Monroe Street in DC by Adam Fagen licensed under Creative Commons.

Many neighborhoods in DC, from Capitol Hill to Petworth to Georgetown, have streets lined with rowhomes. This style evolved in response to the city's constraints on space, and these houses also help fill the need for a type of housing that's between detached homes and large apartment buildings.

Rowhomes have a lot of great features — for one, they can be built compactly enough to be within walking distance of nearby stores and offices. Their tighter development pattern also means that infrastructure can be used effectively, allowing more people can be served by the city's roadways, transit, water and sewer, and more. Of course, there are drawbacks: shared walls can mean more noise, they are smaller, and there can be less privacy.

These rowhomes in DC tend to have less square footage and have only on-street parking, but they are in a walkable, transit-connected neighborhood.  Image by the author.

This more compact type of home works well in a city like DC because it allows for more density than detached single-family dwellings. They are also ostensibly easier to build than apartment buildings, which often require elevators, common areas, and garages. Rowhomes are a natural response to our built environment where space is limited but access to nearby amenities like shops, transit, and parks is important.

What are townhouses and how are they different?

Outside of DC, there is a similar housing type generally referred to as a “townhouse.” Technically they are different: rowhomes line a street in a row with a common facade and are usually owned by individuals, while townhomes are often grouped in varying layouts within a development. (That makes some of the townhouses in areas outside of DC rowhomes and some of the rowhomes in DC townhomes.)

A townhome also shares a common wall with the adjacent dwellings on either side, and it's usually two to three stories tall. It typically belongs to a larger development and has a homeowners association that governs common-area issues and upkeep. However, details vary so sometimes it's difficult to distinguish these types of housing.

A newly-built residential subdivision with townhouses off of MD-301. Image by the author.

Originally, townhouses were dwellings that were, as the name suggests, in “town” and represented the dwelling counter-point to the “country house.” Today, this criterion no longer seems to apply. Townhomes are located all over the country, and many new residential developments contain townhouses regardless of their proximity to shops, transit, parks, etc.

Most modern townhomes are not designed to take advantage of city amenities. Many include garages and are only slightly smaller than newly-built detached homes — and in some cases, they're bigger than older detached houses. Today’s townhomes are more akin to single-family dwellings that have been squished together than of rowhomes built for a city.

One reason for the growth in townhouses is the value, both in terms of the price a potential homeowner would pay and the profit that a developer would make. Homebuilders argue that there is substantial demand for townhouses because they are at a price point that most families can afford. While this is true for many of the townhouses located in less dense parts of the region, they can be just as expensive as single-family dwellings, especially in highly sought-after neighborhoods.

Newly built townhouses (left) outside the Beltway and older rowhomes (right) in DC. Image by the author.

The other half of the value argument comes from the profit potential for selling townhouses. A townhouse has a smaller footprint than a traditional single-family dwelling. Since home builders have a limited amount of land, they can build and sell more townhouses than they can single-family dwellings.

Developers and home builders are not in business to promote good urbanism, they are in business to make money. It makes sense that they often choose a housing style where they can sell as many homes on a piece of land as possible.

What makes rowhouses and townhouses work?

This isn't to suggest that new construction isn't desireable nor that living outside of a city is bad. There are benefits to each! Townhouses and rowhouses can both contribute to increasing density in neighborhoods. That in turn is good for leveraging infrastructure investment, increasing a customer base for local businesses, and reducing some of the detrimental environmental effects of sprawling development patterns.

However, townhouses and rowhouses are not good for all places. For this style to be optimal, a few things should be in place:

Townhouses work best in walkable locations near other amenities. Otherwise they are merely isolated dense spots.

  1. Proximity to high-capacity transit. Since townhouses and rowhouses have less parking than single-family dwellings, a household should be able to regularly and conveniently use transit and be less dependent on automobiles.
  2. Proximity to shops and amenities. Businesses benefit from a larger customer or user base, so it's ideal for townhouses to be located near existing businesses amenities. This increases the number of people who can easily patronize them. This generally doesn’t work the other way around because a single townhouse development does not have enough people on its own for a business to succeed.
  3. Gridded street networks with sidewalks and bicycle facilities. Street networks providing direct connections to surrounding areas are necessary for truly walkable neighborhoods and increase accessibility to surrounding areas. Neighborhoods with only one access point to a major road or neighborhoods with turn-arounds and cul-de-sacs are not accessible for people walking, and therefore increase reliance on automobiles.
  4. Streets and alleys. Since townhouses and rowhouses, by nature, are built closely together, it's important that the front of the house and street can act as the welcoming outdoor space, while the rear of the house can accommodate the utilitarian aspects of the house. This means a street in front of the house has the infrastructure to allow people to walk by, a small yard or porch for socializing, and an address that the mail or pizza delivery person can find. An alley needs to be in place for garbage collection or for accessing a rear garage.

In many places today, townhouse developments are built without these features, leaving what's essentially a traditional single-family dwelling subdivision that has been more closely squeezed together. It has all of the drawbacks of townhouses, such as less privacy and outdoor space, with all the drawbacks of single-family dwelling subdivisions, like automobile dependency. Rowhouses in the District, on the other hand, tend to check all of these boxes, which helps explain their continuing popularity.

Bryan Barnett-Woods is a transportation planner in Prince George’s County with the Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission. In addition to bicycling and rowing, Bryan likes nothing more than a good walk in the city. He lives in Barney Circle with his wife and young son. The opinions expressed in this post represent Bryan’s opinions only and do not represent the opinions of his employer.