An argument for moving beyond cities/suburbs to walkable/unwalkable areas

A demographer makes an argument for moving beyond comparing cities and suburbs to looking at walkable and unwalkable areas which are not necessarily concentrated in either cities or suburbs:

Unfortunately, the census shines the light on the terms “city” and “suburb”–neither of which are the keys to understanding today’s built environment.

Core cities are comprised of pedestrian-oriented urban places, how Jerry Seinfeld lived, but they also include auto-centric suburban places, like the San Fernando Valley in the city of Los Angeles or the Palisades in the District of Columbia. Likewise, the suburbs of those core cities include classic subdivisions and McMansions, like the home of Tony Soprano, but they also include booming places like Old Town Pasadena, Reston Town Center near Dulles Airport outside D.C., and revitalized Jersey City and Hoboken, NJ, on the other side of the Hudson River from Manhattan.

The issue is where are walkable urban places being built, and they are being built in both central cities and the suburbs surrounding them. My 2007 survey of the walkable urban places in the top 30 metros showed 50 percent of them were in central cities and 50 percent were in the suburbs. In the metro area with the most walkable urban places, the Washington region, 70 percent of the walkable urban places were in the suburbs. These included Bethesda and Silver Spring in suburban Montgomery County, nine places in suburban Arlington County (like Ballston and Crystal City), and the newly built Washington Harbor in suburban Prince George’s County.

I haven’t looked at this 2007 survey data but it sounds interesting. Is there an easy way to demarcate walkable vs. unwalkable areas through publicly available data? While the Census definitions of and boundaries between cities and suburbs might be frustrating, the data is easy to understand and available to all.

At the same time, this argument is broader: it is about comparing denser versus less dense areas. Walkable areas work because residents can easily walk to or access essential needs like grocery stores, public spaces, eateries, and more. At stake here is whether less dense urban areas, like the north side of Chicago with its many single-family homes, are more similar to suburban areas (which range from inner-ring suburbs to very sparse communities on the suburban fringe) or to more central districts like the Chicago Loop.

I would think that suburban areas are more similar to each other in design and culture than to large portions of large cities. But if more suburban areas become more dense (and this may be what Americans want) and the importance of the core of metropolitan areas decline, perhaps this will change.

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