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.

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About Dave Munson
This blog is about architecture, cities, and myself.

One Response to Walkable Does Not Necessarily Mean Big

  1. Andy says:

    Great post, urbanism does not necessarily mean big.

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