Skip to main content

How suburban layout is a barrier to a walkable city in the United States


When we talk about urban development in the U.S., there is one word that will always be present in any discussion: the sprawl.

The endless suburbs of the country's largest cities are the product of decades of urban planning based on the "American way of life", creating low-density districts, surrounded by nature (or at least meadows) and connected to the financial centres by highways. A "car-oriented" development with consequences that have already been widely studied and which have contributed to the environmental crisis that the world is suffering today.

In contrast to suburban sprawl, different concepts have emerged in recent years that favour a more compact, efficient and less auto-dependent urban model. This is the case of the “15-minute city”, which according with Patrick Sisson from The City Monitor, “the 15-minute city is an approach to urban design that aims to improve quality of life by creating cities where everything a resident needs can be reached within 15 minutes by foot, bike or public transit.” This means that community services such us schools, medical centres and parks, as well as workplaces, should be located at distances that do not require the use of cars or allowing an easy use of public transportation.

In cities like Paris and Amsterdam, with relatively high urban densities, a robust bikeway infrastructure and good transportation networks, the application of the "15-minute city" seems to be a viable alternative. However, in the American suburban model, guaranteeing this efficient and close connectivity is much more complicated, not only because of the low density of these developments, but also because of their spatial configuration.

Most American cities grew from a simple but easily implemented geometric layout: the grid. This configuration allowed a practical orientation in space, as well as relatively easy regulation for subsequent city expansions. However, with the ease of car purchase and the demand for new housing for the growing middle class, residential developments with more "organic" and less grid-like layouts became increasingly popular.

This, of course, was not an American invention. The concept of suburban housing was already developed in the Garden City model since the late nineteenth century, with several examples such as Welwyn Garden City in England or Canberra in Australia. However, it would be in the United States where the suburb would reach its greatest popularization and where it would also deviate more from its initial idea, since the Garden City, more than a purely residential development, was an integral city that could supply most of the basic needs of its residents.

The most common layout of American suburbs consists of curving or cul-de-sac streets, which are used almost exclusively by residents to get to and from their homes, creating an environment with low vehicular traffic, which, in principle, generates a quiet and safe environment for its dwellers. However, this design principle has led to formation of residential districts that are poorly connected to local community services, creating long distances even between homes, which are gruelling to walk.

The following cases show how the suburban layout in the U.S. poses major disadvantages for pedestrian accessibility:

Access to community services:

This map shows a suburb located in San Antonio, TX. In this example, the design of the roads forces a person living in the highlighted place to walk more than half a mile to the local elementary school, which is located right next to his or her house.

Access to public transport:

In this scenario, the resident of the house marked on the map lives near to a local bus stop, located in a suburb of Florida. However, due to the layout of his neighbourhood, this person must walk for more than 15 minutes to use public transportation.

Connection between neighbours

This map shows a suburb of Pittsburgh, PA. Because of the street layout, a resident living in the demarcated spot will have to walk for more than half an hour to visit his or her neighbours who lives only 320 ft (97.5 m) away.

The above examples illustrate some of the disadvantages that the suburban layout in the U.S. generates for a more compact and less car-dependent city, as is the case of the "15-minute city". However, some cities such as Detroit and Portland are already devising proposals to generate more complete and comprehensive neighbourhoods, which encourage cycling and reduce dependence on private transportation.

Finally, technological tools are also helping to find sectors with deficiencies such as those shown above. This interactive map developed by Here Technologies, for example, allows you to know how close you are to basic local services in your neighbourhood.

Join the discussion!

What other challenges do you think U.S. cities face in achieving comprehensive and compact neighbourhoods? How could they solve them? 


Brody S, 2013. The Characteristics, Causes, and Consequences of Sprawling Development Patterns in the United States, Nature Education Knowledge, accessed 25 January 2021

Plataforma Urbana, 2010. Planificación Urbana: el mal del Cul-de-Sac, Plataforma Urbana, accessed 27 January 2021

Luscher D, 2020. Access, not mobility, 15 Minute City, accessed 26 January 2021

Yeung P, 2021. How '15-minute cities' will change the way we socialise, BBC, accessed 27 January 2021

Tizot J, 2018. Ebenezer Howard’s Garden City Idea and the Ideology of Industrialism, Open Edition Journals, accessed 26 January 2021


  1. Es algo que se necesita identificar para identificar el nivel en las colonias

  2. Great webiste, I really recommend blog with many fantastic articles.


Post a Comment

Popular posts from this blog

Ranking: The 10 largest cities in the world without metro systems

Public mass transit systems are part of the everyday landscape of most major cities around the world. From the ultra-efficient train network of the Tokyo Metropolitan Area to the congested rail lines of Sao Paulo, metro systems move millions of people daily, making inter-city mobility more efficient and reducing travel times within cities and metropolitan regions. Sao Paulo Metro. Source: US News Since the opening of the first underground network in London in 1863, more than 200 metro systems have been built around the world. Beijing currently has the largest metro network in terms of length and daily ridership (807 km in length and 10.5 million trips per day). Other major metro systems are located in New York, Shanghai, Seoul, Moscow and Guangzhou. Despite the accelerated construction of metro systems since the mid-20th century, there are large urban areas in the world that are not currently served by metro services. Some of them have implemented alternative systems such as BRT (Bus R

Ciudad de la Paz: the new Capital of Equatorial Guinea rises in the tropical forest

  120 kilometres from the Atlantic Ocean, in the middle of the humid rainforest, the construction site of new Capital of Equatorial Guinea is making progress. This city, officially named Ciudad de la Paz (Spanish for "City of Peace" and formerly Oyala), is located in the district of Djibloho, in the central part of the country's mainland. Its construction is intended to serve as Equatorial Guinea's seat of government, replacing Malabo, on Bioko Island, as the national capital. Despite being one of the largest projects in West Africa, information on the city's current development is rather limited. Although the official move to the new capital was planned for 2017, Malabo continues to host government buildings, as well as embassies and headquarters of international organizations. Here, a look at the history, design and controversies surrounding the new capital city of Equatorial Guinea. The boom of petrodollars With around 28,000 square kilometres, Equatorial Guin