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Made for Walking: Density and Neighborhood Form - Book Review

Arguments about density are often front and center when walkability is being discussed. We know that density is an important factor in encouraging more walking (and discouraging driving), but walkability is a particularly complex, and seemingly ephemeral quality. Whether or not a person chooses to walk depends on so many factors beyond just the physical fabric of a place, from the socioeconomic to the psychological. As a result, there’s not always a one-to-one relationship between a neighborhood’s form and its walkability.

In a recent article looking at a study that found no link between perceived walkability and actual walking habits among women in Seattle, University of Washington professor Cindy Perry (who led the study) explained that “Just having a beautiful environment isn’t going to move people from the couch to walking…A walkable environment can help, but it’s not enough.”

The results here seem to support an argument that Placemaking advocates have been making for some time now: that it is not physical density itself, but the richness of a place that influences peoples’ decisions on whether to walk or use other modes of transportation to get around their communities. A dense place may very well still be a total place desert depending on how it is arranged, while there are scores of small towns and villages around the world that, while not physically dense, feature a rich mix of overlapping uses that make walking the default choice.
 
To anyone who’s tired of fighting an uphill battle in arguing for increased density in order to make the case for walkability, Julie Campoli’s new book Made for Walking: Density and Neighborhood Form will seem a god-send. Campoli, one of the co-authors of Visualizing Density (also from the Lincoln Institute of Land Policy), has put together a powerful follow-up that brings the reader down into the streets of a dozen walkable neighborhoods that “represent diverse regions and vary greatly in density, [while still meeting] the minimum density necessary to support transit and retail services.”

“Paging through for the first time, it is hard not to be dazzled…”

Each of these twelve places is distinct, in terms of everything from street pattern to aesthetics and architectural style. Together, these very different neighborhoods (from Brooklyn’s industrious, tightly-packed Greenpoint neighborhood to Columbus, OH’s relaxed & funky Short North) make a strong case for density by focusing, instead, on richness. “Density is often defined in terms of population per square mile,” writes Campoli in the book’s introduction. “We need to think about urban density in more complex ways…building density measured not by the square mile but by the foot.”
 
After the intro, the reader is brought through a succession of twelve case studies, each with extensive panoramic photography of key neighborhood streets stretching across the tops of the corresponding pages. Paging through for the first time, it is hard not to be dazzled by how well these images communicate almost everything that the companion text could hope to say. If a picture is worth a thousand words, these pictures together are worth a million. The full aesthetic range of density is on display here, all at a human, street-level scale. While Visualizing Density was a powerful tool for urban planners, Made for Walking has even greater potential, as a tool for convincing just about anyone with eyes that a dense environment can be beautiful, enjoyable, and even peaceful–in short, whatever the community that occupies it wishes it to be.
 
Accompanying these panoramas are a selection of smaller photos of various aspects of each neighborhood (local landmarks, housing stock, parks, etc.), as well as a series of detailed maps of everything from the area’s green space and pedestrian network, to intersection and housing density, to the variety of local services. The clustering of color-coded dots in that last set is telling: restaurants and retail play a big role in each example, but the maps highlight the mixing of different types of local services (health, civic, financial) that create the richness required for promoting walkable lifestyles. These maps also layer in mass transit routes (bus, train, and streetcar) to show that these high-functioning local destinations exist within a larger networks.
 
All of this information, in concert, could have been overwhelming. In Made for Walking, it is instead immersive. Campoli pops in at the start of each section to provide a bit of contextual and historical info, but the majority of the book’s written arguments are in the front and back of the book. Flipping through each case study in between feels uplifting, as if you are walking through the neighborhood documented on the page.
 
Ultimately, the book is an impressive illustration of how, after reaching a baseline density, form can be remarkably flexible. The author argues persuasively for the role that form plays in creating walkable neighborhoods, but as a whole Made for Walking seems better understood as a compelling illustration of density as more of a function of place than the other way around. The call for measuring density by the foot is essentially a call for measuring walkability by the richness of place. These are soft metrics, but creating great communities is more art than science.

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