The Suburban War on Walkability

By Dom Nozzi

New urbanists point out that there are several different “lifestyle” choices that members of a community seek out, and that these choices generally correspond to various geographic locations within the community.

What one finds in a community, generally, is that those seeking a more walkable, compact, higher-density, and sociable lifestyle tend to live in or near the community town center. Others seek a more “drivable” lifestyle which features lower densities, larger setbacks, homes separated from jobs and shops, and shorter buildings. This more spread out development pattern tends to be found in more remote locations.

Areas, in other words, surrounding the more walkable, compact town center.

Another lifestyle tends to be that which seeks “rural” amenities such as farms, small towns, and environmental conservation areas.

It is important, from the point of view of diversity, sustainability, and equity, that all of these lifestyle choices be provided for by the community. Unfortunately, most American communities have severely eroded this choice of lifestyles by adopting development regulations throughout the community that are one-size-fits-all.

And that one size tends to be suburban.

New urbanists rightly seek to restore the timeless tradition of providing for not just the suburban lifestyle, but also the rural and walkable lifestyles.

A serious problem persists, however.

For most all of the 20th Century and continuing on into the 21st Century, America has been aggressively a one-size-fits-all suburban nation. This mindset is self-perpetuating in many ways. Most importantly, the mindset is perpetuated due to America’s heavily-subsidized roads, parking lots, gasoline, and financing. These huge subsidies have led to over-sized, high-speed roads and parking lots, as well as low-density and dispersed single-use development patterns that substantially reduce travel choices so that today, most Americans find that car travel is the only reasonable way to travel for almost every trip.

Consequently, most all Americans have a drivable, suburban mindset. Which means, oddly and tragically, that many who live in walkable, compact American town centers have lifestyle preferences that are more centered on driving than walking. Many expect to find an out-of-place suburban lifestyle preference to be provided for in inappropriate community locations such as a town center.

While such people often enjoy the walkable, sociable, convenient amenities of their town center location, they bring their incompatible suburban values with them to a town center location that should be serving a walkable lifestyle rather than a drivable lifestyle. They want big building setbacks. Extreme privacy. Low-density, one-story housing. Seas of free parking. Wide and high-speed roads. A requirement that offices and shops be located far away from their residential neighborhood, rather than embedded within the neighborhood. And they assume that these suburban features can only improve their town center location.

Who could oppose larger building setbacks, for example?

Unbeknownst to them, they seek community elements that undercut the ability to provide a quality walkable lifestyle. A walkable lifestyle that seeks and needs modest (or no) building setbacks. Higher density, multi-story housing. Scarce, out-of-the-way (and priced) parking, narrow and slow-speed streets. Relatively high levels of convivial sociability. And neighborhoods that incorporate relatively small, walk-to shops and offices.

Because such a high percentage of Americans like suburban attributes, many of those who move to a town center (and often end up enjoying the compact, walkable attributes of the town center) often bring with them the incompatible desire for a suburban lifestyle. And by insisting that they “have their cake and eat it, too,” the suburban mindset – in a town center – ends up degrading the walkable, compact lifestyle that many properly seek to find in a town center location. When communities cave in to suburban demands by providing for the suburban, drivable lifestyle in a town center, they tend to degrade and reduce the availability of a walkable lifestyle in the community, because the above-cited suburban attributes are entirely incompatible with a walkable lifestyle.

Fairness, sustainability, and diversity are thereby lost.

One result of this state of affairs is that the walkable lifestyle is increasingly unavailable — to the point of being nearly extinct in American communities. So much so that because there are millions seeking such a compact lifestyle, it has become so rare that the tiny slivers that somehow remain in American cities are almost always unaffordably expensive because there is far more demand for walkable housing than there is a supply of it in America. Walkable housing gets fiercely and competitively “bid up” in price because there are far more buyers than sellers.

Ironically and paradoxically, many intelligent, well-meaning community activists seeking a better community quality of life end up harming quality of life in instances where they passionately insist on incorporating suburban values in compact town centers. Their suburban mindset blinds them to the needs of a walkable lifestyle. It is a mindset which assumes it is “common sense” that abundant, spacious landscaping be provided everywhere. That “crowding” be avoided by keeping residential densities low. That “free-flowing” traffic be maintained by widening and speeding up roads.

The suburban mindset is utterly incapable of seeing that these “common sense” interventions are harmful to non-suburban lifestyles. That not all want a suburban lifestyle. That there are actually others in the community who seek a non-suburban lifestyle.

It is essential, then, that we “let the city be the city.” Only in outlying areas is it appropriate and fair for the drivable suburban (or rural) lifestyle to be provided for. Let cities provide for all lifestyle choices – not just the suburban one.

_________________________________________________

Visit my urban design website read more about what I have to say on those topics. You can also schedule me to give a speech in your community about transportation and congestion, land use development and sprawl, and improving quality of life.

Visit: www.walkablestreets.wordpress.com

Or email me at: dom[AT]walkablestreets.com

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2 Comments

Filed under Bicycling, Diet, Economics, Environment, Politics, Sprawl, Suburbia, Urban Design, Transportation, Walking

2 responses to “The Suburban War on Walkability

  1. R.A. Stewart

    Good post. The “suburbanization of everything” has indeed crept into our very consciousness and changed the very baseline of our thinking.

    I’m reminded of something I read in The Wealth of Cities: revitalizing the centers of American life, by John O. Norquist (Addison-Wesley, 1998):

    “I use slides to illustrate a speech I often give on urban design. The show juxtaposes slides of traditional urban design with slides of suburban sprawl.

    “‘Would you put this on a postcard?’ I ask my audience, whether architects, planners, civic leaders, or community activists. ‘If the answer is no,’ I caution, ‘why build it that way?’ And yet, almost everything built these days is built in the suburban style. When people view direct comparisons of traditional urban design with sprawl, they inevitably prefer the traditional forms.”

    Sadly, the only things that have changed since Norquist’s book was published are that the sprawl has gotten worse, the political climate has gotten nastier, more dysfunctional, and more hostile to any conception of the common good, and our cities are even more broke.

  2. Thanks for your post, Mr. Stewart. And thanks for visiting my blog site.

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