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Kaid Benfield’s Blog

How much urbanism is enough?

Kaid Benfield

Posted January 13, 2011

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Most of us in this business of advocating smart growth, urbanism, sustainable communities and such spend a lot of our time extolling the virtues of cities.  We believe in places that are walkable, meaning they have decent pedestrian infrastructure, connected routes and places close enough to walk to.  We believe homes, shops and services should be placed more closely together than is the case in recently built suburbs.  We believe in density, so that environmental impacts per capita are minimized.  We support public transit, basically meaning travel in groups, sometimes large ones, over the environmental and social baggage that comes with driving solo in cars.  We champion the superiority of community and connection over isolation.

It’s all good, as they say.  But is it?

New York City (by: sfrancisball, creative commons license)I’ve written before about “the environmental paradox of smart growth,” that to reduce impacts overall we must assign some of them to, and even sometimes increase them in, some places.  We generally don’t talk about that in smart growth and urbanist circles, but it absolutely (and literally) comes with the territory.  I still think urbanism is a choice we must make, because the benefits of density can outweigh the detriments, both for the planet and for people.  But we will do a much better job of it if we identify and mitigate the potential detriments.

For example, what about my spouse, who likes to visit and enjoy cities, but likes to retreat from them even more?  In her heart she prefers a nature trail or even the relative peace and quiet of a suburban back yard.  I’ve mostly converted her to the smart growth paradigm, and she gets it that to save nature we must do more clustering in cities.  But she’s an introvert, and not really a city person by instinct.

We compromised by settling in a relatively quiet, moderate-density city neighborhood, but even there I have come to resent the fact that my neighbors (and one aspect of small-lot, city living is that there are a lot of them) seem to think the best way to spend a nice spring weekend day is to bring out some power tools in their back yards and do whatever it is that people with power tools do, loudly.  We like to sleep with the windows open, but on nice evenings the 20-somethings in the group house across the street like to hang out on their front porch until the wee hours.  Who wants to sleep with earplugs?

sawing away (by: mundoo/Vicki, creative commons license)Mass transit isn’t always the most pleasant and nourishing experience, either.  So what are we advocating, exactly?

Aspects of these subjects came up in the comments on last week’s post on wellness.  Two commenters pointed out (correctly) that good design, such as with courtyards, can create oases of tranquility in highly urban settings.  So can pocket parks, and in fact good city parks and density need each other to maximize the benefits of both.

Scott Doyon is a principal in the town planning and development advisory firm PlaceMakers.  Writing on the firm’s blog PlaceShakers and NewsMakers, Scott says that urbanism has been the right reaction to sprawl but now needs to be tempered to accommodate the human need sometimes to retreat from social interaction:

We . . . took the suburban promise of independence and personal space to some pretty ridiculous—and dysfunctional—extremes but, in attempting to correct them, we’ve since made the mistake of confusing the need with the manner in which we satisfied it.

bus in Vancouver (by: Travis Nep Smith, creative commons license)“Simply put, sometimes the last thing we want to do is experience another person.  And that’s okay.

“Very few (perhaps none) of us are on all the time.  At times, we do need to pull back, to be alone or with intimate gatherings of carefully chosen people.

“Community, for all its benefits, is a tiring endeavor.  But that’s a hard thing to consider when the larger conversation . . . is focused on all the measurable ways urbanism can help us solve our problems—from the environmental to the economic to the social.”

Scott closes by reminding us that we need to design and build better private space.  Not necessarily more of it, but better.  Food for thought.

Wendy Waters, who researches and analyzes urban economic trends and writes the blog All About Cities, seems to agree.  Comparing locations with different Walk Scores, she suggests that the urbanist Holy Grail of a perfect 100 score may not be for everyone.  She likes her own neighborhood (Walk Score 98), but concedes that a high volume of traffic and noise and a lack of privacy can all be aggravating.  A still urban but less intense setting might be better :

“A couple decades ago, few people wanted walkability–they wanted quiet, or the perceived security of auto-centered life.  courtyard, London (by: Julian Walker, creative commons license)Today, many want the opposite.  But maybe we’ve gone too far in thinking everybody should have everything close by?  Perhaps even more people would embrace an urban life with an 85 walkscore?”

The comments on the post add interesting perspective to the discussion, most of them also using Walk Score while discussing the tradeoffs that come with urban living.  One commenter said that she would gladly give up “ten, twenty, even thirty points” in Walk Score to get away from the noise.  Responding to the comments, Waters writes that “in many cities and neighborhoods there are almost-linear balancing opportunities between extreme-walkability-with-noise vs. increasingly quieter or more private living, but a need to walk a few extra blocks.”

As with the essay that Lee and I wrote on design, I think this may be an issue we haven’t completely figured out yet.  I suppose one too-easy answer is that there never has been and shouldn’t be a one-size-fits-all approach to smart growth and urbanism.  We can and should provide a variety of environments that offer a range of living choices while staying well within the framework of sustainability.  St Stephen's Green, Dublin (by: Laura Longenecker, creative commons license)People who value community over quiet should be able to choose that, and vice versa.  New urbanism offers the transect as a way of providing different levels of appropriate urban intensity in different parts of a region. 

But the availability of choices within urban settings can be tough to realize on the ground, where real-world development occurs in limited-scale, scattered fashion, one parcel here, another there, with developers eager to maximize returns on investment.  In the DC area, I’m not seeing much moderate density (say, 10 to 20 homes per acre) being proposed anywhere, except in the far outer ‘burbs where it won’t do much good environmentally, even if builders can find buyers for it.  For infill and transit-adjacent projects, I’m seeing plenty of proposed and recently built intensity, but hardly ever a park or the kind of tranquil, publicly accessible courtyard that commenters were describing on this blog last week.  And even the best new development can’t do much if anything to redress problems that have been created by the intensity of existing urbanism. 

Is more attention to moderate density, in more places, part of the answer?  Maybe, and so is better design.  But perhaps there are other answers, too.  That we must have more urbanism isn’t up for debate, as far as I’m concerned.  So let’s keep working on getting it right, and getting it better.  

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Kaid Benfield writes (almost) daily about community, development, and the environment.  For more posts, see his blog's home page.

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Chris ChopikJan 13 2011 09:29 AM

Great perspectives. Big challenges.

ChewieJan 13 2011 10:09 AM

A lot of this is about street design and soundproofing buildings. It's not necessarily true that more density = more noise. Suburbs have plenty of giant arterials that are really noisy to live on because of all of the fast-moving traffic. On the other hand I have been down many a narrow urban street that is pretty tranquil.

But noise can definitely be an issue in cities. In my view that's why we need building codes and building retrofit programs that provide better sound insulation.

Urban life can work really well if you have the positives of a vibrant public life but can also retreat back into an apartment/house and shut it all out.

Kirk WJan 13 2011 10:18 AM

Great post as always. I think a large part of the answer will be forced upon us: peak oil. The immensely powerful oil lobby is spending big bucks to assure us that business-as-usual will be "doable, but challenging" (We promise we'll get better at deep water drilling! Oh look, a CFL!). I have yet to find a mainstream economist or geologist to agree.

No one knows how the settlement pattern will shake out when it's expensive as heck to move concrete, food, water and people around, but I'm tempted to believe it will involve more a reshuffling of people rather than redevelopment of land as we've known it. $8/gallon gas will continue to correct the exurban blunder at an increasing rate. Who will win? Cities with ample fresh water? Natural gas/electric transit? Proximity to food?

Whatever the case, it definitely will be quieter -- fewer semi trucks and gas-powered leafblowers are a given!

Kaid @ NRDCJan 13 2011 12:05 PM

Chewie: great point about soundproofing, which at least addresses the indoors part of the issue.

Kirk: scary stuff. I really hope more dispersal isn't one result. Some of Kunstler's raves on the subject get close to suggesting that.

Hazel BorysJan 13 2011 01:34 PM

Kaid, great insights, as usual! Having just moved moved from a Walk Score of 92 to a Walk Score of 68 myself ( in search of a walkable primary school, I have noticed the exceptional noise decrease. The main thing I hear now are children. This week, a guy who was moving into our building as we were moving out called me for a little psychotherapy on how to deal with neighbors, particularly in a hard loft where noises carry. It was a problem for us when we first moved in, too, but many of those next-door-neighbor issues can be solved with bartering. Maybe not the college kids on the front porch, but sometimes people don't necessarily realize how problematic a few of their habits are to others. In our loft, when our neighbors left (rarely, because they worked from home), their dogs howled. I offered to dogsit (they were great dogs) on those rare occasions, and it was a fun and workable exchange. Several other building trades occurred too, and the noise was eventually a small price to pay for such a great neighborhood. Much better than the drone of nearby cars on some arterial or freeway. --You're right on, the transect ( is key for matching the individual to their most innate habitat, and building-scale design is essential for retreats within any T-zone. But I'd add that dialogue can help for the more power-tool related personal habits, until Kirk's forward-looking oil curve kicks in, and people go back to shoveling snow and raking leaves. It's more fun, anyway (

Kristall LutzJan 13 2011 02:40 PM

Very interesting points/arguments you raise. I'm curious to know which city/citites you feel are "getting it right" or are close to doing so.

Kaid @ NRDCJan 13 2011 03:17 PM

Some developments that I think strike a nice balance creating urbanism while retaining an appealing human scale include:

Highlands' Garden Village, Denver;
Glenwood Park, Atlanta;
High Point, Seattle.

Jon ReedsJan 14 2011 09:48 AM

Could the crux of the matter be that when we move away from our neighbours to low-density living because they are noisy/offensive/visible/whatever, it gives us too the freedom to become more antisocial? There isn't the pressure to be good communitarians in low-density suburbs; we can become selfish, anti-social and mean without it being immediately obvious.
This surely is one of the results of a century of moving to garden suburb living - we have become less social beings. Obviously turning that round is going to be hard as we need to relearn the arts of living cheek-by-jowl with our neighbours without upsetting them and finding ways to improve things when they upset us.
But isn't that what communities do?

Mike HicksJan 14 2011 03:21 PM

Yes, courtyards and other quiet and semi-private pockets are very important to making city life more comfortable. If you take away cars and trucks, the city becomes much, much quieter. There's a street in Minneapolis called Milwaukee Avenue, which was closed off to traffic back in the 1970s. The houses now face onto a pedestrian area with trees planted right where the roadway used to be. You don't have to walk far down the street before becoming completely surrounded by a feeling of peace and quiet.

I agree with Jon that many people moved out to the suburbs seeking quiet and a greater degree of privacy. Rather than sending people on a path to selfless enlightenment, it led instead to greater selfishness and a loss of understanding about the common good.

One thing that concerns me about New Urbanism and Smart Growth plans is that they often place parking lots in the center of city blocks, right where courtyards used to be in European cities. I figure new apartments buildings in urban areas should watch the amount of parking that is actually being used, and start recovering spaces to convert them to courtyards or gardens if there isn't enough demand for them.

As for the Walk Score, don't forget that those rankings don't reflect the actual layout of sidewalks and streets -- they only base the score on the distance to nearby amenities. You could pick a spot across the Interstate from an outlet mall, and it'd have a high Walk Score even if it was physically impossible to get there.

There are so many communities around the country that have tremendously low Walk Scores. I wouldn't worry about the high end too much.

Frank MartinJan 14 2011 05:29 PM

It funny, I live in a very walkable urban neighborhood in Somerville MA near the Davis Square neighborhood. We live on a quiet and peaceful one-way street but with a 91 walkscore. When I visit my parents in the country, I am always annoyed at all of the noise. It seems that every single Saturday from May through September, the neighbors are out with their riding lawnmower ALL afternoon. Sometimes you can hear 2-3 neighbors at a time. In the fall its the leaf blowers.

Meanwhile my urban neighbors and myself use manual rotary lawnmowers and rakes.

Kaid @ NRDCJan 14 2011 06:12 PM

Let's all move to Frank's neighborhood. ;)

Susan PantellJan 18 2011 07:38 PM

Good post. I have tried to raise the noise issue in a smart growth setting and been ignored because it's not "politically correct."
One consideration is income levels. Lower income neighborhoods tend to be louder, with blasting boom boxes and people congregating outside more. Also, it is more difficult for lower income people to afford the privacy and quiet of a home in an urban setting, and often have to live in an apartment, which can be very noisy. Also, there is the issue of different values. Some people value having parties with live bands until the wee hours and some people place more value on sleep. That has become an issue in a number of neighborhoods where I live, Austin.

Anzi HuJan 21 2011 12:14 PM

I used to live a city in China, called Hangzhou. It is a city famous for public gardens and parks. In recent years, the real estate boom has lead to rapid growth of high-rise residential buildings in densed area. To ensure sufficient "green" lands, the city made it mandate to creat a "green" area around the new buildings proportional to the height of the building. In other words, the higher, more dense the building is, the larger "green" areas the developer has to create and maintain. That certainly adds greatly to the cost of the construction, and probably highly unpopular among the real estate developers, but the local government somehow has the totalitarianistic power (just like any governments in China) to enforce the mandate.

It did help maintained the city's old tranquility beauty. I wonder that kind of mandate would be possible in the US. Now, there will be people say it's excessive government.

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