Surburb or City? A Shoe-Leather Perspective

My lady Anjali and I just moved to Washington D.C. and I are trying to figuring out where to buy a house. Do we live in the suburbs, or in the District itself? We’re both children of the suburbs but are conducting our search from a sublet apartment in Adams Morgan, a hip neighborhood in the middle of the city.

As I walk around to its stores and restaurants,  I ask myself: Could I see living in a big city, not as a lark, but forever?

Sunnyvale, California.

The concentric squares and cul-de-sacs surrounding my childhood home in Sunnyvale, California.

The street grid of my new city of Washington, D.C.

The rectangular and diagonal grid around my apartment in Washington, D.C.

This is an unsettling question for a guy who grew up in the suburbs and just kind of assumed that, like it or not, back to the suburbs he would eventually return.

At the same time I’ve been reading about how to make suburbs a “greener” place to live. One way is to get people out of their cars. When city dwellers emigrated to the suburbs in the second half of the 20th Century, they gained a lawn but lost the ability to shop or worship or play without driving long distances. Now that we have all these suburbs, how can they be modified so the carbon-spewing car stays in the driveway, and the people walk to schools and shops?

One of the writers I came across was F. Kaid Benfield, who explores how a neighborhood’s design influences whether people walk or drive. It’s not just a matter of exercise or personal virtue. Benfield did schematics of a cul-de-sac neighborhood and a traditional street grid.

Which do you think encourages a person to walk?

typical_subdivision well-connected_street_ntwk

This got me thinking: How does the design of my neighborhood change the way I move through it? And if it’s important to me to be able to walk my community, how do the city and the suburb stack up?

I turned to Google Maps to find out. I asked for the route from my home to local landmarks, and set it to “Walking” rather than “By Car.” Of course Google doesn’t find a route as well as a local person might, but at least it gives a common reference point.

Here’s the route to the nearest high school:

The route to my local high school.

The route from my childhood home to Fremont High School. Distance: 0.8 mile. Walk time: 15 minutes.

kWS9l9

The route from my D.C. apartment to Cardozo High School. Distance: 0.5 mile. Walk time: Nine minutes.

Check out how many cul-de-sacs the suburban route has to go around!

Here’s the walking distance to the closest supermarket:

Distance: 0.9 mile. Walk time: 18 minutes.

Distance: 0.9 mile. Walk time: 18 minutes.

Distance: 0.1 mile. Walk time: 2 minutes.

Distance: 0.1 mile. Walk time: 2 minutes.

Everyone knows that in the suburbs, the store and the school are farther away. The surprising part is that those destinations are made even farther away by the suburbs’ design. No wonder the suburban streets are full of cars but empty of people!

Of course, walkability is only one part of the decision about where to spend my life. But I imagine a lot of people would like to have the spaciousness of the suburbs while still being able to walk to get a quart of milk. Doing so would involve some novel changes to the suburban landscape. We’d have to punch walking routes through the cul-de-sacs and change zoning laws so a subdivision could have its own mini-downtown, with a hardware store and market, and maybe a restaurant or two.

2 comments to Surburb or City? A Shoe-Leather Perspective

  • Me

    I don’t think I could live in a big city.. It’d be too confusing and crowded and it would take too long to get places.

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