Can Neighborhoods Filled With Single Family Homes Be Walkable?

My neighborhood in downtown Provo is filled with a mix of single family homes, small apartment complexes, and duplexes like mine. It’s a pretty good mix, but the number of detached houses keeps the density lower than in many more walkable places. Can a neighborhood like mine work in a city that wants to be walkable, sustainable and lively? What about a neighborhood made up primarily of single family homes?

Detached homes and apartments in a Provo neighborhood filled with a variety of dwelling types.

Polis recently posed a similar question in a post that points out the many advantages of multi-unit housing:

Vertical forms cover less ground, leaving more space for nearby schools, parks, shopping areas and other community assets. With more people living in proximity, there is an expanded market for local businesses and a greater overall tax base. Although tax-related benefits are counterbalanced by increased public spending to meet the needs of larger populations, infrastructural efficiencies (that is, doing more with less) may reduce overall costs. With quality management, apartment buildings can also free up time for those who would rather not maintain a private yard.

In other words, dense housing can be more economically vibrant and efficient. The post doesn’t get into the environmental benefits, but they’re considerable as well. If I was designing a city from the ground up, I’d consequently add a lot more high density housing than I currently see in Provo.

The ultimate point emerging from the Polis post is that density is a good thing, though the ultimate answer to the question about single family housing goes unanswered.

Relatedly, in The Death and Life of Great American Cities Jane Jacobs touched on a similar topic. She wrote that “densities are too low, or too high, when they frustrate city diversity instead of abetting it.”

Jacobs argued that “between ten and twenty dwellings to the acre yields a kind of semisuburb” and that “as a general rule, I think 100 dwellings per acre will be found to be too low.” She later postulated that between 125 and 200 dwellings per acre is ideal.

That’s way beyond what’s possible with detached homes and single family dwellings, so Jacobs was evidently skeptical that neighborhoods filled with those kinds of dwellings could contribute to the kind of vibrant city she valued. I’m also skeptical that such a neighborhood can concentrate enough people to support nearby amenities. There are some scattered examples of it working — particularly in rich, East Coast cities — but they’re few and far between.

However, the Polis post is less absolute than Jacobs and instead suggests a possible middle ground: neighborhoods of mixed dwelling types, presumably like those in downtown Provo.

A variety of dwelling types in downtown Provo.

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