Stop Sprawl: How to Design a Walkable Neighborhood

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Two Cities, Two Approaches to Urban Design

A street in Santillanda del Mar, Spain and a strip mall in the USA
A street in Santillanda del Mar, Spain and a strip mall in the USA. Photos © Team Geist (left) & Eugene Peretz (right) / Flickr

Two buildings in two cities. Both buildings have masonry walls, tall windows, and low roofs. Both cities have curving roads that wind past shops and restaurants.

Which scene is most welcoming? Where would you rather spend time?

In this photo tour we will look at the way we design our neighborhoods and explore ways to improve them. Then we'll learn what some readers think: Is America Ugly?

Next: An American Shopping Plaza

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An American Shopping Plaza

American Strip Mall
American Strip Mall. Photo Eugene © Peretz / Flickr

The building shown here is a strip mall in the United States. It is part of an open shopping plaza surrounded by an expanse of blacktop pavement. Its walls are featureless and there is a bland uniformity to the evenly spaced columns and broad glass windows. The dominant view is of an expansive parking lot.

Next: Ideas From Spain

Is America ugly? What's your vision for America's cities and towns? Join the conversation on Facebook.

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Santillana del Mar, Spain

Santillana del Mar
Santillana del Mar in Cantabria, Spain. Photo © Manjeet Bawa / Flickr

This street is located in the village of Santillana del Mar in Spain. The buildings don't have the kind of modern amenities you'd find in an American shopping mall. Most of the rooms lack air conditioning. Shop displays spill out into the open street.

Yet even during the siesta hour when storekeepers retreat inside, the old masonry walls radiate a sense of life and energy. People don't merely come here to work and shop. They also make their homes in apartments clustered alongside the shops and restaurants.

Next: Modern America

Big parks? Lots of shops? What makes a neighborhood really great?


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Modern Apartment House

Brick Apartment Building in the USA
Brick Apartment Building in the USA. Photo © Chris Hepburn / iStockPhoto

Careful planning went into the creation of this American building. Notice the symmetry of the roof gables and the methodical placement of the windows. But on the way to the drafting board, something went wrong. Perhaps the architects were pressured by an unimaginative land developer. Perhaps they were crippled by local zoning ordinances. Or, perhaps they simply forgot what it means to be human.

Next: People-Friendly Design

Is America ugly? What's your vision for America's cities and towns?


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Cities Made for People, Not Cars

Pearl Street Mall in Boulder, Colorado
Pearl Street Mall in Boulder, Colorado. Photo © M.V. Jantzen /

Since the mid-1980s, a new breed of designers, the New Urbanists, have been proposing ways to make America's towns and cities more humane. Following a set of principles outlined in the Charter of the New Urbanism, New Urbanists work to design neighborhoods that encourage diversity and socialization.

New Urbanist neighborhoods have many of these features:

  • Buildings are set close together.
  • Shops and other activities are within walking distance.
  • Walkways and plazas accommodate pedestrians, not cars.
  • Homes accommodate a variety of lifestyles and income levels.
  • Building design preserves historical styles and reflects cultural traditions.
  • Building design offers variety while conforming to a uniform theme.

Next: Where to Put the Shops

Big parks? Lots of shops? What makes a neighborhood really great?


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Mixed-Use Neighborhoods

Residences above a row of business in Celebration, Florida
The business center of Celebration, Florida, a mixed-use idealized American small town. Photo © Jackie Craven

According to New Urbanist ideals, even shopping centers and military bases can become warm and welcoming. But creating people-friendly places isn't just about adding flower boxes. It's about rethinking the patterns of our cities... and, perhaps, changing the fabric of our lives.

In the New Urbanist village Celebration, Florida, residential and commercial areas are combined into a single "mixed use" town center. Apartments, shops, restaurants, offices, banks, a movie theater, and cluster along a walkway that circles a small lake. This arrangement encourages leisurely strolls and lingering meals at outdoor cafes.

Next: Renewing an Old Town


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An Old Town Recreated

Main Street (formerly Church Street) in Annapolis, Maryland, USA
Main Street (formerly Church Street) in Annapolis, Maryland, USA. Photo © Hisham Ibrahim / Getty Images

At first glance, New Urbanism might not seem new at all. Cities designed according to New Urbanist ideas tend to resemble historic European villages or American small towns from days gone by. The "new" in New Urbanism refers to the ways old urban patterns are recreated to accommodate modern lifestyles.

For example, the restoration of Main Street in Annapolis, Maryland created an idealized version of a 19th century American downtown.

Next: Are Planned Communities Too Planned?

Big parks? Lots of shops? What makes a neighborhood really great?


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New Urbanism Pros and Cons

Urban Terrorism Protest Sign
Protesters on Meridian Street in South Pasadena, California displayed this sign near a Congress for the New Urbanism event. Photo © Payton Chung /

Critics of New Urbanism say that New Urbanist neighborhoods are overly planned. Strict zoning regulations can limit the freedom of homeowners to make changes to their homes. Details such as exterior colors and tree plantings often must meet the approval of a neighborhood committee.

However, proponents say that New Urbanism is about much more than zoning regulations. They believe that New Urbanist design helps the environment by making cities more walkable. Some New Urbanists also say that crime is reduced when we build attractive towns where people are encouraged to gather and spend time together.

Next: Sprawl Gone Wild


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Grim Cities

Strip mall in Orland Hills, Illinois
Strip mall in Orland Hills, Illinois. Photo © "Clean Wal-Mart" / Flickr

Author and spokesman for the New Urbanist movement, James Howard Kunstler says Americans are building cities that aren't worth caring about. In his books The Geography of Nowhere and Home from Nowhere, Kunstler paints a grim picture of barren lots, ugly architecture, and streetscapes strewn with fast food restaurants and car dealerships.

Learn More:

Next: Is America Ugly?

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Is America Ugly? What makes a neighborhood great? Readers Respond

Suburb in Las Vegas, Nevada
This Nevada suburb is designed for monotony. Photo © PNC / Getty Images

What makes a neighborhood great?

Big parks? Lots of shops? What makes a neighborhood really great?

Many people say that we need to re-think the way we design our neighborhoods. But how? Should neighborhoods have big yards and vast stretches of parkland? Or, is it more important to have shops and restaurants within walking distance? We asked our readers what features they look for in an ideal neighborhood. Here are some of their responses:

  • Think of our beautiful medieval towns: life, sanitation, social life, craftwork. Nowadays shops are shutting down due to the internet facility. Sports activities are confined into buildings, while once kids used to play in the squares. Orchards were surrounding city-centres: fruit and vegetables easily available. What is the actual future of our urban aggregation centers?—Guest orny
  • I think great neighborhoods are mixed use. Residential, entertainment, commercial, employment and recreational activities are all available in the immediate vicinity -- preferably in walking distance.—Guest Jaded
  • I am a member of a planning and zoning board and we are looking at this very subject for a new town center (there is currently not one)....I happen to like the feel of Celebration, FL, but I also sense it is designed primarily for upper incomes. I would prefer a more balanced income strata.—drive4dough
  • After making a mistake upon moving out of the city to the country with our toddlers, we need sidewalks (for strollers and bicycles) parks, mass transit, easy access to airports, good hospitals and doctors, and things that are relatively close in proximity. We bought our house and I wish we hadn't. Many of our new friends' marriages are suffering under the stress of long to commutes to jobs they aren't even certain will be there tomorrow, children's activities in different parts of town and at overlapping times, foreclosures bringing down the value of their own homes. All of us thought we were getting the American dream but what we got was stuck.—Guest Lauren
  • I live in Bowness which is part of Calgary. It started as an exburb 100 years ago, was annexed in 1966 into Calgary and is now one of Calgary's most economically diverse neighbourhoods. The biggest problem I have with my neighbourhood is they put to much social housing in it....What I like about Bowness is it is a real neighbourhood with a small commercial district. I also love being in a neighbourhood that has a river running through it and lots of parks around it.—Guest Peter
  • Children can play safely outdoors. Space available for informal chatting/playing with neighbors. Neighborhood store. Bus stop. Lots of canopy trees along the streets. Safe. Mix of housing types. Good schools. Close to natural amenities. Energy efficient. Volunteer programs to assist elders.—Guest Maria

Is America Ugly?

New Urbanist thinker James Howard Kunstler wrote that America has become a "national automobile slum" with a landscape dominated by parking lots and highways. Do you agree? What's your vision for America's cities and towns?

  • Yes, I'd have to agree, but I'd want to qualify it to say that most suburbs are ugly -- strip malls and boring houses, or worse, McMansions dominated by garages. Despite the beauty and diversity of the landscape, there's a dreadful sameness in contemporary America. There may be a few nods to traditional local building styles, but in general, you could scoop up a suburb in North Carolina and transport it to the suburbs of New York and it would fit right in.—Guest Alice
  • Here in New York City the entire landscape is composed of essentially two materials, concrete and metal, each in varying stages of decay. It gets uglier, more polluting and repulsive each day. I say turn the island over to Disney and let's all get out!—Guest tom
  • America is a naturally beautiful country, and has many beautiful cities, but architecture and planning practices after WWII have ruined both city and country. Current codes in many areas make it ILLEGAL to build beautiful, walkable, pleasant cities. Sprawl is rapidly destroying our country.—Guest Sam
  • It's sad to say "Ugly America," but unfortunately it's true. It seems our senses are underestimated in American cities: sense of smell, touch, vision, and even our hearing. All one is surrounded with are highways, parking lots, and cars. No people on the sidewalks, no smell of bakeries or coffee shops on the sidewalks. Even though we have many rules for pedestrians' safety, we don't care about their real needs - which might be social correlation. Our designers never ask what people really want, instead they dictate what they think would be good for people...—maryami

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