Back in March, urbanist author Philip Langdon came to The National Press Club to talk about his latest book, “Within Walking Distance.” Langdon uses six neighborhoods around the country of varying density, age, urban character, and geographical location as case examples for which kinds of built environments lead to places that are walkable, community-oriented, pleasant to live in, and economically successful.
Part one of this series discussed Langdon's first three examples. Here’s part two.
1. Chicago, Little Village: Uninterrupted street grids make for walkable, shoppable neighborhoods
This largely Mexican-American neighborhood on the west side of Chicago boasts a main thoroughfare—26th Street—packed with small, locally owned businesses. Despite the fact that the neighborhood’s median income hovers around $30,000, 26th Street is actually Chicago’s second highest-grossing business district after the Magnificent Mile on Michigan Avenue. Langdon points to the neighborhood’s walkability as a significant contributor to the commercial success all along the two-mile stretch of 26th Street that serves as the center of Little Village.
Though the neighborhood is bounded to the north, south, and east by train tracks and to the west by Cicero Avenue, the streets along 26th form an unbroken grid with short block lengths and no dead ends or culs-de-sac. Langdon notes this means more residents can live within convenient walking distance of the shops along 26th, and in a back-of-the-napkin calculation, he estimates there may be as many as 900 households within a four-minute walk of a given corner store (p. 130, Walking Distance).
The original L’Enfant plan laid out DC’s streets in a grid pattern, which gives it the same benefits of connectivity that serve Little Village so well. In fact, not only does street connectivity in a grid system make each business more easily reachable on foot, it’s also a measure that correlates closely to levels of “active transport” among adults. So, like that found in Little Village, the grids in DC neighborhoods may be helping residents live healthier lives and reach nearby shops more easily.
Even where the grid has been severed in the past, there are continuing efforts to knit it back together. The Capitol Crossing development currently in the works has begun reconnecting the gap between 2nd and 3rd Streets NW created when I-395’s 6 lanes were cut across the original L’Enfant Plan street grid. The plan will add three entirely new city blocks back to the city.
2. Portland’s Pearl District: Make use of formerly-industrial land
This neighborhood’s catchy, marketable name actually obscures its industrial history; in fact, up until the mid 80s, it was called the Northwest Industrial Triangle. Some claim the name refers to the fact that the dirty exteriors of the warehouses and factories were like crusty oyster shells, hiding the “pearls” that were art galleries and ad-hoc cultural spaces within.
Regardless of whether this etymology is true (or whether it was named for Pearl Marie Amhara, who threw legendary parties in the area), the fact stands that while it was full of unused warehouses and railyards in the 1970s, it now is full of apartment buildings, retail space, and a thriving cultural scene, all linked to the rest of the city by Portland’s MAX light-rail.
Though DC is not known for industry, there is still a significant portion of land, especially in Ward 5, that is industrially-zoned. A task force created under Mayor Vincent Gray in 2013 studied 1,030 acres of such land along New York Avenue NE, Bladensburg Road, and the Red Line tracks. The conclusions of the study were wide-reaching, and—if you are as interested in waste-removal best practices as I am—they are worth reading.
What makes the study so striking is that it recommends several of the exact strategies that have played a role in transforming the Pearl District so successfully: improving pedestrian, bicycle, and bus connections to neighboring areas, allowing re-use of former industrial buildings as residential and retail developments, and planning for the eventual expansion of the streetcar system (some of this has begun in the years since).
While the study admits that “today’s New York Avenue presents an incoherent jumble of underutilized, sometimes abandoned, buildings and surface parking lots,” it also presents the possibility that someday this area might boast its own story of a resurgence. The success of Portland’s Pearl District sets out one possible image of what that resurgence might look like, and what sorts of investments might help this part of Northeast grow into a more vibrant urban neighborhood.
3. Starkville, Mississippi’s Cotton District: Beauty matters
Tellingly, when you navigate to the “History of the Cotton District” article on the development’s official website, it says the article was written by none other than “Dan Camp, Owner.” The Cotton District is a neighborhood that has been, for the most part, developed (and is still owned) by one man.
Camp’s idea was to take an area in Starkville, Mississippi that was once tenement housing for cotton mill employees and redevelop it unit-by-unit, paying close and personal attention to constructing each building with traditional methods. Camp writes that “Alexandria, Va; Vicksburg, Miss. and New Orleans, La., were drawn upon for their historical architecture styles.”
In his discussion of the Cotton District, Langdon put forward an unapologetic defense of the importance of beauty. He argues that the developer’s attention to making each building not just profitable, but also beautiful and concordant with the architectural styles around it, is the key to how the Cotton District became a destination of choice for both tourists and locals.
Students from nearby Mississippi State University come to the area for its restaurants, and many of them rent apartments in the development. The Cotton District’s popularity has led to the area hosting the Cotton District Arts Festival, one of Starkville’s largest cultural events.
The idea is as simple as it is appealing: walkability depends on there being pleasant places that are worth going to; beautifully designed spaces get used because people want to linger in them. People don’t just come to Old Town Alexandria or Capital Hill because they’re filled with useful businesses and amenities, though they certainly are. They also come because these places are filled with attractive, human-scale architecture, and thus are pleasant to experience as a pedestrian.