Editor’s note: I originally published this post on February 18, 2013, but there’s been a lot of discussion about density, urbanity, and quality of life in local media recently, and I thought it was worth re-publishing this.
Original post below:
On this blog, I’ll be discussing a variety of topics regarding questions of town-building for Carrboro, North Carolina and other places. But one I’ll probably come back to again and again is the word “urban.” Knowing that, I want to be as clear as possible about what I mean when I use this term.
In growth debates, this tends to mean a lot of things to a lot of people. More than a few people hear “urban” and immediately think “Manhattan” or “New York.” Interestingly enough, I think that when people say New York, they actually do mean “Manhattan,” and not Brooklyn, Queens, or any of the other boroughs. They are thinking of super-tall buildings first and foremost, and Manhattan has the highest concentration of skyscrapers in one place in the USA.
Others think more broadly of large cities with very large populations, places that generally have over one million inhabitants in a single municipality. This definition can encompass neighborhoods and communities of very different physical character. It may include skyscraper districts, mid-rise districts, and low-density neighborhoods often found 3 to 10 miles from an American city center.
However, I think the definition of urban can be made very simple, and most accurate, by tying it to one function: walking. Here is the simplest definition I can offer:
If you live, work or visit somewhere that numerous people regularly walk from one place to another for a variety of reasons other than recreation or exercise, then you are living in, working in, or visiting an urban place.
This is really the key to figuring out if a place is urban or not. Fundamentally, I believe that once we have stopped talking about agricultural landscapes and communities where farming is a principal activity, we are better off organizing our communities around urban principles instead of not doing so. This blog will be about explaining why I think this is true, and how we can build cities and towns full of beautiful urban neighborhoods.
With that in mind, what are some of the primary reasons why we should build urban places?
1. Health of Individuals. Getting around on foot rather than in a car provides significant health benefits. Most doctors will tell you that walking is close to “the perfect exercise” – low impact, able to be participated in for most of one’s life, and requiring little special equipment or money to participate. A community that makes it safe, easy and pleasant for people to walk for non-recreational purposes is one that is investing in the long-term health of its population.
2. Health of Shared Common Resources. Initiatives that convert auto trips to transit trips and particularly bicycle and walking trips lower a community’s per-trip air pollution and per-trip carbon footprint. Developing in a more compact growth pattern, by putting more uses and residents within walking distance of each other- reduces development pressure on farmland and on land around water resources.
3. Reduced Lifecycle Costs for Infrastructure. If we build 150 homes on 450 acres (1 home per 3-acre lot) then attaching those homes to a local sewer system such as OWASA will require a network of publicly maintained pipes that provides drainage across 70 percent of one square mile. Building those same homes at 15 dwelling units to the acre means that any expanded sewer network will need to cover 1.6 percent of one square mile. Joe Minicozzi of Asheville has probably done a better job than anyone documenting this issue.
4. A Healthy, Innovative Local Business Ecosystem A compact, reasonably dense neighborhood can support its own district of small businesses. Finer grain block sizes in city streets inherently lead you away from big-box retail owned by large corporations and international investors, and towards smaller format stores with a greater likelihood of a local owner running the business. Greater population densities create opportunity for greater variety in dining choices and for agglomeration benefits in many industries.
5. Vibrant Public Spaces By building compactly and in an urban pattern, one of the best outcomes is the ability to create special places that people cherish because they function as social centers as well as perhaps cultural or artistic centers. Locally, the Weaver Street Market Lawn is the best example of such a place.
Whether you’re a local elected official, a developer, or a citizen, if we’re going to build better urban places, it’s always good to ask – “is this proposed change going to help or hinder Life On Foot in the neighborhood and the town?”