Where can I find a decent townhouse?

I live in an apartment. And that works for a lot of people – limited maintenance, the flexibility to move more easily, the lower carbon footprint, the often greater access to urban amenities and transit – all good things. But I don’t want to live in an apartment long term. I want to own my own place, and not have to worry so much about noisy neighbors. So am I looking for a single-family home in the suburbs? If you’ve ever read this blog at all, you know that’s not the case.

I want a townhouse. For me, it seems to be the best of both worlds. It provides for owner-occupied housing without the associations and fees of condos. It eliminates upstairs and downstairs neighbors altogether, and thicker walls better insulate from sounds next door. Yet it is still an urban form of housing which takes up less space than a suburban single-family home, and requires less maintenance (because, let’s be honest, I never want to mow a lawn again in my life if I can avoid it, that’s what the Parks Department is for).

In Census terms, a townhouse is an attached single-family home (in that it is owner occupied, but immediately adjacent to other units), and in much of the US, anything that meets that definition is called a townhouse. But I lived in Philadelphia for four years, and as a city full of single-family attached homes, the residents there make distinctions within that definition. Here are some of the types of single-family attached units.

The True Townhouse

Townhouses in Gdansk, Poland. From Wikipedia.

True townhouses are built individually, one by one, and are distinct from the other townhouses on the street. They have “sandwich walls,” meaning that the adjacent buildings don’t share a wall between them, but have separate walls built right next to each other, which provides for excellent sound insulation. As many of these are essentially custom built, they have historically been associated with the upper classes. The “Brownstones” of various cities on the East Coast are part of this group.

The Rowhouse

Rowhouses in Leeds, UK. From Wikipedia.

Rowhouses (terraced houses for the British types), on the other hand, are usually mass-produced and have similar, if not identical, appearances. They have “shared” or “party walls” between them and often share the same roof line, unless they are in a particularly hilly area. Because they were mass-produced, they are more often associated with the middle- and lower-classes, and with industrial cities where housing was needed for their swelling populations.

The Twin House

Twin houses in Philadelphia. From weknowphilly.com.

As far as I can tell, the name “twin house” is sort of a Philadelphia thing. In other places they might be called duplexes or semi-detached houses. A twin house is basically a set of just two rowhouses with a gap on either side. This allows for a little more space and privacy while still preserving the density of the houses listed above. The floorplans of the houses are usually mirror images of each other, and they may have similar exterior features, although in Philadelphia it is fairly common for neighboring twin homes to use distinct trim colors or small architectural accents. Twins (or semis, as they are more likely to be called there) are the most common dwelling type in England.

For me, all of these dwelling types are great. They are owner-occupied and have enough space for a family while still being low-maintenance and urban. However, if you look on Zillow or other real estate websites for townhouses, you’re also going to get a lot of junk, like:

Patio Homes

From Wikipedia.

Patio homes have shared walls, so you can hear the noise of your neighbors. They are set in extensive grounds that are often maintained by a home owners or condo association. They are often located in suburban or exurban communities. Therefore, they have all the disadvantages of rowhouses, condos, and single-family homes, all in one inconvenient bundle.

Two Suburban Houses Stuck Together

From builderresourcegroup.com.

Is there really any advantage to this housing type? At least with the patio home (which often has some overlap with this one), they’re usually in a pleasant, albeit remote, location, and you have someone else doing your maintenance, even though you have to relinquish some decision making power to the association. But where I’ve seen these has mostly been in bland, undesirable suburbs, and you have to do your own yardwork. Are they really so affordable that there is any benefit to them over just going all the way for a suburban house?

Attached Garages with Houses Hiding Behind Them

From redfin.com.

I feel like I’ve seen more of this housing type in the west, and particularly on military bases. It sort of assumes that streets are for cars and no one is ever going to walk to this place, so why even pretend that a front door is something someone would need to see from the street. All the problems of density without the advantages of urbanity.

Add to that the fact that some real estate agents seem to think that “townhouse” just means “small house” and you have a lot to weed through when looking for a townhouse. I should know, because I weeded through all of it.

I went on Zillow and searched for my dream house (townhouse, three bedrooms, two baths, under $300,000, with a Walk Score over 70) in every state. Here’s what that looks like:

Townhouses-01There are various reasons why a state would have a low score. Some just aren’t very walkable (Texas, Maine). Some aren’t very affordable (California, Massachusetts). Others just don’t have a lot of townhouses. But what I found really interesting was that there is a corridor, running roughly from Trenton, through Philadelphia and Wilmington and to Baltimore, where there were just tons of affordable, walkable townhouses.

These cities are walkable because they are old, traditional cities that were built at the scale of the pedestrian; and they are affordable partially because they have a large supply of housing, and because the demand isn’t as high as some neighboring markets like in Washington and New York. My question was, why is the supply so high here, and not even in nearby places like Pittsburgh?

That question largely comes down to history. The Trenton-Baltimore corridor was one of the earliest parts of the country to industrialize. Like the cities in the north of England, their housing was built quickly to serve an enormous influx of new residents coming from the countryside or other countries for jobs, which is why both of these areas have a lot of rowhouses. Pittsburgh, although it is known as a major industrial center, developed just a little bit later, after the rowhouse had gone out of style as it was associated with tenements and poor working conditions. While Philadelphia is a city of rowhouses, Pittsburgh is a city of small, narrow, vertically-oriented single family homes. It’s like you took Philadelphia, put a couple of feet between each rowhouse, threw in some crazy topography, and that’s how you make Pittsburgh. Even though they are technically not townhouses, the homes of Pittsburgh are similarly urban, efficient, and low-maintenance.

Pittsburgh. From post-gazette.com.

So, could I live in a single-family home? I guess, as long as it functions like a townhouse. As long as it’s in a neighborhood where I can walk to services, where I’m not bound by a condo association, and where I don’t have to mow a lawn because there’s a decent park nearby, it works for me.


How Cities have been Shaped by Defense

So in your spare time you’re looking at an aerial view of London on your favorite online mapping service (as one does), when you notice a street called London Wall.

London 2

And as you’re looking at your map, you notice other wall-y things, like Old Bailey and Houndsditch.London 3And then you notice that perpendicular to these wall-y things are lots of gate-y things: Ludgate Hill, Newgate, Moorgate, Bishopsgate, Aldgate.

London 4And at about this point you start to see a shape and realize,London 5You can learn a lot about a city’s history by looking at a map of it. If you know what to look for, you can see how high places, walls, and other fortifications had a major effect in shaping our cities.

Early settlements all around the world were formed on the tops of hills. Hills are naturally defensible, because they allow you to see a greater distance and force your enemy to expend energy getting up the hill. Even in the large, flat expanses of the Levant, cities would create the advantages found on the more natural hill forts of Europe by building giant piles of dirt, or tells.

Tell Barri in Syria. From wikipedia.org.

It wasn’t a stretch to get from “let’s build our city on this hill” to “this hill would be really great with a wall around it.” And thus, the citadel was born.

Citadel of Arbil in Iraq. From wikipedia.org.

The citadel, of course, had different regional names, including the acropolis and the oppidum. Initially they were built of whatever was available, be it stone, wood, mud brick, or rammed earth. But in most places, stone or masonry eventually prevailed.

Groß Raden Archaeological Open Air Museum in Germany. From wikipedia.org.

In many cities, the fortified citadel grew to house only the city’s political and/or religious elite, while the normal residents were outside of the walls and subject to attack. But eventually the rulers decided that it was worthwhile to defend their soldiers, scholars and artisans, and cities began erecting full perimeter walls.

The weapons these walls were built to defend from were mostly just guys with swords, arrows, and in some cases fairly light siege equipment. As such, they didn’t need to be particularly thick, but they did need to be high. These walls often followed contours and were somewhat organic. They had fairly regularly spaced towers from which to shoot arrows or throw rocks, and were usually the joints at which straight walls would change direction.

The walls and towers of Rothenburg ob der Tauber, Germany. From wikipedia.org.

More importantly for urban design, the city wall provided a natural growth boundary. Especially during the uncertain times of the European Dark Ages and the invasions of the Germans, Huns, Slavs, Vikings, Arabs and Mongols (that’s everyone who invaded anything between the end of the Roman Empire and the introduction of the cannon, right? You get my point), there was a huge incentive to be inside the city walls rather than unprotected in the fields or the lawless countryside. The European feudal system only added fuel to the urban fire; peasants and slaves alike would flee to cities to escape their masters. In Germany, the law was that a serf was a free citizen of a city after a year and a day, thus the phrase Stadtluft macht frei nach Jahr und Tag (“city air makes you free after a year and a day”), better known for its shorthand, Stadtluft macht frei (“city air makes you free”).

The end of this phase of wall building came with the cannon. Unlike previous siege engines like the catapult and trebuchet, which threw objects over city walls to cause damage within, the cannon, with just a few direct hits, could pierce a wall, allowing for foot soldiers to enter the city. The vertical wall laid out perpendicular to the enemy allowed the cannon ball to focus all of its energy on one point, causing maximum destruction. The solution was to not try to necessarily stop the ball, but to diminish its destructive power by deflecting it. And thus the star-shaped wall was born.

These walls were not vertical and not perpendicular, but formed a jagged, pointed wall that sloped back toward the city. The angled and sloped walls, which were also much thicker, made it more likely that a cannon ball would simply bounce off and roll away harmlessly. The star points on the walls also allowed soldiers a forward position from which to attack the enemy, with the civilian population located further back from the action.

Naarden, the Netherlands. From wikipedia.org.

Star-shaped walls were massive feats of engineering, and only the wealthiest cities could fully enclose themselves within them. Some cities would create small forward military towns which would be heavily fortified, such as Palmanova outside of Venice. But in many cities would simply build a star-walled fort at a strategic location, such as the confluence of two rivers (Fort Pitt at Pittsburgh) or on the harbor (Fort McHenry at Baltimore).

Fort McHenry guarding Baltimore Harbor. From army.mil.

There aren’t many cities whose star-shapped walls or forts remain. That is because they take up a huge amount of land, and as many cities, particularly in the west, began to feel less threatened by foreign armies, they wanted to use that land for other purposes. Many of these areas were redeveloped for public use. For instance, the former site of Fort Pitt in Pittsburgh is now Point State Park, where only traces of the former fort (as well as its French predecessor, Fort Duquesne) remain.

The outlines of Fort Duquesne (smaller, left) and Fort Pitt (larger, right) at Point State Park, Pittsburgh. From Google Earth.

The outlines of Fort Duquesne (smaller, left) and Fort Pitt (larger, right) at Point State Park, Pittsburgh. From Google Earth.

One famous example of a star-walled ring being replaced is the Ringstraße in Vienna. In the 1800s, Vienna had a star wall around its old quarter, but new districts had sprung up on the outside of the wall, and completely encircled it. Vienna was essentially the hole in a fortified doughnut. In the 1860s, the city chose to tear down its old fortifications, replacing them with a ring road, public parks, and major public buildings.

Ringstraße, before and after the redevelopment of the fortifications. From photobucket.com.

It was about this time that explosive artillery shells were introduced, which star-shaped fortifications did not perform well against. These weapons also lead to the end of urban fortifications. The radius of damage from explosive shells was just too large for cities to feel comfortable going against, and the defense of cities fell to rings or lines of polygonal forts set back about eight miles from the city. Yet even without the enclosing walls, there was still an incentive to be in the city, where you were protected by the ring of forts, rather than in suburbs of the open countryside. That incentive came later, with the introduction of aerial bombardment and, later, nuclear weapons.

The nuclear era was the first time that the incentive for defense actually pushed people out of cities. When you have a single weapon that can kill hundreds of thousands in an instant and level an entire city, urban areas start to look less like refuges and more like targets. While there were many factors that led to suburbanization in America, the fear of a Soviet nuclear attack cannot be overlooked. One of the many reasons the interstate highway system was built was so that cities could be evacuated in case of an emergency, and one could imagine that those who fled for the suburbs were simply planning ahead.

That being said, there have been several proposals and even a few attempts at creating urban defenses in the nuclear age. There were many proposals for domed cities a la Buckminster Fuller, although his domes were largely meant as a means to prevent air pollution and provide city-wide climate control. The Underground City of Beijing, built during a spat with the Soviets in the 70s, was a network of underground tunnels, featuring shops, warehouses, and even mushroom farms (since mushrooms can grow without light), and supposedly could have held all of Beijing’s population of 6 million at the time. Switzerland, which is just chock full of air raid shelters, intended a double use for the Sonnenberg Tunnel outside of Lucerne, which would have been able to house 20,000 people in the event of a nuclear attack.

Buckminster Fuller’s Midtown Manhattan Dome. From treehugger.com.

I think part of the reason that my generation is returning to the city, although it may not be a conscious factor, is that the Cold War is over, and there really isn’t a world power out there with the air force and nuclear capabilities to attack us the way the Soviets could have. While it may have been a perfectly reasonable fear of nuclear annihilation that encouraged our parents or grandparents to leave cities, we don’t have that same fear. The greatest outside threat to our safety is no longer a State with official armed forces, but the small, loosely organized groups and individuals that today are the perpetrators of terrorism. But with few exceptions, terrorists cannot attack a large area at once, and although cities do employ counterterrorism measures, the targets of terrorism aren’t cities, they are usually individual properties or persons. That is why today we are seeing a resurgence of defensive construction, not on the city scale, but on the scale of the individual building.

Bollards, bollards everywhere at HHS in Washington, DC. From wamu.org.

Bollards, bollards everywhere at HHS in Washington, DC. From wamu.org.

While defense no longer encourages us to move to cities as it once did, it allows us to, more than it may have our parents or grandparents. The technology of war, as well as its general presence, may continue to be a factor in how we design our cities in the future, but the city of today is a safe place, and getting safer. As Stephen Pinker points out in The Better Angels of our Nature, violence in the world is on the decline, both on the scales of the individual and the nation state. With less to fear, we may be more able to enjoy the benefits that the city has to offer us.

Where are you from?

This is one of the first things someone asks when you meet new people, and for me, it’s always been sort of hard to answer. For instance, if I’m traveling, I’ll usually say Philadelphia, since that’s where I live, but it’s not where I grew up and I don’t identify strongly with the city. Usually I either tell people I’m from Pittsburgh, where my parents currently live and where I graduated from high school, or that I grew up in Pittsburgh and western Massachusetts, since I spent six years of my childhood in each place. I usually gloss over the fact that I have also lived in California, Utah, Idaho, and Oregon, because I didn’t live in those places as long and they didn’t have as much of an impact on me, but they are still part of the equation.

But what if I go further back, and think more broadly? I was born in the Bay Area, so sometimes I say I’m a native Californian (this is mostly when I’m comparing myself to my wife, who lived her whole life in California except for her first two weeks, when her family lived in Spokane, so she isn’t a native Californian, like I am). My parents grew up California and Nevada, and their parents in California, Washington, Nevada, and Utah, so I could say I’m from the West or the West Coast. But how did my family get to the West Coast?

This, combined with an on-again-off-again interest in genealogy, led me to map the last ten generations of my family.

Click to enlarge.

My family came to America in two large groups, what I could call Mormon and pre-Mormon. My Mormon ancestors converted to the church in their home countries of England, Denmark, and Norway, and then emigrated to Utah, some of them later spilling out into California. The pre-Mormons came from England, Ireland, Scotland, Wales, Denmark, and Germany, and settled up and down to east coast of the US and Canada, some of them later converting to Mormonism and heading to Utah, with others coming west for new employment, such as mining and ship building.

So that’s the larger, geographic explanation of where I’m from: mostly Scandinavia and the British Isles, where my ancestors came from seeking economic opportunity and religious freedom, eventually settling in the western United States, where I was born and from whence I returned to the East Coast. But geography isn’t the only part of where a person is from; geographically, I’ve lived all over the US, but I consider myself a Pittsburgher because I love the Steelers and Polish food, and a New Englander because of my left leaning politics and the fact that my family has, in the past, made our own maple syrup. So what were the places where my ancestors lived like? I decided to leave out the places where my ancestors moved to or from (the lines on the above map), and focus on the places where they lived for at least one generation (the circles).

Click to enlarge.

Originally I thought that I would spotlight each of the places, but excluding counties there are 32 of them, and that would get tedious, so I’m going to include an image gallery so you can get an idea of what they look like and identify some trends.

Most of the places my ancestors lived in were small towns, villages and hamlets. Only four (Copenhagen, Glasgow, Baltimore and London) are metropolitan centers, and I would only add Walsall and New Haven to to that to make a list of cities. The rest are too small. This makes sense, considering that it is only fairly recently that our world has had more than half of its people living in cities.

Along with being small, most of the places my ancestors lived were very rural. The graph above divides the places based on my matrix of settlement types, showing that they are mostly rural villages. What I think is interesting though is that there are very few suburban places; only Ballerup and Middletown fit this description. Ballerup is a historical town that has been sucked into Copenhagen’s sphere of influence, and Middletown is on the edge of the New York metropolitan area. I wonder how different they might have been when my ancestors lived there. It’s important to note that the suburb as we experience it today, with separated uses, cul-de-sacs, car dependency, and dependency on a larger nearby city, is very much a modern phenomenon, something our ancestors were unfamiliar with. Note: while some might call Walsall a suburb of Birmingham, it features mixed uses and a connected street grid, which give it a more urban character; I would call it a city that is part of the Birmingham metropolis.

I really enjoyed learning more about my ancestors and the places they lived. Check out the gallery below to see more of what these places look like.

Feature – Can the Centers Hold? – The Architect’s Newspaper

Cincinnati’s Mercer Commons. From archpaper.com.

Christopher Bentley seems to think, according to this post, that “Rust Belt” cities are on the rebound. While he doesn’t seem to consider any cities outside of Ohio, the developments he cites in Cleveland, Columbus and Cincinnati are striking. New stadiums, “eds and meds,” universities and growing residential rental demand have led to new private sector growth and development. Yet of these three cities, two of them are still in population decline. The same is true of my hometown of Pittsburgh, which continued to lose population between 2000 and 2010. However, when you go to downtown Pittsburgh, it doesn’t look like a city on the decline, but one that is on the rise. Part of the population adjustment is generational: boomers and X-ers with families are leaving cities, while younger Gen-Y-ers are moving in. Also, as families shrink, it is entirely possible to have the same number of households while having fewer people. But the real issue seems to be that, in Rust Belt cities as well as others, that the decline is not universal; in fact, while a city as a whole may be shrinking, certain neighborhoods are actually growing. I went to PolicyMap to find the data on this, and sure enough, in the Rust Belt cities that have shown general decline, their centers have actually grown over the last decade (all the following maps are from PolicyMap).






St. Louis.

These cities have done a great job of attracting young professionals to their central neighborhoods, but if they want to keep them within the city limits as they start families, they need to move on from focusing on entertainment and rental housing and address issues that concern families – principally crime and schools. Only then will these cities see sustained growth.

4th Street plan wins Urban Design Challenge contest | timesfreepress.com

A winner in Chattanooga’s Urban Design Challenge. From timesfreepress.com.

I’ve read a few articles so far about the end of the Urban Design Challenge in Chattanooga, but this is the first one I’ve seen that includes some of the images from the plan, and based on this one image, I like what I see. Ellis Smith gives the rundown of the Oscar-esque award ceremony, and some of the challenges the plans could face in implementation. It can be hard for good plans like this to get funding when banks are used to financing single-use projects and wary, especially in this economy, of anything that’s outside the norm. Medium sized cities like Chattanooga and Pittsburgh have often benefited from the investment of wealthy locals, such as the Carnegies and Fricks in Pittsburgh and the late Jack Lupton in Chattanooga. Let’s hope that this plan can be implemented in small bits to make it more affordable and still have the desired impact on the city.

A Matrix of Settlement Types

While in undergrad, we had an assignment in a certain class where we had to ride public transit in Provo for a mile and describe the surroundings we saw. I asked my professor if, instead of riding in Provo, I could ride in Salt Lake City so that I could write about an urban place. “What, Provo isn’t urban?” he said. I was somewhat taken aback. Of course Provo isn’t an urban place, if you think of major cities as urban places. The problem that my professor exemplified is the Boolean division of spaces as either urban or rural, with nothing in between.

The urban transect. From thinkorthwim.com.

Some headway has been made with the New Urbanist transect, which introduces the suburbs as a distinctly non-rural and yet non-urban place, and introduces the idea of an urban gradient. However, this does not address the different types of settlements based on size and amount of services. What I propose is more of a matrix, where the rural to urban gradient will cross with a gradient from small settlements with few services to megalopoli. I will illustrate this matrix with examples from areas that I am familiar with.

The Rural to Urban Gradient

Rural Settlements

Rural areas are characterized by an extremely low density of both populations and buildings. Homes are almost exclusively single family on parcels made up of multiple acres, with parcels in the hundreds of acres or more not being uncommon. Industries in these areas are primarily focused on extraction, whether they be agriculture, mining, energy, etc. People in these areas tend to be more self sufficient. They may grow their own food, or they may buy in bulk and store it for longer, since it is a long trip into town for supplies. People generally work close to home, however they would require some sort of transportation other than walking to make trips into town, whether to purchase supplies or to take resources into market. Very few services are offered in these areas. While a store might locate itself at a strategic intersection, most rural residents have to go into a larger settlement for services.

Suburban Settlements

Suburbs tend to be higher density than rural areas, but are still fairly low, with the single family house on .25-5 acre lots being the dominant housing type. However, with more of these houses closer together, the populations in suburbs begin to be higher than in rural areas. One of the defining features of suburban areas is the extreme separation of uses. Work places, shopping and entertainment places, and homes are all strictly segregated, often making public transit or walking infeasible and requiring the use of a car for transportation. Another common characteristic of suburban areas is that they rarely are self-sufficient as far as workplaces. Most workers in suburban areas commute to more dominant areas, whether they be suburban office parks or edge cities, or more traditional urban areas. All in all, suburbs are rarely self sufficient, and must exist in a dynamic relationship with other development types.

Urban Settlements

Urban settlements have much higher population densities than their rural or suburban counterparts, and in many of them multifamily and attached units outnumber single family detached houses. Instead of being separated, compatible uses are mixed, with apartments and offices over retail and stores integrated in working areas. This higher density and mix of uses makes public transit feasible, as well as making it reasonable to walk to destinations rather than driving. Although there is of course some reverse commuting, most urban residents work in the municipality they live in, and unless there is a lack of affordable housing near work spaces, they should be able to live and work in the same neighborhood. Many from surrounding suburbs commute into the urban area for work. Urban areas, of course, are dependent on their rural hinterlands and on each other for materials, but the manufacture of goods and provision of services happens within the city, making it more self sufficient than the suburb.

The Small to Large Gradient

There is a problem with referring to all settlement types as “cities.” Cities are large, generally urban places, although many demonstrate some suburban characteristics. Small settlements made up mostly of residences are not cities. In the English tradition, there has been a gradient of human settlements. Hamlets, villages, and towns all describe these smaller settlements. There is not, however, a similar gradient of types once we reach the “city” level, and here are just referred to by their size. In contemporary society, we have come to see larger settlement types made up of multiple, smaller settlements: the metropolis, with one major, influential city and its suburbs and hinterland; and the megalopolis, a collection of major metropoli that grow into each other. I have collected examples of each of these types and explain how they could be either rural, suburban, or urban. There are probably better examples out there, and I would invite anyone to submit their examples in the comments section, but I can only comment on those areas I am most familiar with.


A hamlet is a very small community which may be simply a cluster of houses. It is overwhelmingly if not entirely residential, but can have a few services, such as a general store or service station, or maybe a school or post office. Homes are virtually all single family. These settlements may be somewhat informal and unimproved, rarely with curbs and gutters if the streets ave even paved. Hamlets are generally on the more rural side of the gradient, and as such, I couldn’t think of an example of an urban hamlet. If you can, please leave a comment.

A Rural Hamlet: King Hill, Idaho

From maps.google.com.

King Hill is a hamlet that sits on the north bank of the Snake River near the eastern border of Elmore County, Idaho. Some people work in the fairly close village of Glenns Ferry or other communities, but most either work from home or on the surrounding farms. The community boasts a post office, a church, and not much else. The roads don’t have curbs, and landscaping is generally informal.

A Suburban Hamlet: Leeds, Massachusetts

From maps.google.com.

Leeds shares some similarities to King Hill. It is small, virtually all single family, and has few services (a church, a school, and a general store). However, Leeds has shrunk somewhat, since it used to be a mill village. The mill buildings still exist, but they sit vacant, and virtually everyone in the hamlet works in nearby Northampton or other surrounding municipalities. This commute pattern and closer relation to other municipalities makes Leeds more suburban than the rural King Hill.


Villages are distinguished from hamlets from a generally greater intensity of development. There is more variety in housing types, which may just be a greater variety of single family lot sizes, but may include townhomes or some apartments. More services are provided, such as restaurants or a small grocery, but most services beyond someone’s daily needs must be found somewhere else. Development may become slightly more formalized, possibly with a commercial main street, formalized tree plantings or park space, and fully improved streets. While villages may exist in rural, suburban or urban locations, the characteristics of a village are similar to those of a neighborhood, which forms a small, defined section of a larger municipality.

A Rural Village: Nyssa, Oregon

From maps.google.com.

As you can already see, Nyssa is significantly larger and more complex than the previously mentioned hamlets. Nyssa was founded as a company town on the Oregon side of the Snake River. It has been slowly losing population since I-84 was routed through the town of Ontario to the north, and so Nyssa in some ways has too many services for its population of just under 4,000. There are a number of churches, two formal parks, a school, and commercial uses along Thunderegg Boulevard and Main Street, and industrial uses fronting the railroad tracks. Although many locals work in these industries or other local services, many still work in the sugar beet and potato farms that surround the village. Nyssa’s Main Street is fairly well designed, but the declining population has taken its toll, and many storefronts are empty. While Nyssa does have its own grocery, a handful of restaurants, a tractor supply store, and other services, many residents travel to nearby Ontario for shopping.

A Suburban Village: Salem, Utah

From maps.google.com.

Salem shares many characteristics with Nyssa. They have similar populations (Salem is just over 5,000). Salem also has a grocery store, restaurants, service stations, and other services. It has less industry, but it does have some. It has some formal green space, especially around Salem Pond. The biggest difference is that while Nyssa is fairly self sufficient as far as jobs, most people in Salem commute to either the nearby town of Spanish Fork or farther north to the city of Provo. Salem also has had more growth in the last few decades where they have abandoned the traditional Mormon grid pattern and have created leapfrog, suburban-style developments. If Salem is able to implement the General Plan that I worked on for them with Long Pine Consulting, they will eventually become more of a town with distinct neighborhoods, but that will take a long time to be fully realized.

An Urban Village: Beaver, Pennsylvania

From maps.google.com.

Part of what makes Beaver urban is its context. Rather than being among fields, it is among other villages, including Rochester, Bridgewater, Monaca, and Vanport. Another is its highly formal nature, which can partially be attributed to its designation as a county seat.

From wikipedia.org

Beaver has a very formal green featuring war memorials and a lovely main street (3rd Street) with a grocery, restaurants, a world-class bakery, and other services. The dense blocks and small streets make it extremely walkable. Most people who live in Beaver also work there, with people from nearby villages commuting in as well. In addition to county facilities, there are a few schools and many beautiful churches.

A Neighborhood Village: East Falls, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

From maps.google.com.

East Falls, if anything, pushes the upper population bound of what can be called a village, at just over 10,000 people, but its organization and service structure is definitely that of a village. East Falls is a well-defined area bounded by Roosevelt Boulevard on the southeast, the Schuylkill River on the Southwest, the Wissahickon Creek on the northwest and Wissahickon Avenue on the northeast. The high population is concentrated closer to the river and Ridge Avenue, but quickly disperses as you head uphill, away from the river, into large lot, single family homes. This transition can be seen with a few images of the path along Midvale Avenue.

The giant pepper at Midvale Avenue and Ridge Avenue. From maps.google.com.

Further up Midvale Avenue, at the townhouses that my mom said she wants to retire in. From maps.google.com.

Single family houses on top of the hill. From maps.google.com.

Commercial uses are concentrated in a mixed use corridor along Ridge Avenue, with churches, schools and other uses spread out throughout the community. East Falls does not have a lot of employment uses and most residents work elsewhere in Philadelphia, but the higher density allows for both buses and heavy rail to be feasible options for transportation.


Towns are the next step up in development intensity. Towns contain all major housing types, including apartments, townhouses, and single family homes. All of a person’s regular needs can be found in a town, including food, government services, repair shops, and many others. In addition, more special or limited services are provided, such as clothing, entertainment, or others. Development becomes more sophisticated, where almost all streets are improved, and in some cases unified “branding” of the town may be employed. One of the defining characteristics of a town is that it is the smallest development type that can be made up of multiple neighborhoods, with varying degrees of independence or interdependence. Like villages, towns can be either rural, suburban (in fact, while suburban examples of hamlets and villages may be more “exurban,” many modern suburbs, including bedroom communities and edge cities, fit into this category), or urban, and can also be part of larger cities, as urban districts.

A Rural Town: Carson City, Nevada

From maps.google.com.

Carson City was originally a mining town of some importance and, as such, was made the state capitol of Nevada when it was granted statehood. Though the mines are no longer a significant part of Carson City’s economy, the fact that it is the state capitol has not only kept it from declining, but has allowed it to grow significantly, and the town now boasts a population of over 55,000. Many residents are government employees of one sort or another, including forest rangers and employees of the BLM. Some residents commute to Reno, but it is a long commute and occasionally the road closes due to snow, so most people who live in Carson City also work there. Though being a town of some size, it has little in the way of suburbs, mostly due to inhospitable building conditions, and much of the surrounding developable land is already a part of Carson City. Neighborhoods are clearly evident, if only by being able to differentiate the old gridded areas from the newer neighborhoods with dendritic street patterns. Services include all day to day uses, along with a few strip shopping centers and, as anywhere in Nevada, a few casinos.

The Nugget, which has a great breakfast, and Cactus Jack’s casinos on the main drag of Carson City. From maps.google.com.

A Suburban Town: Rocklin, California

From maps.google.com.

Rocklin was little more than a train stop and a gravel pit before it got sucked into the suburban sprawl that extends northeastward from Sacramento. As such, it has very little traditional infrastructure to build off of, and is an archetypal American suburb.

Pacific Street, Rocklin’s sad little main street: one-story buildings, vacant lots, lots of parking, and expensive branding and improvements that did little to reverse the downward trend. From maps.google.com.

Virtually all of Rocklin’s retail uses are car-dependent strip-style retail. The few office and industrial uses it has are also suburban-style, although most residents commute out of Rocklin, either to its powerhouse neighbor Roseville or to Sacramento. Although apartment housing exists, it is surrounded by parking and often by some sort of wall, cutting them off from surroundings and forcing people to drive. The overwhelming housing type is the single family home, and many of the houses are built on the exact same floor plan thanks to much of them being built at the same time in the massive Stanford Ranch subdivision. Although uses are strictly segregated, when I lived there I was able to walk a reasonable distance to school, to a grocery store and to a few restaurants. It was possible, but certainly wasn’t as enjoyable as a walk in Beaver, Carson City or many of the places to follow.

An Urban Town: Northampton, Massachusetts

From maps.google.com.

Northampton, at just shy of 30,000 people, is just over half the population of both Carson City and Rocklin, yet it feels much more urban. This 350-year-old town not only had good urban fabric, but preserved it even during the suburban era, and now stands as a model urban town.

Downtown Northampton on a beautiful fall day. From panoramio.com.

Although Northampton does have some strip retail, especially along north King Street, it is centered on a traditional mixed use downtown which provides a wide array of shopping opportunities, possibly even more than an equally urban town because of Northampton’s strong association with various counterculture movements. This, along with smaller lot sizes and a dense network of streets, makes Northampton extremely walkable. Although the population is not high enough to justify rail transit, the town does operate a bus system, along with the other towns and villages of Massachusetts’ Pioneer Valley. Northampton’s main economic driver is Smith College, which not only employs most residents of Northampton, but also brings in commuters from other nearby municipalities. Distinct neighborhoods can be identified throughout Northampton, from Smith College to Downtown to Bay State and other principally residential areas.

A District Town: University City, Philadelphia

From maps.google.com.

University City, bounded roughly by 52nd Street, Spring Garden Street, and the Schuylkill River in Philadelphia, covers a large area and a large population, although much of it is fairly transient. A large part of the population is made up of students who attend Drexel University, the University of Pennsylvania, and the University of the Sciences, which give the district its name. Although there are certainly a number of apartment complexes, University City is a part of Philadelphia, where the rowhouse has always been the dominant housing type. However, it is not unusual for those rowhouses to them be subdivided into various apartments.

Row houses near Clark Park in University City. From panoramio.com.

There are a number of mixed use corridors throughout the area, from Lancaster Avenue to the north, to the three main central streets of Market, Chestnut and Walnut, to Baltimore Avenue in the south. These are just the main corridors, and there are a number of smaller scale mixed use areas between them. SEPTA has buses, trolleys, subway, elevated rail and commuter rail in the area. University City, and particularly the Science Center along Market Street along with the universities, are also major workplaces, and more people commute to University City than to any other area in the Philadelphia metro area with the exception of Center City, Philadelphia. The area has distinct neighborhoods, including each of the universities, as well as Powelton Village, Cedar Park, Clark Park, and others.


A city is the next step up in the scale of size and development intensity. Cities are made up of various districts, with various neighborhoods within them. These neighborhoods vary in density and building type, allowing people to have a large variety of choices in where and how they want to live. Cities contain all sorts of services, with larger cities providing more unique, specialized and elite services. This is one of the major distinctions between large and small cities. We don’t really have a word to distinguish between large and small cities, but their size and access to services are very different, as will be discussed below. When you reach this scale of settlements, it is rare that cities exist in a rural environment. There may be a few examples (I was thinking of considering Lincoln, Nebraska, but couldn’t think of any other examples), and if you can think of any, please leave it in the comments section. However, there are many cities that follow a suburban pattern, as well as more urban cities.

A Small Suburban City: Provo, Utah

From maps.google.com.

Provo is a city of about 112,000 people about 50 miles south of Salt Lake City. It is home to Brigham Young University and the roughly 35,000 students who go there. As such, there are a lot of apartments in Provo, but is is still overwhelmingly single-family, and high parking requirements and low density limits keep the density fairly low, despite many apartments. Although Provo does have a small, mixed use center, the city is mostly made up of large, single-use districts, and even the center has been hollowed out and few apartments exist there, with mostly offices above the stores and little nightlife. While Provo’s single family housing and single use districts contribute to its suburban nature, it is capped off by its car dependence. Like many Mormon settlements, Provo has very wide roads, which in the automobile era make it unsafe and undesirable to cross them. In addition, Provo requires pedestrians to press a button to cross streets, and the crossing times are very short. Provo participates in the Utah Transit Authority and will soon have a heavy rail connection to Salt Lake, but the buses don’t have great coverage and run infrequently. A Bus Rapid Transit system, which would run from Provo’s new rail station to BYU to Utah Valley University and finally to the new rail station in Orem, has been proposed, but it is not likely to be approved due to funding constraints and the general conservative politics of the city. Provo has a number of districts, including the Bench, the campus area, the East Bay, and others, each with their own neighborhoods.

Provo’s wide University Avenue and two of the tallest buildings in the city. From panoramio.com.

A Small Urban City: Allentown, Pennsylvania

From maps.google.com.

Compare the above picture of some of Provo’s tallest buildings with this picture of Allentown:

Center City Allentown. From wikipedia.org.

Dominated by the 332-foot PPL Building, Allentown’s downtown dwarfs Provo’s in both height and area. It has significant mixed use corridors running along both Hamilton Street and 7th Street, as well as a thriving area around 19th Street just north of the fairgrounds. Although Allentown looks like a bigger city than Provo, its population is only 118,000, barely larger. In fact, the land area of Allentown is only 18 square miles, compared to Provo’s 42, making it much denser. This density and mix of use make Allentown much more walkable. Allentown is also served by the Lehigh and Northampton Transit Authority, which has very dense coverage in Center City, although it does get much lighter in the outlying districts. It is the largest municipality in the Lehigh Valley, and as such is where most residents of the area work. It can be divided into a number of districts, including Center City, the Wards, and the West End.

A Medium Suburban City: Boise, Idaho

From maps.google.com.

Many people don’t realize how large Boise actually is. I know that when I went there as a missionary in 2005 I though I would be spending all my time milking cows and picking potatoes. Imagine my pleasant surprise when I entered the city and saw that this would be the area I would begin my missionary service in:

Downtown Boise. From wikipedia.org.

Boise’s population is well over 200,000, making it bigger than it’s “major city” neighbor, Salt Lake City. Its downtown is actually fairly dense, and has done a good job of preserving the good bones it was built on, unlike Provo. Although it doesn’t boast any major sports teams, it does have a huge sports entertainment industry based around Boise State University, as well as a few minor league sports teams. It also boasts the only dance club I’ve ever been to (after I was done being a missionary), one among many nightlife spots. Though it does offer urban services, and although the downtown is certainly a dense, walkable area, the city on the whole is much more suburban. Boise, like many western cities, grew immensely in the last century, partially do to an aggressive annexation policy that has added much low density, sparsely developed land to the city. The single family home is the dominant housing type. Outside of the downtown, uses are largely divided rather than mixed. The city is very car dependent with a weak bus system, and I can say from experience that riding a bike in many parts of the city involves taking your life into your hands. Boise is the largest city in Idaho and in the Treasure Valley and as such brings in many commuters. There are a number of distinct districts in the area owing to the topography as well as to man-made barriers such as I-184.

A Medium Urban City: Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania

From maps.google.com.

I wondered if some of my local Pittsburghers would be unhappy with me putting Pittsburgh in the medium city category. At one point it was one of the largest in the country and even today enjoys many big-city amenities. However, with a population barely over 300,000 and still in decline as of the last census, it is hard to put Pittsburgh in the same category as New York and Los Angeles. It is a very unique city. It has a number of very dense districts such as Downtown, the Strip and Oakland, while many of the outlying neighborhoods include small single family homes as well as small apartment complexes and attached units. Pittsburgh’s extreme topography allows for high density development in valleys and on flat hilltops while keeping steeper slopes in a natural condition, which makes it feel very green even in densely populated areas.

Pittsburgh’s dense downtown as seen from the green slopes of Mount Washington. From wikipedia.org.

Pittsburgh enjoys a major sports entertainment industry, and is home to a number of growing industries, including banking, medical, and educational campuses. Many neighborhoods are walkable despite extreme elevation thanks to almost 45,000 steps which often run parallel to or in some instances replace sidewalks or even streets.

A Pittsburgh “paper street” (i.e. labeled as a street on paper, or on a map, but a stairwell in real life) connects two areas of extreme topography. From city-data.com.

Pittsburgh has an extensive bus system, and a light rail system currently serves the South Hills and is being expanded to the stadium area on the north of the Allegheny River. As can be seen from my last post, Pittsburgh is very much the center for commuters in the region.

A Large Suburban City: Los Angeles, California

From maps.google.com.

Los Angeles is America’s second largest city, at almost 4 million people. However, it’s not even in the top 100 cities in America for population density. Although downtown Los Angeles is a high density, mixed use area, and there are others to be found in the city, it is not the general character of this city. While there is a transit system, it is less than comprehensive. Los Angeles, at one time, had one of the most extensive streetcar networks in the world; but it was all torn out, and replaced by the transportation infrastructure that is most characteristic of Los Angeles: the freeway.

The Four Level (Bill Keene Memorial) Interchange. Los Angeles is the only place that I have noticed caring enough about their interchanges to name them. From wikipedia.org.

Los Angeles’ car dependency is well known, leading to its familiar smog and congestion, the worst in the country. 708,000 people commute into Los Angeles, but 695,000 commute out, making it almost commute-neutral. The city hosts many services, but first and foremost is the entertainment industry. Los Angeles has sports teams in most major sports, but much more important is the fact that most major film studios call LA home, especially in the Hollywood district.

A Large Urban City: New York City, New York

From maps.google.com.

It is interesting to me that New York City has just over 60% of the land area of Los Angeles, yet has over twice the population, at just over 8 million. And considering the extremely low densities of Staten Island and eastern Queens, this means an even greater concentration in the rest of the city. I didn’t think it would say much for me to include pictures of New York, because pretty much everyone knows what it looks like. I can just say Empire State Building, Times Square, Wall Street, and you’ve already got the image in your mind. And that’s only Manhattan; most people outside of the city have no idea what sort of interesting stuff can be found in the other boroughs. New York is the most densely populated major city in America, and while there are a few single family areas, it is overwhelmingly attached housing, especially apartments. New York’s neighborhoods are overwhelmingly mixed use and the most walkable in the country. Its train and bus system is nearly comprehensive. It is the center for stage and television entertainment. It is the world financial capitol. In fact, as the home of the United Nations, it is the closest thing we have to a world capitol. In many ways, New York defines what it means to be a city.


Much like a town can be considered a collection of neighborhoods/villages and a city a collection of districts/towns, a metropolis is a collection of cities. It generally has one major city at the center (although there are of course exceptions such as Minneapolis/St. Paul), where most people commute to and where major cultural or social institutions are based, surrounded by suburbs or smaller urban areas. Many services, such as local news and radio, are organized on a metropolitan scale. Metropolitan transportation systems, whether they be transit or automobile oriented, allow for people throughout the region to enjoy the services of the central city. In many metropoli, however, these suburbanites do not pay an equal share for the services they enjoy; they flee central cities to escape crime or dense living conditions, and as such don’t pay the taxes that the city needs to survive, leading to a downward spiral of decay at the center. Portland is the only city in America that has established a metropolitan government so that this burden can be more equally shared. Metropolitan areas, like cities, generally are more suburban or urban than rural.

A Suburban Metropolis: Salt Lake City, Utah

From maps.google.com.

Salt Lake City, as mentioned above, is a medium city at best, with a population of about 190,000. However, it is the principal city of the Wasatch Front, a developed area leading from above the Idaho border to central Utah. Much of this area is unbuildable because of steep terrain or bad soils, but the developed area features few areas of concentrated density; even downtown Salt Lake is not terribly dense. Many of the surrounding municipalities are suburban towns where most of the residents work either in Salt Lake City or in the lesser cities of Provo and Ogden. This area is really the heartland of the Mormon religion, and the church administration, as well as the iconic Salt Lake Temple, are both based here.

From front to back: the Salt Lake Tabernacle; the Salt Lake Temple; and the Church Administration Building, the tallest building in Salt Lake City. From wikipedia.org.

Although the Salt Lake City metropolitan area is currently very car dependent, it has been taking strides in a good direction; a light rail system, TRAX, serves the Salt Lake Valley, and a heavy rail system FrontRunner, has been built north to Ogden and is currently being expanded south to Provo and beyond.

An Urban Metropolis: Boston, Massachusetts

From maps.google.com.

Boston itself is a fairly large city, but it sits immediately across the Charles River from two smaller cities: Cambridge and Somerville. The cities of Quincy and Newton are on its other sides. This central amalgamation is encircled by a series of satellite cities and towns: Barnstable, New Bedford, Worcester, Lowell, Nashua, Manchester, Portland, and many others in between. Though some of these areas have developed in a more suburban pattern, many of them are old cities with good bones, and are denser and more mixed use than their counterparts in Salt Lake City. Despite the Mass Pike, Route 128 and other highways in the area, the Boston metro area is still quite transit-friendly, with an extensive heavy rail network connecting many of these satellite cities to the center.

Boston’s commuter rail network. From mbta.com.

Boston is widely considered the capitol of New England, and as such holds influence over all of that region except western Connecticut, which is largely made up of the suburbs of New York City.


Following the established pattern, a megalopolis is a group of metropoli. The idea of a megalopolis is a fairly new one and came about as the suburbs and spheres of influence of the metropolitan areas of the northeastern United States began to grow into each other and eventually overlap, leading to greater interdependence of these areas. A megalopolis often has a certain metropolis that is more dominant than the others, but it is theoretically possible to have a megalopolis without a single dominant city, and various metropoli may have equal power within the megalopolis. Referred to as “megaregions” by some authors, megalopoli are, as the last few types have been, more suburban or urban than rural.

A Suburban Megalopolis: The American Southwest

From maps.google.com.

When I say the Southwest, I particularly mean the area that America 2050 suggests is within the sphere of influence of Los Angeles: California south of Bakersfield and San Luis Obispo; the Las Vegas area in Nevada; Arizona south of Flagstaff; and the Mexican border region from Tijuana to Nogales. While Los Angeles is by far the principal metropolis, San Diego, Las Vegas, and Phoenix also fit within this category. Each of these areas has a dense core that is surrounded by suburbs that can sprawl hundreds of miles away from the metropolitan center, and are therefore very low density. Although each metropolis does have some form of public transit, they generally pay a subservient role to highway transportation. The central cities of these metropolitan areas are not terribly strong employment centers, and although there is plenty of central commuting, much of it is also suburb to suburb, bypassing the central city. There are rail connections between San Diego and Los Angeles, and the state of California has been wanting to create a statewide rail system for years, but at least in the near term, there are not many connections between the various metropoli of the Southwest Megalopolis.

An Urban Megalopolis: The American Northeast

From maps.google.com.

 The original megalopolis covers all of New England, New Jersey and Delaware, and the portions east of the Appalachian Mountains of New York, Pennsylvania, Maryland, and Virginia. This string of metropoli includes Boston, Hartford, New York, Philadelphia, Baltimore, Washington DC, Richmond, and Virginia Beach. This corridor, like Boston above, is made up not only of large, dense cities, but of older cities and towns with good bones that are higher density than in the Southwest. This area has many business and government links between its cities, and as such, travel between metros is very important. Although I-95 does serve this area, commuters also have the option of using Amtrak, which runs its fastest train, the Acela, between Washington and Boston; or a number of private bus carriers that, although not as classy as the train, allow competitive rates for inter-metro travel. The Northeast was planned as the first area in the nation for new high-speed rail because its population density makes it the most feasible; however, unless the Democrats make a big comeback in 2012, it is unlikely that this project will happen any time soon.


We can’t view the world as just urban and rural. There is a gradient of settlement characters from rural to suburban to urban, and the lines between them are blurry. By the same token, a municipality of 20,000 people should not be referred to with the same word as a municipality of 8 million. They are very different animals, and our vocabulary should reflect that difference. As such, I have proposed this matrix of settlement types. If I missed something, if I’m somehow off base, or if you have anything that you think should be added to this discussion, please leave a comment below.


I hate that I have to apologize again, but I had an extremely busy semester and did not devote enough time to this blog. If you want to see what I spent most of my time working on, please check out Boston Beyond the Car, which was put together by my colleague Barrett Lane. For now though, I just want to do a quick post about a relatively new tool from the Census Bureau, OnTheMap. This tool allows you to map job data, including where workers from a certain area live, where residents from a certain area work, how many people commute into or out of a given area, and much much more. For instance, in my continued interest in regional government, I wanted to see how many people are dependent on Pittsburgh for employment, so I mapped out which municipalities in the Pittsburgh area have more people commute to Pittsburgh than to any other municipality, which you can see here:

This is a really useful tool for any sort of planning, and I know that anyone could really use it to benefit their projects.

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