because I proved…” (if you actually did, you wouldn’t need to say you did)

    Anywho, Phoenix has an urban density. Phoenix has a design. However, Phoenix’s design is suburban in character, and not very cohesive outside select parts of the metro area and the major thoroughfare plan (which is in a nice, convenient grid). So, perhaps in the sense that you view “urban”, it has urban design. To you, any place that has urban density has urban design. It’s urban, and it has a design. Okay then. In terms you can understand, Phoenix has poor urban design. How’s that for basics?

    To echo ws, who really is echoing what I tried to say in the post last week, density is not the end-all-be-all of good urban design. Urban design involves a cohesive physical arrangement of an entire city, town, neighborhood, or urbanized area. Piecemeal suburban projects and shopping centers that clutter the Phoenix metropolitan area often times do not show consistency, variety (of form, use, etc.), a human scale, sustainability, well-defined spaces, or adaptability.

    And this is not to pick on Phoenix, since many other places have the exact same problem. In fact, Phoenix does a lot of things better than many of the cities from the region where I’m from, even in terms of design. I actually like Phoenix – it’s outdoors/nature opportunities, climate, scenery, and culture and I jive really well, and the State of Arizona isn’t afraid to authorize cities to use some pretty progressive planning practices.

  26. Dan

    To echo ws, who really is echoing what I tried to say in the post last week, density is not the end-all-be-all of good urban design. Urban design involves a cohesive physical arrangement of an entire city, town, neighborhood, or urbanized area. Piecemeal suburban projects and shopping centers that clutter the Phoenix metropolitan area often times do not show consistency, variety (of form, use, etc.), a human scale, sustainability, well-defined spaces, or adaptability.

    One of my standard slides in almost all my presentations has as the only text: We don’t have a density problem, we have a design problem.


  27. Scott

    Thanx for pointing out some of my typing that appear as weasel words. Perhaps I’ll choose more objective words & expand some points by several more sentences so that others can better understand. Based upon your reaction, you are missing the points.

    “Tiny” yards. Size is a measured item, which is objective. A 1/10 acre lot is in the lower quintile of yards, maybe the lower decile. Would you comprehend more if I typed “small”, or if I typed “a yard at only 1/3 of the median size”, or if I typed a yard with a FAR above 0.5. Basically7, there’s not that much activity that can be done in a small yard & often shadows.

    The mention of well-known items is somewhat sarcastic, like someone pointing out that water is wet.

    The 10 DU/acre is “Disgusting”. Definitely subjective. That should be obvious. Why point it out? Some may disagree. I’ll bet that people living like that had to settle, based upon income & availability & would prefer a larger yard.

    It’s good you elaborated on “urban design”, albeit briefly. I’m not sure why you didn’t type that in the past. Sure, Phoenix is suburban-like; it has a low density & is fairly new. That is true for about all cities that have grown mostly since 1945. What is not “cohesive” about it? What is “cohesive” about others? This vagueness & your general claims, are very similar to weasel words.

    However, Phoenix has a lot more consistency than many other older, more traditional , denser cities. Phoenix also has a lot of variety.

    You seem to think that for whatever your idea of good urban design (vs some layout) is planned. All cities are made piecemeal, other than most streets.
    Are some of your favorite cities DC, Reston & Brasilia?

    (Dan too,) What is wrong or the problem with the design of many cities?
    It would seem that the focus is on the transportation network, & less zoning separation of uses, rather than the actual architecture.

    For some reason, you guys want to avoid density, but the main complaints seem to be too large of lots & not enough “stuff” to walk to–which is high density.

    Look at cities at densities above 8,000 & then at lower than 5,000. One big difference between the two city types is the age of the city. Whatever the subjective idea of good urban design, do grades vary randomly by density?

    Only about 9% of the population live in cities above density of 10,000. Many people like that?

  28. TexanOkie

    Scott, et. al:

    I think one of the things not being communicated well is that urban design is much less a science than it is art. As such, there is going to be a great deal subjectivity in its criticism. However, there are still generally accepted truths about what constitutes good design, many of which you point out as as vague weasel-like statements (they are vague intentionally), that the practice embraces as ideals. How those ideals are implemented vary greatly within the context of architectural and/or planning techniques designers utilize, and no one solution fits all cases and can be described as the proper or best method.

    The “problem of design” that Dan brought up isn’t just about walkability to the needs of life, although that can be an issue. It has more to do with the transportation network and separation of uses resulting from Euclidean zoning, as you pointed out. But where you say it doesn’t concentrate on the architecture, you’re both right and wrong. The individual architecture of individual buildings isn’t that big of a concern. On the other hand, the way buildings are configured on their lots, their relation to other buildings nearby and to the public realm (i.e. rights of way, parks, etc. – anywhere the in the sphere that is public domain), and the transition patterns of the the above are prime considerations in good urban and suburban, even rural, design.

    In a way, urban designers try to mimic the natural environment. Natural landscapes rarely abrubtly transition from one form to the next. Instead they slowly transition, such as plains giving way to rolling foothills, which in turn gradually give way to towering mountain peaks. We (urban designers) aren’t seeking to make everything a “concrete jungle”. In fact, many of us like our yards and suburban environments. We just want a good transition and a built environment that makes visual sense. That’s a weasel word, sure, but like I said, design is more of an art implemented by science than it is a cold science.

  29. Dan

    The paper Randal likes so much has a coauthor who – with her students – helped define some specifics about walkability – connectivity, tortuosity, architecture, support, shade, aesthetics. So let us thank Randal for pointing out the elements of walkability. It negates his argument, but still.


  30. Scott

    Okay, now you’re typing about “quality” of urban design, rather than just whatever form is there. Although you did describe more of what you mean. I’m still not sure how our past discussion morphed into that, when it was about density.

    You guys try to avoid density, but high density is necessary for how you want people to live. There’s admission of that in denouncing core cities with low density as too suburban, and in wanting walkability.
    UAs don’t take up much land, 75,000 sq.mi., <3% of the contiguous states. All the urbanized people, at a density of 10,000, could fit into an area the size of WV (24,000sq.mi.). Is that necessary? Or, put another way, all current UAs could have 3.5X as many people jammed in, to be at 10,000ppl/sq.mi. That would be horrible. Try India.

    Hey, walking to a few places is not the goal of most people when they select housing.
    Why do so many big-gov types, avoid the fact that over 85% of adults have a car? And for those who prefer no car, but have one, they picked the wrong area to live, because choices where there is widespread transit are limited.

    Most buildings are independently owned & operated. You make it seem like some cities have one master plan, with all buildings laid out Even for a GP or similar, it's just certain types of uses for certain areas. All cities have plenty of randomness, but that's want NU wants–mixed use–albeit on the same parcel or more adjacent parcels having different uses.

    For your comment on architecture, that's exactly what I meant. I covered the parcel borders under "transportation network, although that's certainly not obvious. I almost typed connectivity.

    Do you want to get more detailed about urban design?
    How do these elements vary or have better utilization?:
    Land use

  31. Lorianne

    The larger part of high density is multi-family housing, which has no yards. You should know that obvious fact.

    Higher density multi-family ususally has common areas which include things like open space, picknic areas, pools, clubhouses, workout rooms etc … things people who move there prefer over having individual yards which they have to individually maintain. It’s a trade-off they have made. People pay CAM for those things, which in general would offset the price of having and maintaining a yard/pool/workout room etc with a SF home.

    Also duplexes and rowhouses are considered multi-family and have front and back yards.

    I a relatives in England who lives in a rowhouse development (built mid 50’s). Their house and lot are 25′ wide, but their property from front to back is 300′ (which works out to a bit more than 1/6 of an acre).

    Neighboring rowhouses down the line have similar dimensions. The houses are around 25’x 40′ so that leaves a lot of yard, it’s just long and narrow. (End units have yard on the side as well). Houses are closer to the street so the backyards are long.

    My relatives are heavily into gardening. When I’ve visited, it feels very rural in the back, and urban in the front. Of couse there is shopping and restaurants withing 1/2 mile walk … fantastic Indian place and fish & chips place. Huge park with a lake nearby too.

    I saw these types of developments all over in England. We would call this multi-family housing … but they definitely have yards.

  32. Dan

    Hman, some are just distraught – not in a knot – over some choosing the opposite of a small minority who chose their self-identity by their location choice.


  33. Scott

    What is any indication of being distraught or in a knot?

    A small minority are content with very small yards & dense living conditions. Whatever for them. Who cares?

    The point of contention is when there is pressure for about all people to live with no yards or very small yards.

  34. Hes1324

    You are skipping over the liberty part (read CAPS below), and throwing the baby out with the bathwater I think. So I guess going down this path you would suggest we build towns and businesses without a decent (local) plan? That is sort of a ridiculous argument. However, if you are arguing that the Federal government needs to stay out of the process, then I would agree with that.

    We will be living closer to each other in the coming years. I got interested in watching what was going to happen to our downtowns because ten years ago I thought that oil prices were going to skyrocket, we were going to be competing with China, and other such issues. What this would mean is that we would be living closer to each other because it is simply much more efficient, much as having your refrigerator in your neighbor’s house isn’t so efficient when you are trying to cook at home. Also, the whole battle against walkability and planning is really WAY OFF here, as it relates to where the government went wrong. WE WOULD NOT HAVE HAD SPRAWL WITHOUT THE GOVERNMENT GETTING INVOLVED IN THE FIRST PLACE – absolutely would not have had that without the government taking out loans to make it happen, and without artificially low interest rates to build houses in places where the market was not demanding it in the first place. There were low interest loans, and pushing extra expensive roads where they didn’t need to be, and so many other government programs aimed at building things for the sake of building them. Eventually market forces will demand us to live closer together, and correct this government mistake. It would happen without the government helping it along. It is the government that created sprawl, not the market. If you want to be in the green movement, you must be a libertarian sort of person, because the government is much less efficient than a truly free market, because the market always finds the most efficient use of energy – in the long run.

    Anyway, today we are now wanting to live closer together for various market driven reasons, and social reasons. HOWEVER, there is no need for the federal government to get so involved in this, it will be happening on its own, and it already is. I know property out at the edge of town, or worse, in bedroom communities, has been dropping like a rock, and stays on the market for much longer. People I talk to have little interest in mowing 5 acre tracks of land with their free time, and many won’t look at a house that doesn’t have a sidewalk in front of it – especially families. There has not been but one enclosed mall built in the US for 5-10 years I believe, but downtowns have been booming, as have towns that mimic downtowns. I visited an area in N. Kansas City called Zona Rosa, it is owned by a company, but resembles a town with parks and upstairs living. I believe two neighboring malls went bankrupt upon its construction and the new small downtown has parking meters.

    The small town I am in has a Main Street program which does receive some funding from local government (and brings in grants from companies and government), however, with that sort of small effort, the downtown area is nearly 100% occupied, and it has helped to recruit at least 1 factory – beating another similar town for that factory because of what that program has done. As long as federal grants are available, there should be someone going after them in your town. The job is to get rid of those grants, and let the market work, but really there are probably other more important cuts first – such as closing military bases around the world. Living closer is a market demand, when you drive through the country roads today, the houses are rotting back into the ground in many places right now, and there are a lot more for sale signs in front of houses where you would most likely need to commute an hour just to get to your job.

    Living closer frees up more of your time to be with your family, it frees up more of your money, and I have never met anyone who did not want to live closer to where they work, and the higher gas prices get, and the more work we need to put in to compete with other countries, the more people will think this. I live in a walkable place, and I recently turned down an offer to move to a place paying 30% more, but where I would have to drive everywhere. Your argument should be whether we need to invest huge sums of money in something that will happen naturally, and whether the federal government would be better at determining local planning than the local government. It is like the LED bulbs, the market will eventually demand these things anyway, so the government just needs to butt-out. The government, and the Davis-Bacon act, needs to butt-out of raising the pricing on sidewalk construction, and other such things.

    Lastly, a big part of the reason that Europe has been able to afford more social programs, and health programs is because the towns are walkable and built before cars. They are healthier because of it, and they don’t spend that much money building and rebuilding poorly planned roads, buying cars and insurance for cars, and so many other related things. So they end up with more money for other nonsense government programs.

  35. Frank

    “…I have never met anyone who did not want to live closer to where they work…”

    Nice to meet you. I’m Frank, and there is absolutely, positively no way I would want to live closer to my work. First, I work in a suburb devoid of any original character. It is a sprawling parking lot of chain store after chain store. Secondly, it’s ghetto-tastic. Finally, I like having distance from work so that I don’t see the people I work with (my coworkers and students) when I’m off. Don’t necessarily like the commute, but it’s worth it to live in the city and have a view of the skyline and lake and be able to walk a block or two to get a tasty micro. If I didn’t live in the city, I’d live on acreage in the country and still be distant from my suburban employer.

Leave a Reply