Parks matter!

I’ve been following the Yglesias/Drum/Atrios discussion on walkable urbanism and density and after reading the latest post from Matt on the subject, took a look at the Wikipedia list of the densest places in America. Some of them are obvious but then there are some that are surprising – for example, Sweetwater, Florida to an outside observer just blends in as another suburb in the Miami sprawl, as, I would guess, do El Monte and some of the other ones in Southern California. And, having lived in Boston, I (like Matt) was surprised to see Somerville come out 20% denser than Cambridge. Somerville is not exactly the most walkable or urban-feeling place in the Boston area; the subway only touches the fringes of town and it’s a hike getting from one end of the city to the other.

So I took a look on the map. And what I think is inflating the density of El Monte, Sweetwater, and Somerville is that in comparison with their neighbors, they don’t have any sizeable parks. Cambridge has Cambridge Common and big expanses like Harvard Yard and MIT that are covered in non-residential university buildings. Somerville has little postage stamps of green space here and there, but that’s about it.  Sweetwater’s boundaries are configured in such a way that the big Florida International University campus across the street isn’t part of the town. El Monte, also no big parks. Whereas New York and San Francisco and Boston manage to achieve almost this density while encompassing huge spaces like Central Park or Golden Gate Park. Forgoing parks will help increase your density number, but in the real world it doesn’t help make you more walkable or urban.

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