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Walkable, vibrant communities

August 14, 2012

This weekend I walked to the Cambridge Public Library, which was positively buzzing with activity; I could hardly navigate the aisles to browse dvds and all the floor level lounge chairs were filled with laptop dwellers typing away, looking up every so often to stare pensively out the glass wall at the park beyond. Families had stacks of books, and people came and went by bicycle with large canvas totes. There were the couples sprawled out on the grass in front of the library, and tennis players on the adjacent courts. As I watched neighbors exchange greetings, and the constant flow of people, I became more and more amazed by the sheer activity happening. I mean, I was at a public library.

And yet, the popularity of the public library is an indicator of the direction our communities are headed; as many studies are determining, people want to live in vibrant, walkable communities with access to amenities. We’re moving away from the sprawling McMansions in the suburbs and slowly migrating inwards towards urban centers to be closer to work and to be able to walk to neighborhood stores, parks, and public spaces. And, perhaps even more interesting, we’re willing to live in smaller spaces to have that lifestyle.

This house, aptly called Small House, in Tokyo, sits on a lot just 34 meters squared (designed by Unemori Architects):

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We are coming up with more creative ways to live comfortably in smaller spaces to fit into the nooks and crannies of dense cities. Check out this narrow house in Belgium designed by Dierendonck Blancke Architecten:

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And here’s another small house in an urban neighborhood in Japan (WBE house):

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A Brookings Institution study cited in the NY Times released this data for the Washington DC metropolitan area:

“There is a five-step “ladder” of walkability, from least to most walkable. On average, each step up the walkability ladder adds $9 per square foot to annual office rents, $7 per square foot to retail rents, more than $300 per month to apartment rents and nearly $82 per square foot to home values.”

People want to live in walkable, urban communities and they’ll pay more to do so. And check out these findings from a home location study by the Pembina Insitute:

Taking housing costs out of the picture, 81 percent of respondents would choose a house on a modest lot, a townhouse or a condo in a city or suburb that is walkable to stores, restaurants and other amenities and has good access to frequent rapid transit.

These findings are nothing too out of the ordinary, they all make sense, but the implications for urban planning and design are interesting to think about.

With over half the world’s population already living in cities, it seems like the urban environment is poised to undergo a pretty significant transformation, one that accommodates residents’ desires to live near public spaces, one that perhaps provides smaller living spaces but greater access to public parks and plazas and one that gets us moving and walking.

With living in smaller spaces comes the need to “live” elsewhere, to spend more time outside the home, whether it’s having a house like this that opens up to its surrounding environment,

Or finding public places like coffee shops, parks and cafes. Cities will develop more around these types of public spaces, and one can only hope that communities can then become more social. Perhaps then the public library (or post office, town green, farmer’s market, bakery, etc.) will function as it does here in Cambridge, MA, as a community hub that brings people together.

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