Historic Neighborhoods, Where the Action Is

Parking garage with skywalk to office building in Des Moines

During the 1980s we lived in Waterloo and Cedar Falls, Iowa, about a 2-hour drive from Des Moines. We read the Des Moines Register, and all through that period there were articles mourning the loss of a beloved bar or restaurant as the old downtown was torn down to make way for bank and insurance towers. The street level became dominated by featureless walls and parking garage entrances. Pedestrian commerce was supposed to migrate to the second-floor level, where skywalks connected buildings and allowed people to cross streets out of the weather. A tall condo tower was built downtown, spurring hopes of revitalized activity. But the skywalks and connecting corridors within the buildings never developed a life of their own. They housed a few basic convenience stores and restaurants for the office workers, and at night they were empty.

Court Ave.

We returned to spend a few days in Des Moines in 2015, and the skywalk system was even drearier after the closure of the downtown Younkers department store. But what was most impressive about the city was the vibrant life that had developed in the few neighborhoods that managed to survive the rush to build high-rise office buildings. The Court Ave. district started out in the 80s with a few bars and restaurants, and now was full of them, especially sports bars. New low-rise condo buildings accommodated the young people who wanted to live nearby.

The other, larger neighborhood was East Village, across the river from the main downtown, between it and the Capitol. The old buildings, which were run-down 30 years ago, housed interesting and eclectic shops, from kitchen supplies to antiques to an eco store to clothing boutiques with their own unique style — and of course, several coffee shops. There was a sense of fun there; it was in East Village that we saw people dancing in front of a tiny Lebanese restaurant, and witnessed the beer wagon, a bar on wheels powered by bicycle pedals fitted to each barstool. New condos and a hotel were under construction there.

And here’s an amazing thing: while the property tax revenue per acre (first map below) is greatest in the high-rise district, the retail tax revenue per acre (second map) is greatest in the East Village.

(Source: Greater Des Moines: the Dollars and $ense of Land Use by Urban3, 2015. http://www.urban-three.com/.)

High-rise condos, Des Moines

I have noticed in Des Moines, and in St. Paul as well, that high-rise residential buildings don’t seem to have the positive effect on street-level commerce that low-rise residential buildings have. You would think that a condo tower with hundreds of people would generate the need for businesses, but residents in 3-4 story condos seem to interact with the neighborhood a lot more. Maybe the high-rise residents take the elevator to their parking garage and drive to the suburbs; I don’t know the answer.

Low-rise condos, Des Moines

Over on the other side of downtown is a sculpture garden (actually a sculpture lawn) created after a large block of old buildings was demolished. Across the street there were a few remaining row houses with a sign describing the fight to save them when the city wanted to demolish that block too.

I have a picture in my mind of small businesses fleeing the soul-less office park that downtowns have become, and gathering in the those few neighborhoods left intact. And it is neighborhoods that matter, not individual buildings or even blocks. Where there is a block of historic buildings with blank walls and parking lots across the street and next door, trying to create vibrancy there is like trying to make a fire with a single log. At least if there are historic blocks facing each other, the sense of enclosure makes pedestrians feel welcome.

If you want small businesses and a little fun and night-life in your town, do save some historic neighborhoods.




What makes a neighborhood walkable?

One aspect is the physical quality of the walk: whether there are good sidewalks and crosswalks, for example. Another aspect has to do with how much traffic you have to contend with. There’s also the distance to destinations, and the safety of the places you’re walking through. What about choice of route? Is there only one way to get where you’re going, or are there multiple ways? Do you have to go out of your way or can you go pretty directly? Do you feel like a stranger in a world made for cars, or can you enjoy the walk as a pedestrian?

One of the most important characteristics of a walkable neighborhood is the configuration of streets and paths and what kind of network they form — in other words, connectivity. It affects many of the other criteria, like traffic, distance and directness. Here are a few examples.

The diagram on the left has good connectivity; the one on the right has poor connectivity.

This one (from the State of Kentucky) also shows good connectivity on the left and poor connectivity on the right. Imagine if you live in the house and are trying to get to the market or the school. In the neighborhood on the left, you can walk on small residential streets, and you have a choice of routes, so you won’t get bored. In the neighborhood on the right, no matter whether you are going to the market or the school, you have to go out onto the arterial street. Chances are you won’t want to walk, so you will drive. Everyone else is doing the same thing, so those arterial streets will be much more congested than the ones in the left-hand diagram. What happens to traffic is shown in the following diagrams.

Here again we see good connectivity on the left. This is called traditional development because this type of pattern was common the world over for centuries. The streets and land uses are connected. The right-hand diagram shows what has become conventional in the last 60 years. Each land use is in its own pod and you have to go on the arterial streets to get from home to school, school to shopping, work to home, etc.

Here are the travel patterns in both of those neighborhoods. In the traditional neighborhood, local trips stay on local streets, leaving the arterial street to serve its function for long-distance trips.  Walking and biking are attractive alternatives. In the conventional neighborhood, local trips go onto the arterial street, causing congestion for locals and long-distance travelers alike. Walking and biking are not pleasant. And because so much traffic is on one street, it becomes a magnet for big box stores and strip malls. 

Let’s see how some of these examples work in the real world.

This is Cleveland Heights, Ohio, where I grew up. It was developed in the 1920s. The elementary school and the high school are easily walkable and can be approached from all directions. The triangular space between three busy streets west of the elementary school was our area to roam. We could walk and ride our bikes all through there without crossing any arterial streets.

This is Alpharetta GA, a suburb of Atlanta. The scale is the same, and the density looks similar. But you can see that the streets are laid out so they connect as little as possible. Each neighborhood is in its own separate pod. If you want to go just about anywhere from here, you have to go out onto the busy streets. I have drawn lines around some of the pods. Now see the park with the ball fields in the upper center? Imagine you live in the house marked A. You could easily walk to the park if there were a road or path. But to take the official route, you would have to follow the blue line. (And you can be pretty sure your Mom would drive you.) So this neighborhood is not convenient for walking, but it’s obviously very highly sophisticated and professionally planned to be this way.

(I suspect that the spaces between the pods in Alpharetta are drainage ways. That is certainly something to incorporate into a development. In Cleveland Heights, they put a stream underground and covered it with a street called Meadowbrook — not a good idea. But there could be a happy medium with well-placed bridges and culverts.)

Now let’s look at what happens in small towns and exurban areas.

Here is Chagrin Falls, Ohio (population about 4,000). I visited there often after my mother moved there. The village has a river through the downtown, old mill buildings, and radial streets converging at the bridge. There are several blocks of charming houses within a 1/2 mile of downtown, and everyone can walk there. A little further out though, we see the disconnected subdivisions. The high school is visible to the right of the word “Falls,” and it has only one entrance. If you live in house A or B, how are you supposed to get to the school?


A few miles further out, this is what you see. Each subdivision is its own world. The lack of connection is almost a joke.

The next largest city to the south is Solon, Ohio (population about 23,000). I went to this grocery store there, which is about 5 years old. 

The shopping plaza was redeveloped to look like an old fashioned downtown. But it doesn’t function like one! In an old fashioned downtown, if you lived nearby you would stroll to the cafe and greet your neighbors, pick up some groceries, stop at the post office or bank, and walk home. Not here.

This cafe is attached to the grocery store. See the apartments to the left of the photo? If those residents could walk to the cafe and market, it would only take a couple of minutes. But they are being “protected” from it with a fence, a berm, a wall and a ditch! If they go by the road, the distance to the market is half a mile. 

I have a hobby of looking for the informal paths (known as “desire lines”) that people create to make up for deficits in the pedestrian infrastructure. And sure enough, I found one further down along the berm.  People had put cardboard over the wet places. Two guys were just walking through it when I came by.

Interestingly, the Solon city plan says that when the shopping plaza is redeveloped, there should be paths to these apartments, but it wasn’t done.

In this picture, you can see another apartment complex behind the store. See those 2 people back by the corner of the parking lot? They are using another informal path between the buildings. I went over there just when 2 more people walked through.

There is a library back there as well, but no provision for pedestrians, and I’m sure in the winter, these areas are blocked with piles of snow.

Why do developers make sure that streets don’t connect?. 

One reason is that people don’t want cars driving by their homes and they don’t want to see or hear parking lots or delivery trucks. That makes for nice peaceful residential streets. But there are unintended consequences. People cannot easily walk to places where they want to go; they have to improvise and go through brush and over berms, or else walk on the arterial streets, which is no fun and takes much longer. Driving on the arterials is not so great either when they get clogged with traffic and there are so many lights and turn lanes. Instead of some traffic on all the streets, as in a connected network, we put almost no traffic on the residential streets and all the traffic on the arterials. It reminds me of the polarization that’s happening in all aspects of society. 

Well, some people have figured out that disconnected networks have a lot of disadvantages, and they are trying to encourage change.  (The Kentucky model ordinance shown earlier is one example). The neat thing is that connectivity can be quantified. And once you quantify it, you can require developers to produce it. You can also correlate it with other things, like obesity rates and real estate values. More on that in the next post.






A connectivity index is a simple way to measure the connectivity of a street network. The index defines two aspects of a network: nodes and links. Nodes are intersections, dead ends or cul-de-sac heads. Links are the streets that link the nodes together. You divide the number of links by the number of nodes to get the connectivity index. An example is shown here, from the Kentucky model ordinance. A disconnected network with a lot of dead ends and cul-de-sacs has fewer links than a grid network. A grid network doesn’t have to have streets that are straight, by the way; they can be curvy, it just matters that they link up with each other. The goal is to have an index of 1.4 or greater. Some cities actually require new subdivisions to achieve this measure.



Notice that in the second diagram, one internal connection has been made and two links have been added to connect the subdivision to adjacent land. That improves walkability by allowing more direct routes; it also improves safety by creating more than one entrance and exit to the neighborhood.


Obviously you need more than connected streets to make a place walkable. You need to be close to destinations like stores, restaurants, schools, parks, and transit stops. You need good sidewalks or paths, a feeling of safety, and so on.

That leads to more ways to measure walkability.

The Walkability Checklist is sponsored by several different organizations. It gets down into the weeds about the condition of a particular walk, but it doesn’t address the network issues at all. This checklist is good for bringing up problems to your city or town: problems such as dangerous crosswalks or speeding cars. But it focuses on the negative. In the multiple choice questions, there are a lot of reasons you can pick for why the walk was not good (including scary dogs and scary people), but no reasons for why it was good (friendly dogs, friendly people, pretty gardens, …).

There’s a very complete survey called the Neighborhood Environment Walkability Survey or NEWS, developed by a professor in San Diego. According to its description, “NEWS is a 98-question instrument that assesses the perception of neighborhood design features related to physical activity, including residential density, land use mix (including both indices of proximity and accessibility), street connectivity, infrastructure for walking/cycling, neighborhood aesthetics, traffic and crime safety, and neighborhood satisfaction.” It can be used to correlate these various characteristics of neighborhoods with the amount of walking people do.

In contrast to this time-consuming survey, Walk Score is an on-line tool that you can use simply by putting in an address. It attempts to quantify some of the important criteria remotely, using public sources like maps and census data. It looks at the distance to amenities and gives maximum points to something that is a five minute walk or less, but no points to something that’s more than 30 minutes away. It also considers intersection density and block length, which are measures of connectivity. Walk Score is bound to be less accurate than on-the-ground assessments, but it gives a rough idea and is especially popular with realtors. It’s easy to use and fun to compare different neighborhoods. It also breaks down the score into components. You might do well on proximity to destinations but badly on quality of the sidewalks, for example. It allows users to make corrections to it as well.

The lengths of blocks is an important element of walkability that is considered in Walk Score. Most experts say blocks should be no more than 400 feet long in order to make walking attractive. If blocks are too long, people are discouraged from walking or else they will take short cuts.

Those short cuts can tell you a lot about the pedestrian friendliness of an area. Some towns provide paths to make connections that are not available on the streets. But when those are not available, people frequently create their own paths. Called “desire lines,” these worn paths  are an indication of inadequate pedestrian infrastructure.

The following maps show the town of Middlebury, VT (pop. about 8,600). The first map shows the street system, and the second includes the pedestrian paths. Some of those paths are maintained by the town or by private property owners (called “official” on the map) and some are unofficial desire lines. The very dense network of paths on the college campus is not included. Note the shortcuts across the railroad tracks, and the ones connecting the college campus to nearby neighborhoods where many employees live. One 860-foot long block in the center of town has two paths across it, effectively breaking it up into segments about 300 ft. long, just as one would predict.


An official path
An unofficial path









Now we will take a neighborhood near the elementary school and shopping district, and see if the pedestrian paths bring the connectivity index up to the desired 1.4.

Connectivity Index: Middlebury Example

The following maps show a neighborhood of Middlebury VT called Buttolph Acres. It contains single family homes and a few condo complexes, an elementary school, a courthouse, a church, a social service agency, and businesses along the major roads to the west and northwest. There’s a large park to the east.

The first map shows the streets only. The second map shows the streets and the paths.



In the street system: 44 links/35 nodes =  a connectivity index of 1.26.

In the system of streets plus paths: 63 links/44 nodes = a connectivity index of 1.43.

Yes! The paths, both official and unofficial, bring the connectivity index up above 1.4.

These two small examples in Middlebury support the connectivity index and block length metrics, based on where people actually walk.  Wouldn’t it be nice to build these characteristics into new developments in the first place?