One of the most popular themes in urban debates right now is density. But is this what is really meant? Or is what is really implied and desired better understood as closeness? Density brings with it many negative connotations: acres of endless skyscrapers and cramped urban living, as this viewpoint argues (see page 67). As the author, Viveca Ax:son Johnson, puts it: ‘“Density” speaks of the physical, built environment whereas “closeness” describes the relationship between people and activities.’
What is truly valuable is the ability to easily access the facilities and services of a city, ideally by making them walkable—bringing people, activities and places in easy reach of each other. A neighbourhood’s walkability is not only convenient, but also makes for a desirable lifestyle. Simply put, being able to easily walk to a local coffee shop and grocery store is more desirable than having to drive there. (Put your own neighbourhood to the test, and see how it scores on this checklist, as a quick example.)
This is not merely about ensuring a pleasant lifestyle, it’s also a driver of value in a city. Walkable neighbourhoods appeal more to future residents, including new start-ups, and also boost the neighbourhood’s property prices and rents. A 2009 study by CEOs for Cities noted that houses with above-average levels of walkability command a premium of between $4,000 and $34,000 over similar houses with just average levels of walkability, for example. Thanks to tracking services like Walk Score, this has become a more closely rated attribute of many cities, and in turn a key factor in how homes or businesses are selected. In choosing to relocate the offices of BetterCitiesNow, we encountered this first hand: opting for an office with highly walkable access to a park, grocery stores, restaurants, rail lines, coffee shops and more.
As others start to think about the appeal of closeness within cities, other design implications become clearer. As this striking article in The Atlantic Cities notes, many road engineers simply follow road standards, which prioritise speed and traffic volume, in designing how roads are put within cities—rather than considering how they might better be considered for use at a human scale. Rare is the mayor that chokes off the veins within a city, but the counterintuitive fact is that this can often bolster closeness, desirability, convenience and value. For more on the negative impacts of 20th century road planning, have a read of the excellent Walkable City, to get a more visceral sense of how transport engineers have hindered city development. Ask any proud resident of Curitiba, along with any other city leader who was bold enough to prioritise pedestrian traffic in key areas, ahead of cars—whether London’s Oxford Street or New York’s Times Square.