Walkable Does Not Necessarily Mean Big

People I talk to about urbanism tend to think that I’m a “city person.” and I can see why they would think that, since I eventually learned to love Philadelphia, live in DC (okay, Arlington, but I would live in DC if I could afford it), and generally disdain suburbs. But people who know me better know that New York or Los Angeles is not my ideal. When I think of a perfect place, the one that made me want to be an urban designer and the one I would like to replicate in my work, I think of Northampton, Massachusetts.

From ictir2015.org.

Northampton isn’t big. It’s population is approximately 28,592, and the way that towns are set up in Massachusetts, that number includes a lot of people who live out in the countryside and not “in town.” But even though it isn’t big, Northampton feels urban, because you can walk to anything you would need on a daily basis and could live quite comfortably without owning a car.

There is a strong correlation between a place feeling urban and it having a high Walkscore. I’ve mentioned Walkscore before, but to sum it up, it is a measure of how easily one can reach their everyday needs on foot. It goes from zero to 100, and a score below 50 being car-dependent, 50-69 being somewhat walkable, 70-89 very walkable, and over 90 a walker’s paradise.

Parts of Northampton are walker’s paradises, as were all the neighborhoods in Philadelphia that I lived in and all the neighborhoods in DC where I would live if I could afford it. I decided to look and see where one could find walker’s paradises, so I searched the whole country for apartments with a Walkscore over 90 (the apartments are important because no matter how many shops and restaurants you have, if no one can walk to them from their home, you essentially have a mall). I mapped the results, noting that many places may have an apartment building or two with a Walkscore of 90 while the neighborhood as a whole is below that, and that other places are “true” walker’s paradises, where the entire neighborhood has a Walkscore above 90.

Click to enlarge.

Click to enlarge.

“Now wait a second,” you might be thinking, “New York is the biggest dot!” And that’s true, but New York is so big that it has the most of many things, including walkable neighborhoods. What’s important is that Los Angeles, the second biggest city in the United States, is not the second biggest dot, nor is Chicago, Houston, or any other city larger than the one that actually is second biggest, San Francisco. In fact, I think Houston is the best example of how big and urban/walkable are not the same thing. Houston, despite its population of 2,239,559 and its size of 627.8 square miles, only has three walker’s paradises, none of which are “true” walker’s paradises. This means that in urbanism terms it is not the equivalent of Chicago (population 2,695,598 with 17 walker’s paradises), but of Lawrence, Massachusetts (population 77,657 with three walker’s paradises).

CorrelationIn fact, as the graph shows, population explains about 60% of how walkable a place is. While a large city does allow for more services, it’s size has nothing to do with how those services are laid out, which has a huge impact on how urban a place is. That is why San Francisco (second highest on the graph above) is so walkable, even more so than simple population projections would predict, while Los Angeles (second furthest to the left on the graph) is actually less walkable than one would project a city of its size to be. San Francisco was built around the pedestrian and the streetcar; Los Angeles was built around the automobile.

So small cities, don’t think that you can’t be great urban places just because you’re not very big. Great urbanism comes from putting the pedestrian first, from planning great streets with a mix of housing, working, and services, and from making a pleasant and vibrant environment for people. Make these a priority and you will be urban, regardless of size.

Los Angeles Isn’t London, and Other Things that are Wrong with California

Recently I was browsing Imgur and came across a set of images depicting the current drought conditions in California.

Lake Oroville, July 2011. From Imgur.com

Lake Oroville in 2014. From Imgur.com

When I looked through the comments, I saw a few gems:

“See this?…See this? This is why I think lawns should be illegal in drought areas. You want a lawn? Move to East…”

“Hey let’s build golf courses in the desert!”

“A**holes need to realize that lush green lawns work in the SE, not SW. Sauce: I’m a f***ing city planner.”

Which reminded me of something that bothers me about California: that 38 million people live in an area that can probably sustainably support something more like one million, and lawns are just one example of cultural artifacts that have made it to California that were based on an entirely different climate. Let me explain:Isnt-01Well, yes, but so what? Well, some cultural features, including the lawn and the detached home, are cultural aspects that arose in England, partially because of its climate, and got appropriated to California in such a way that the environment had to be altered to support it.

The lawn became popular among the English nobility in the late Middle Ages. It arose there because England’s wet weather and moderate temperatures made it ideal for keeping grass green without the need to water, and because before the invention of the mower in 1830 one needed an army of peasants to trim the lawn with scythes. The lawn quickly dispersed to Ireland, France, and the Low Countries, other places with a suitable climate.

When the lawn hopped the pond with the earliest English colonizers of the Americas, it fared decently in the Northeast, which despite having a humid continental climate rather than England’s oceanic, still had sufficient rain and temperatures, although the winters were usually cold enough for the grass to go dormant. Some New England towns had lawns that were commonly owned and maintained, leading to the New England Common. But at this point the lawn could barely even survive in the American South, where higher temperatures made it too warm to keep the grass from turning brown.

The lawnmower was what made the lawn accessible to the land-owning middle class. They became more common with the implementation of the 40-hour work week, and lawn care was promoted as a form of relaxation during the Depression. It was only through irrigation that the lawn was able to leave the Northeast, and even then, only due to massive inputs of fertilizer that it was able to take root in the arid soils of the American Southwest.

Let’s take a closer look at climate. Here is a map of the oceanic climate, where the lawn originated:

From Wikipedia.org

These climates are most present in northern Europe, southern Chile and Argentina, southeast Australia, and New Zealand. It is truly barely present in North America, only making an appearance on the wet coasts of the Pacific Northwest around Seattle and Vancouver. Notably, it is not present in California. Let’s look at California’s climate map:

From weathersandiego.blogspot.com

The most densely inhabited parts of California are mostly within the semi-arid (BSh, BSk), desert (BWh, BWk), and Mediterranean (Csa, Csb) climate zones. Where in the world can we find those?

From Wikipedia.org

From Wikipedia.org

The Mediterranean climate, unsurprisingly, covers much of the Mediterranean, and as far east as Iran. Desert climates, largely uninhabited, cover much of northern Africa, the Middle East, central Asia, and Australia. Semi-arid climates generally ring the desert areas. So maybe a Mediterranean or Middle-Eastern home might be a better model for California. How would that compare to the English-based model of today?Houses-01

Traditional Mediterranean and Arab cultures both used courtyard houses. Exterior walls in these cultures were often plain or even drab, with much more of the focus being on the interior courtyard. By having a smaller landscaped area and using native plants rather than ones introduced from a wetter climate, a household could cut its water use dramatically. The courtyard house also takes advantage of microclimates, shared walls, shading, and the solar chimney effect to naturally ventilate the house and use less energy than the detached home.

An Arab-influenced courtyard in Spain. From 200words-a-day.com

There are many issues facing California: over-development in both the housing and agriculture industries; over-reliance on cars for transportation; and despite their issues, an ever-increasing demand from new residents for housing and services. But one way they can begin to address issues related to water use and sustainability is to adopt a climatically appropriate housing model. Los Angeles isn’t London, so why should it build houses and lawns as if it was?

Milkweed: Park Dweller or Beach Bum? There’s Only One Answer if You’re a Fan of Green – Design Milk

Grand Park in Los Angeles. From design-milk.com.

This post from Kara Bartelt describes some of the great features of Los Angeles’ new Grand Park, and why the author would rather go there than to the beach. There are six reasons she prefers this new park:

Movable furniture – The bright pink furniture at this park is making a bit of a splash before the entire thing is even done. It’s important to have furniture that moves so that people can set it up just right considering their situation and climate.

Curated plants composing a well designed landscape – landscaping can be used to divide spaces, teach people about the environment, and give dogs a bathroom.

Well-crafted materials and construction – Parks need amenities like benches and tables, and they need to be built to withstand the test of time.

Private places – parks can have special nooks, seating areas, or other places that allow for a semi-private atmosphere.

Public places of community – Parks need places where people want to get together and do things. A good place to start with this is the Project for Public Spaces’ Power of 10.

View/scenery beyond its extent – The author points out that the beach often beats parks on this one. It’s important to have a view from any public space into something greater, or, as Christopher Alexander puts it, a hierarchy of open space.

This park has all of these features, and hopefully it will be a great new public space for Los Angeles.

Parking Spaces Become Park Spaces Downtown | Environment | Downtown News

Park(ing) Day in Vegas. From 8newsnow.com.

I’ve honestly been a bit disappointed in the lack of Park(ing) Day images I’ve seen so far. They are just starting to trickle in, and I hope that maybe after the weekend’s over we’ll see some more. I did see one article yesterday from Louisville where they did some really great stuff, but they wouldn’t let you imbed anything, so I didn’t put it up. The image above, as well as this post from Natalie Cullen, show some Park(ing) Day interventions in Las Vegas which were pretty cool. I re-tweeted a few images I saw on Twitter (@DavidBMunson) that you can check out. I know that Park(ing) Day is getting bigger every year, so hopefully we’ll see more interventions soon.


SWA installation in LA. From waltercomms.wordpress.com.

We’ve got some new Park(ing) Day images! First, this post includes images of Park(ing) Day installations in Philadelphia, Cincinnati, San Francisco and Los Angeles.

Installation in Morgantown, WV. From thedaonline.com.

And these installations aren’t just for the big city! This one came from Morgantown, West Virginia, home of WVU. I still wanted more though, so hopefully that’s not all.


Park(ing) Day Phoenix. From streetsblog.org.

Ah, and here is a good cache! Streetsblog put together a compilation of installations from Jacksonville, Oakland, Nashville, Dayton, Austin, Phoenix, Portland (ME), and Cleveland.

David Yoon and Narrow Streets Los Angeles

Pacific Coast Highway, before. From narrowstreetsla.blogspot.com.

Pacific Coast Highway, after. From narrowstreetsla.blogspot.com.

A few days ago I came across this post on Mas Context. It details the work of David Yoon, a photographer, among other things, living in Los Angeles. Yoon is a self-described “urban planning geek” who maintains a blog where he takes pictures of oversized streets in Los Angeles and uses Photoshop to narrow them and show what Los Angeles would look like with a more intimate street scale.

6th Street, before. From narrowstreetsla.blogspot.com.

6th Street, after. From narrowstreetsla.blogspot.com.

After reading the Mas Context post, I immediately went on his blog and looked at every paring he’s ever done. I love it. to me, the afters sort of remind me of Rio de Janeiro; another subtropical city, but with more intimate streets.

Sunset Boulevard, before. From narrowstreetsla.blogspot.com.

Sunset Boulevard, after. From narrowstreetsla.blogspot.com.

And Yoon isn’t trying to protect his methods, either. He actually made a video showing how he does it.

Spring Street, Los Angeles, narrowed. from David Yoon on Vimeo.

Inspired by this, I went about trying to do it for myself. Unfortunately (in a manner of speaking), Philadelphia doesn’t have as many super-wide streets as L.A. But there was one broad street in my neighborhood that I thought I could try. Namely, Broad Street.

North Broad Street at Arch.

Here is my transformation:


Want to see a street in your city narrowed? If you live in L.A., contact David Yoon and he’ll do it for you! If you live anywhere else, do it yourself! And post a comment here with a link while you’re at it!

Driving in Philly v. Driving in L.A.

While at Disneyland, Holly and I had the chance to visit with some old friends from college who made their way to Hollywood. One interesting thing I noticed was the difference in how we described distances and landmarks. While Holly and I described things based on how many blocks or transit stops away they were, our friends described things in miles or in how long it took to drive there. While Holly and I would describe something based on its nearest corner or some nearby landmark, like a park, the most significant landmarks for our friends were the intersections of nearby freeways. It is an interesting reflection of how transportation affects culture. While Holly and I don’t own a car and either walk or ride transit virtually everywhere, our friends each needed their own car so that they could get anywhere. We left with them, and spent as much time trying to get out of the parking lot as it probably would have taken us to just walk back to our hotel.

In fact, to get everywhere we wanted to go, Holly and I actually had to rent a car for two days while in Los Angeles. Now, I do drive regularly enough that I don’t have much of a problem remembering how to do so (although navigating L.A.’s web of freeways is a bit different from plying the surface streets of Philadelphia); what amazed me, however, was just the sheer amount of time and distance we had to travel to get where we wanted, to the point that the car was the only option.

One thing that I think is telling is comparing the types and distances of driving from what we have done in two years in Philadelphia versus two days in Los Angeles. Holly and I participate in PhillyCarShare, which we have only used four times. Our first trip in Philly was to the nearest Home Depot to get a Christmas tree. The next was to a friend’s house in Upper Darby to pick up a bookshelf. The next Christmas, we went to the same Home Depot, but they didn’t have a tree we liked, so we went to the other Home Depot, along the Delaware River. Our most recent trip was to Ikea, to pick up yet another bookshelf. In total, these four trips added up to about 47 miles over a two year span.

We actually made the same number of trips in Los Angeles. First, I picked up the rental at John Wayne Airport in Santa Ana and drove to our hotel near Disneyland in Anaheim. Later we drove along the Pacific Coast Highway to Dana Point to go to the beach, and drove home a faster, further inland route. On Sunday we drove to church in Anaheim, and later drove out to the Cheesecake Factory in Sherman Oaks to meet with some of Holly’s family. After returning the car to the airport, we had driven the same number of trips, but it had taken us a whopping 189 miles to do it all. That’s over four times as much driving as we had done in two years in Philadelphia.

I think it’s important to emphasize that these two maps are at the same scale, so I overlaid them:

I was just blown away, not only by the fact that you have to drive to get anywhere in L.A., but just by the sheer amount of driving one has to do to get anywhere!

Now, I will admit, that we were on vacation and traveling with a large group, and didn’t take the time to check and see what sort of transit options were available to us. But still, it is plainly evident that Los Angeles is a city for driving, at the expense of other modes of transportation, and so much so that it has become a part of the culture. That may begin to change as younger people demand walkability and urbanism—and, in fact, some of L.A.’s most desirable neighborhoods, including Hollywood, are also its most walkable. However, with it being such a part of the culture and having so much infrastructure devoted to driving, it may be harder for Los Angeles to make the switch than for other cities.

UPDATE: Holly reminded me of another little gem on southern California’s driving culture. I seem to be having trouble imbedding it, so if all else fails, just click here. You’ll be glad you did.

Southern California creates historic regional transportation plan

From latimes.com.

Graduation is nearing here at the University of Pennsylvania, and many students (myself included) are looking for work. After learning of some job openings with some really great firms in Los Angeles, I asked a friend if she would be willing to work there. “Oh, no,” she answered, “I could never live in LA, I need to live in a place where I don’t need a car.”

For a lot of Northeasterners, the ability to live a car-free life is what makes a place truly urban. Los Angeles and its suburbs, for most of the modern era, have been the antithesis of that lifestyle, built around freeways and far-flung suburban developments. But things are changing in LA, and a car-free lifestyle is much more in reach than it has been in the past.

As with the rest of the country, people in Southern California are beginning to demand alternatives to the car and the single family home. This became evident last November, when a survey of 758 registered voters, conducted by the American Lung Association, Move LA, and the Natural Resources Defense Council, showed that people support expanded transit alternatives, walkable communities, and even smaller homes. This survey had a large effect on the Southern California Association of Governments (SCAG) as they prepared their 2012 Regional Transportation Plan and Sustainable Communities Strategy (RTP/SCS).

The elected officials of SCAG unanimously adopted this plan on April 4th. As outlined by Amanda Eaken, the highlights of the plan include:

  • Increases funding for biking and walking by over 350% from $1.8 to $6.7 billion;
  • Spends $246 billion—nearly half the plan’s total revenue– on public transportation;
  • Reduces congestion 24% per capita despite adding 4 million residents;
  • Brings 12 key transit expansion projects to Los Angeles in the next 10 years under Mayor Villaraigosa’s 30-10 plan;
  • Creates 60% more housing near transit than is currently available;
  • Creates 4.2 million jobs in the region, 87% of all jobs will be ½ mile from transit;
  • Achieves a 24 % reduction in pollution-caused respiratory problems, resulting in $1.5 billion per year in health care savings’ and;
  • Saves over 400 square miles of open space–more than a third the size of Yosemite–from development by shifting to a more walkable land use pattern for the region.

SCAG employs a bottom-up approach to the plan, even allowing subregions to create their own alternative plans as long as they accomplish the same goals. The plan reflects the goals of those organizations that sponsored the original survey – it improves public health, creates transportation alternatives, and will preserve natural resources by reducing oil dependence and preserving natural areas that might have otherwise been developed.

Despite the democratic nature of and overwhelming support for the plan, some detractors have popped up. One notable objection came from Wendell Cox, whose article, California Declares War on Suburbia, ran in the Wall Street Journal on April 7th. Cox, who has no training in transportation (according to his website, he “attended the University of Southern California and earned a bachelor’s degreee [sic] in Government from California State University Los Angeles and a Master of Business Administration from Pepperdine University”) and has made a career as a hack and a lobbyist for conservative think tanks and the auto industry, declares that “California has declared war on the most popular housing choice, the single family, detached home—all in the name of saving the planet.” He attacks concentrating development near transit and claims that it would have virtually no effect on car congestion, “because additional households in the future will continue to use their cars for most trips,” partially because transit does not currently reach the places people want to go to the way cars do. He blames California’s high housing costs on land use regulation and argues that greenhouse gas goals could be reached by other means without adjusting development patterns. As someone who is planning on starting a family soon, I was particularly disturbed by his comment, “Los Angeles has shown that a disproportionate share of migrating households are young. This is at least in part because it is better to raise children with backyards than on condominium balconies.”

Fortunately, many of his most off the mark comments were rebuked in the recent New Republic article, Low-Density Suburbs Are Not Free-Market Capitalism, by Jonathan Rothwell. While Cox is partially right that government intervention leads to higher housing prices, he has it backwards – rather than forcing high density on people, most municipalities require unnecessarily large lots, in some cases almost half an acre, which essentially prohibits the creation of affordable, smaller houses and apartments. Rothwell doesn’t even mention the higher-level government interventions, such as the interstate highway system and federal mortgage loan programs, which also are responsible for the suburbs. The high cost of housing in California is simple supply and demand; there is an extremely high demand, and municipalities are constraining the supply by not allowing higher density development.

Rothwell clarifies that the efforts of organizations like SCAG are less government heavy-handedness and more a responsible effort to address the negative externalities of development. By concentrating population around transit in high density, mixed use developments, they reduce congestion by allowing for walking and biking, making transit a more viable alternative, and allowing for shorter car trips. Many of these organizations have no land use authority and member governments are free to not comply, as well as the developers who would build the new housing, since it would be entirely market-driven.

Cox’s argument that greenhouse gas emissions could be reduced through other means such as greater fuel efficiency and converting to natural gas power is true, but it is no reason to abandon the option of reducing emissions by discouraging auto traffic and encouraging higher density development. The issue of climate change should be attacked from all angles. Multifamily buildings are actually more energy efficient, because having fewer exposed walls makes heating and cooling a room easier.

Some young families certainly move out of cities because they prefer a yard, but it is flat out wrong and ignorant to assume it is the only reason, or that it is necessarily better to raise a child in the suburbs than the city. Especially in Los Angeles, many leave because high housing prices jacked up by large lot zoning force them to cheap land on the outskirts of the city. In some cases, especially in older cities like Philadelphia, it is because they can’t find the right kind of housing stock in their price range: some friends of ours who will soon be having a child couldn’t find a place with another bedroom that they liked, and will be heading out to the suburbs.

The comment about “condominium balconies” seems to show a real misunderstanding of how urban parenting works. Urban parents don’t deny their children place to play, they just share them with their neighbors: they’re called parks. There are all sorts of tips for urban parenting, such as those shared by Carla Saulter at Grist or Lenore Skenazy at Free Range Kids. Parenting in the city can be a real joy, as I learned from a discussion I recently had with Ken Greenberg, architect, urban designer, professor at Harvard and author of Walking Home: The Life Lessons of a City Builder, among others. He said that there were certain things that needed to exist in a city for it to be truly family-friendly:

  • A range of housing units of different sizes, so that as families grow from a couple to a couple with a child to multiple children and back to a couple again, they can move within the same neighborhood
  • Attractive, well-designed play spaces, particularly those that can be observed from within a residence
  • Convenient daycare
  • Good schools

Disinvestment in urban schools is a big problem for urban families in the United States, and possibly the greatest reason young families leave the city. However, cities across Europe (Greenberg cited examples in Scandinavia and the Netherlands specifically) invest much more in their urban schools, and thus are much more kid- and family-friendly. While there are challenges to having an urban family, the amenities, including museums, public parks and arts facilities, can be a real boon for families in the city.

SCAG’s new plan will be a great thing for Southern California. It will create a place where people can live without a car, be healthier, and spend less on housing, all while saving the planet. Potentially, these could be great environments even for families, and the dense cities of Southern California could retain the residents they currently lose to the suburbs.


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