Beyond Density: The Art and Science of Walkable Neighborhoods


densityThe business of place-making – part science, part art – has had a long evolution, but American cities have never needed good urban design more urgently than at this moment. Changing demographics, energy savings and environmental concerns all mandate getting great urban neighborhoods just right.

The evolution of town planning in the New World arguably began with the Laws of the West Indies, the basic layout for settlement provided by the Spanish crown – essentially a grid, centered on a central square. With important figures from Raymond Unwin to Daniel Burnham to Ebenezer Howard, the art of town planning progressed up to World War II. Then it took a detour for urban renewal and got all but lost in the car-dependent, conventional suburban development of the past half-century.

Jane Jacobs’ seminal and pivotal 1961 work, The Death and Life of Great American Cities, helped start a redirection. Her work underscored the importance of shorter blocks, diverse and human-scaled buildings and street-level activity. In recent decades concepts like Smart Growth, New Urbanism and transit-oriented development have dominated the planning profession, and not only for new development but for the continuing infill and reinvention of established urban areas, too many of which have been left in a state of neglect during the suburban era.

All the while, great urban places have become more in demand. Today’s high energy prices, economic uncertainty and demographic change are pushing a growing number of Americans toward urban living as an alternative to the traditional automobile-dependent suburb. Many would-be city dwellers hope to reduce the amount of driving they do, to save money and lower the greenhouse gas emissions that affect climate change.

Into this burgeoning interest in urban neighborhoods, author Julie Campoli offers a closer look at ways planners can encourage strong, well-functioning urban districts, the kind that encourage walking, bicycling and remaining in place as part of a more intensely local economy.

To the well-known “5 Ds and a P” – diversity of land uses, density, design, distance to transit, destination accessibility and parking – Campoli offers additional, essential ingredients, based on her close study of 12 different urban neighborhoods. To ensure that a place is truly walkable, Campoli says, you need: connections, urban tissue (the web of property lines and rights-of-way), population and housing density, services, streetscape, and green networks.

A landscape architect, urban designer and photographer, Campoli is a principal at Terra Firma Urban Design in Burlington, Vt. For her new book Made for Walking: Density and Neighborhood Form (Lincoln Institute, 2012), she assessed the latest research on urban form and travel behavior and dug deep into the role of density and the importance of diverse land uses.

Made for Walking builds on Campoli’s Visualizing Density (Lincoln Institute, 2007), coauthored with aerial photographer Alex S. MacLean. In the new book, her research extended into a realm that might be described as “beyond density.”

Density is often defined in terms of population per square mile, but such a crude measure makes it difficult to understand the relationship between density and city life. Campoli sought a deeper understanding of urban density, one that includes the density of jobs, schools, and services such as retail, transit, and recreational facilities.

For her research, Campoli hit the pavement, compiling case studies of 12 neighborhoods of approximately 125 acres each — a comfortable pedestrian walk zone:

  • LoDo and the Central Platte Valley, Denver, Colo.
  • Short North, Columbus, Ohio
  • Kitsilano, Vancouver, British Columbia
  • Flamingo Park, Miami Beach, Fla.
  • Little Portugal, Toronto, Ontario
  • Eisenhower East, Alexandria, Va.
  • The Pearl District, Portland, Ore.
  • Downtown and Raynolds Addition, Albuquerque, N.M
  • Greenpoint, Brooklyn, N.Y.
  • Little Italy, San Diego, Calif.
  • Cambridgeport, Cambridge, Mass.
  • Old Pasadena, Pasadena, Calif.

Those neighborhoods, Campoli says, offer choices: various modes of transportation, diverse housing types and a variety of things to do and places to shop. Their streets are comfortable, attractive and safe for biking and walking. They show how compact development can take shape in different regions and climates. Campoli concluded that fitting more amenities into a neighborhood within a spatial pattern that invites walking will enhance the quality of life for residents and visitors.

One of her most compelling discoveries was how good urban design can come together in areas that have suffered from neglect. Many of the neighborhoods Campoli analyzes were once centers of bustling industry and growth, followed by decline and depopulation as highways replaced rail-based transportation.

By the end of the 20th century, however, frustration with the negative side effects of low-density sprawl led to a realization that those older, urban neighborhoods had much to offer. First a trickle and soon a steadier stream of investment flowed back toward cities and into downtown neighborhoods. Their “good bones” – human-scale buildings and ready-made networks of small blocks and connected streets that make walking easy – are attracting a new generation of residents and businesses.

“Beyond density” may be a phrase only a planner could love, but fine-tuning the technical underpinnings of urban design – non-ideological, based on what works – seems of singular importance for the 21st-century city.

Many others are working hard at this, including Jeff Speck and his recent book, Walkable City: How Downtown Can Save America, One Step at a Time. These efforts are just right for our time.


Anthony Flint, a veteran journalist, is a fellow and director of public affairs at the Lincoln Institute of Land Policy in Cambridge, Mass., and author of Wrestling with Moses: How Jane Jacobs Took on New York’s Master Builder, Transformed the American City, and This Land: The Battle Over Sprawl and the Future of America.


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