We Need Complete Neighbourhoods
February 7, 2018

I am interested in creating livable, walkable, human-scale cities, and one of the most important elements to creating a livable city is the development pattern of your local neighbourhood. We talk about car dependency being bad and limiting our freedom, but what does ‘transportation freedom’ look like? Waiting for a bus every time you leave home? Not so much. I believe that the most free mode of transportation is one that doesn't require any vehicle to get around — thus, our largest gains with building livable, human-scale cities come from building foot-oriented neighbourhoods.

Any talk of reducing car dependency is often followed by a conversation about "transit-oriented development" or other ways of inducing transit usage. It’s easy to induce transit usage — put all of your residential housing on top of one set of subway stations, and everything else on top of another set. Then space everything out so you can't walk between everything. Your trains will be crowded and ridership will skyrocket!

But, that is not very livable nor is it much better than being car dependent; it leaves you dependent on trains and billions of dollars to get around, only to find out you need to send a billion more to keep up with demand. Sounds like Le Corbusier’s City of Tomorrow.

The best way to easily and affordable get people around is to reduce the distance they have to travel. If you move things close enough and make it comfortable to get around, people will walk.

Cities are divided into neighbourhoods, and if you’ve ever spent time living in a walkable city without a car, you know that your quality of life is largely dependent on the amenities within your neighbourhood — the walkshed of your home.

A good neighbourhood will have enough variety of restaurants to keep you satisfied, along with schools, parks, grocery stores, walk-in clinics, entertainment, etc. If you were fortunate enough to work from or close to home, it's the sort of neighbourhood you could go months without leaving and not feel like you're missing out on anything.

What I am describing here is what I like to call a Complete Neighbourhood. A Complete Neighbourhood is one where, outside of commuting to work or having a "night out, you can get everything you need within walking distance.

Pick a random neighbourhood in Manhattan and it will likely be a Complete Neighbourhood. (I know New York is an atypical American experience, but it is the closest I can get to making this point without talking about foreign cities.) The further out into the outer boroughs and suburbs you go (unfortunately, you do not have to go far) the less "complete" the neighbourhood becomes, regardless of how long it takes to get into Manhattan via transit.

Macdougal St in Greenwich Village, New York. Chaotic and vibrant, with everything you need is close by. This is a Complete Neighbourhood.

It is really not fun having to board a subway train with two hands full of grocery bags — it is far easier to shop at a local grocery store. We bought a Trolley Dolly from QVC that we take to the store or the farmers market. It’s awkward to take on the bus, but really easy to wheel down the street.


A trolley dolley.

If you are sick, it is even more miserable to wait outside for the bus. It is also gross to ride the bus next to someone who is coughing and sniffing, and I am sure your Uber driver would not appreciate it either. But we all get sick, so it is incredibly important to have walk-in clinics scattered around that don’t take more than 10 minutes to walk to.

A small walk-in clinic in Manhattan. There are plenty of these scattered around.

If you live in an apartment without a yard and the weather is nice, you want to go outside and be a few minutes from a park, not go outside and wait on a bus to take you to a park. When I have children, I think it would be more reassuring to think of them playing down the street at the park, rather than taking a bus across the city to a far away park.

Relaxing on the lawn at Elysian Park, a few minutes from where I live.

A good neighbourhood will also offer entertainment options (a bar with live music, a movie theatre, a dance club, a comedy club — whatever your scene is) where you don't have to worry about a curfew imposed by the transit system shutting down or Uber surge-charging you during the wee hours of the morning.

This is not too say you will never leave your neighbourhood; you may commute a long distance to work, you may want to explore other areas of the city, spend the day out shopping, have a night out on the town, visit friends who live in other neighbourhoods, etc. However, a good neighbourhood has enough variety to meet enough of your needs that you’re not bound by a car, bicycle, or transit on a regular basis.

Separating uses to a scale that requires a vehicle — whether it is a car, a bicycle, or transit — to get around for basic necessities is an artificial problem created by modern planning. Until we change our development pattern to build Complete Neighbourhoods, any transportation infrastructure (whether widening roads to accommodate more cars or tunneling a subway line) is just wasteful spending.

Once we build foot-oriented neighbourhoods, transit and cycling become productive investments. Transit just becomes “train/bus assisted walking”. You can already walk around your source and your destination, and you could even walk the entire distance from A to B, but your bus/train/bike is used to speed up part of your walk. The same goes for biking.

In my next post, I will show examples of foot-oriented places that were built without extensive transit investments.

  1. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=p60r_Vp86Ac