Walk Score revisited: Walk Appeal

Walk Score heat map of Philadelphia. From walkscore.com.

I love the Walk Score tool. I walk nearly everywhere I go, and especially when I travel I like to know what I’m going to be up against when I hit the sidewalk. I admit that I frequently judge a neighborhood or city by it’s Walk Score before I’ve even been there. For the uninitiated, this is what Walk Score is, according to their website:

Walk Score uses a patent-pending system to measure the walkability of an address. The Walk Score algorithm awards points based on the distance to amenities in each category. Amenities within .25 miles receive maximum points and no points are awarded for amenities further than one mile.

For example, my apartment in Center City Philadelphia, where I walk anywhere that the subway won’t take me, has a Walk Score of 95, while my parent’s home in suburban Pittsburgh has a Walk Score of 11. My parents couldn’t walk to anything if they wanted to.

But, as Sarah Goodyear recently pointed out in The Atlantic, walk-ability and walk-desirability are not necessarily the same thing. For one, Walk Score doesn’t tell you anything about the quality of services within walking distance, i.e., a bodega and a Super Wal-Mart are both classified under “Grocery Stores.” Second, Walk Score doesn’t say anything about the quality of the environment one is walking through. According to their website, “Walk Score measures how easy it is to live a car-lite lifestyle—not how pretty the area is for walking.” They even have a list of factors that they can’t measure that impact how comfortable an environment is to walk in: crime, topography, weather, and many others.

With these shortcomings in mind, Steve Mouzon of The Original Green proposes a new metric to measure how walkable a place is: Walk Appeal. He starts with the idea, doctrine among New Urbanists, that most people will only walk a quarter of a mile before they decide they would rather drive. Mouzon claims that this distance changes based on the environment: people will easily walk two miles in Rome or London, while they would rather drive across the parking lot than walk from Best Buy to Target. While Walk Score measures density of services, Walk Appeal measures the quality of the built environment. Mouzon’s system has seven “standards” for how far people will walk in a given environment:

  • The London Standard (2 miles): These are streets “so good you’ll happily walk for miles.” Though Mouzon focuses on the streets of London, Rome, Paris, and Florence, such streets can be found in Boston, San Francisco, Rio de Janeiro and other cities that developed in a pre-automobile era.
  • The Main Street Standard (3/4 mile): These are traditional mixed-use streets found in older American towns. They have narrow storefronts, consistent frontage, and come right up to the sidewalk.
  • The Neighborhood Street Standard (1/4 mile): This is the old New Urbanist standard, which Mouzon seems to apply principally to residential areas of smaller single-family homes with porches and small front yards that come fairly close to the street.
  • The Suburban Neighborhood Standard (1/10 mile): These are the sort of streets that you find in older suburbs. The lots are larger and the buildings further set back than in traditional neighborhoods, and elements such as picket fences and hedgerows are less common.
  • The Subdivision Standard (250 feet): These are the streets of more recent suburbs. They are devoid of fences and hedges, sometimes even sidewalks altogether, and the streets are wide enough to see the curvature of the earth.
  • The Power Center Standard (100 feet): These are basically the parking fields of large big box stores. They are ugly, they are hot and uncomfortable in summer, and no one likes to be there.
  • The Parking-Backed Standard (25 feet): This is the sad little strip of sidewalk between the big box parking lot and the high-speed, high-capacity arterial road. This is the sort of street where, if you are walking along it, people will stop and ask you if your car broke down and if you need a lift to a repair shop.

Mouzon lists a number of criteria—View Changes, Street Enclosure, Window of View (glazing), Shelter, Goals in the Middle Distance, and Turning the Corner—that could be used to measure this quality, but doesn’t currently offer, for example, exactly how many storefronts her hundred linear feet are required to bump up a street from a Main Street Standard to a London Standard.

There are a number of holes in Mouzon’s theory at this point, some of he discusses himself and some of which are brought up by Kaid Benfield on his blog. I had some additional questions which, I hope, will help to develop the idea. For instance, there are a lot of gaps in his standards. For instance, where does a large-scale office district fall? What about row houses or dense twins like in much of West Philadelphia? What about urban alleys, which are entirely walk-able, but not walk-desirable? What about when one side of a street is a great mixed use street, and the other is the backside of a building? How do you deal with parks and trails? Do they get their own ranking system? These are the sort of questions I think need to be answered before this can be implemented at a larger scale.

A Walk Appeal analysis like what Mouzon describes could not be implemented the same way that Walk Score is. Walk Score is able to gather data from other websites and combine it in such a way as to find its score. No website I am aware of keeps track of how many stores there are per block, or what percentage of the storefronts is glazed. This would make a Walk Appeal analysis a more individual and hands-on effort, maybe one that planners, architects or designers would implement while doing research for or presenting a new plan.

Walk Appeal of St. Charles. From originalgreen.org.

Mouzon actually creates an example of how Walk Appeal can be used. He does an analysis of the Walk Appeal for a single store in St. Charles, Missouri. He first shows the current state of events, and explains how if the city were to implement various streetscaping upgrades, it could increase the Walk Appeal of the store and give it access to more people than would currently walk there.

St. Charles after street upgrades improve it’s Walk Appeal. From originalgreen.org.

I wanted to do a quick analysis for some place that I knew well, so I picked the apartment we just moved out of in University City. Since many of the holes in Mouzon’s standards are on the more urban end of things, I sort of had to approximate. I looked at St. Charles and tried to find comparable streets to those in my old neighborhood. I basically took streets that I thought were really good, and called that the Main Street Standard. Okay streets got the Neighborhood Street Standard, streets that were not nice but functional got the Suburban Neighborhood Standard, and since there are no subdivisions or overwhelming arterial strips in University City, flat-out bad streets ended up with the Power Center Standard.

Walk Appeal for an apartment at 35th and Lancaster, University City, Philadelphia.

What I saw was very interesting. The district as a whole is very walkable (Walk Score lists it as three neighborhoods, University City, Powelton and Mantua, with Walk Scores of 93, 77, and 70 respectively), but there is a wide variety in Walk Appeal. The areas around the universities are really quite nice, while the area around 30th Street Station and the Science Center are a bit weaker. University City High School is a sort of no-man’s land between the universities and Powelton Village, and as part of neither neighborhood, it really gets left behind. Powelton Village itself, with its smaller blocks, is a lovely place to walk, with the exception of the areas along the rail yard. Things get dicier in Mantua and West Powelton, where widespread vacancy brings down the Walk Appeal.

I think that if this tool is fully developed, it can be another great tool in the designer’s toolbox. I hope that Mouzon continues to develop it and turn it into a more quantifiable system. What else currently missing from the Walk Appeal analysis?


Lighter Quicker Cheaper

The University City District and Project for Public Spaces hosted a discussion yesterday at the International House at the University of Pennsylvania to discuss The Porch at 30th Street Station and other public spaces in Philadelphia and elsewhere. The lecture was called “Lighter Quicker Cheaper,” which is a new way of thinking about how to create public space.

The Porch

The Porch at 30th Street Station. From universitycity.org.

Prima Gupta, director of planning and economic development at UCD, gave the first presentation. She showed an aerial view of University City and said that the impact of urban renewal on the area was apparent; this isn’t the fine grain found in Center City. “There are a lot of harsh pedestrian landscapes,” she said, emphasized by the fact that she got hit by a car her first week at UCD.

The core of University City is mostly a large bridge structure over the various railroad tracks that go under 30th Street Station. The Porch was squeezed into a PennDOT project to update this bridge structure. Originally, it was just going to be a widened sidewalk.

This area has some of the highest pedestrian counts in the city, and will be surrounded by new development as the Cira Center and Drexel University continue to expand.

Drexel’s massive plans for expansion. From hiddencityphila.org.

Gupta showed images of Greeley Square Park in New York, calling it her “fantasy image.” She noted it for its great horticulture, its civilized barrier from the street, and its food kiosks.

Greeley Square Park. From designtrust.blogspot.com.

The Porch today is extremely busy, especially at lunch time. Most of its resources are dedicated to maintenance, with three changes of plantings a year. “It’s still such a concrete space, and it needs the horticulture to brighten it up,” said Gupta. In addition, a robust programming calendar means that there are frequent events there to attract more people, ranging from music to farmers’ markets to much more.

The Porch is also a laboratory for researching how people use public space. UCD is constantly performing behavior mapping on the site, seeing how people of different, genders, ages, or groups use the space. For instance, they found that use is more intense on the west side of the Porch, where most of the pedestrian traffic is. What this tells them is that they need a significant intervention at the east end, to attract more users. They divided the space based on the areas between the large planters into rooms, and found that different rooms are used for eating, reading, or sitting with luggage. They have also tracked people’s desire lines through the site, and even administered surveys to find what people like about the site or what they think is lacking.

Gupta talked about other projects the UCD is working on. They successfully built a number of parklets, small sitting areas taking up parking spots, and will be bringing them back in the future. They are also working on new pedestrian plazas at 48th and Baltimore and 42nd and Woodland.

Parklet at 43rd and Baltimore. From phillymotu.wordpress.com.

Lighter Quicker Cheaper

Ethan Kent from the Project for Public Spaces took over, introducing what they do and asking, why don’t we have better public spaces today?

As an example, Kent mentioned PPS’s work with Rockefeller Center. The Center initially came to PPS asking how they could keep their bushes safe from people. PPS convinced them that public spaces should invite people, rather than being protected from them. They convinced the Center to put in benches and a giant flower puppy.

Rockefeller Center after installing PPS’s benches. From doubleyooteeeff.wordpress.com.

According to Kent, there are a few things that make a good place: It needs to be comfortable and have an image; it needs a variety of uses and activities; it needs to be sociable; and it needs access and linkages to the outside. Places like this have a number of benefits: they nurture and define community identity; build and support the local economy; create improved accessibility; promote a sense of comfort; draw a diverse population; and foster frequent and meaningful contact.

Kent presented a concept used by PPS known as the Power of 10. This concept states that a city should have at least 10 well defined districts; within those districts, there should be at least 10 successful public spaces; and within those public spaces there should be at least 10 different activities available. The clustering of these activities creates great public space, which strengthens the district and then the city.

Kent listed a number of definitions for what placemaking is, including “Placemaking is turning a neighborhood, town or city from a place you can’t wait to get through to one you never want to leave.” He gave Placemaking Chicago as an example of the work that PPS does to help cities make better places. He argued that a lot of the problem with creating good places is the process most cities follow. He said that, instead of a project/discipline driven approach, good places come from a place/community driven approach. Instead of trying to reach the end of a project, we need to see placemaking as an iterative process, where we make small changes over time to improve a site.

Kent showed how PPS uses the place game to determine what works for a place and what it needs. He listed a number of examples, including the pedestrianizing of Times Square, to demonstrate how this works. He concluded by saying that we need to reorient local government around placemakers.


Andrew Stober of the Mayor’s Office of Transportation and Utilities responded to the presentations by saying that placemaking in neighborhoods is becoming more important as more people work at home. “It’s no longer about a center city being urbanized at mid day … our neighborhoods are places of work,” he said, because working at home is less about working in one’s house and more about working at the park or the local coffee house.

He said that more empty nesters are coming into cities and young families are staying longer, and the changing relationship with the car in America necessitates a new look at how we make our public spaces. He pointed out that these projects are often being implemented by transportation departments and not planning or parks departments.

Maintenance is particularly important, Stober notes, because poorly maintained parks can become home to undesirable elements of society. Some city neighborhoods are afraid to even create new parks because of past issues. The retail mix also needs to be right to attract people.

Pilot projects are also very important to test concepts, according to Stober. “Parklets are a way of letting people try some change,” he said. He emphasized, however, that organizations like the UCD don’t exist everywhere in the city to facilitate these sort of projects.

He also emphasized that 30th Street Station is a natural place to become a hub in a future bikeshare network. Smartphone apps and similar programs can also help people interact with their surroundings in the future.

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.

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