Move over, density: equity and livability are the new urban design drivers

By Ivy Cao
Drawing of urban streetscape
Story Overview

We’re living in an era of constant change to our physical environment. Seemingly every day, shiny new office complexes, residential towers, shopping centers, and other commercial developments rise from our city streets. Out with the old, in with the new. But who is it changing for? This is the question we should all be asking.

It used to be that density was the key to urban design because local resources and transit can serve a condensed, highly populated community more sustainably than a sparsely populated, sprawling one. But we now know that equity and livability are equally as important, if not more. Healthy, thriving cities aren’t just dense metropolises; they’re vibrant ecosystems that welcome, support, and serve everyone. And the way they’re designed—from the length of their blocks and the width of their sidewalks to their proximity to transit, healthcare, education, food, and open space—is critical to their success.

But the common metrics many urban designers rely on don’t even begin to address the reality of a neighborhood and the people who call it home. While density is still a key factor—it tells us where to build a project and for what purpose—equity and livability need to take priority.

In 2019, I set out to conduct a little experiment. I teamed up with a fellow urban designer to review the typical process for evaluating neighborhood-scale projects. We found that project teams seek answers to important questions about design, but they don’t necessarily ask questions like, “Who lives here?” or “What’s life like for the people who live here?” From a historical point of view, this kind of limited data-gathering has contributed to discriminatory practices that still exist today, like redlining. That alone is a compelling enough reason to change the urban planning process, if you ask me.

Here’s another reason: Urban designers are often looking for ways to cut car use and encourage people to take public transit, bikes, or other modes of mobility. This makes good sense because cars pollute the air and release an enormous amount of carbon emissions. And yet, what’s often overlooked is the fact that many low-income families rely on cars to get to work, go to school, visit the doctor, or reach the nearest grocery store, often because their neighborhoods were designed without walkable access to these resources. In cases like this, a new development that removes street parking can cause added hardship for families who are struggling to get by.

And yet, what’s often overlooked is the fact that many low-income families rely on cars to get to work, go to school, visit the doctor, or reach the nearest grocery store, often because their neighborhoods were designed without walkable access to these resources.

My colleague and I called our research—and our proposed solution—A New Formula for Neighborhood Livability. With it, we sought to equip urban designers and planners with a set of more socialized metrics, such as the percentage of rent-burdened residents and the median home value in an area. This data can help us better understand the community we’re working with, which leads to more empathetic design. It also allows our clients to provide the right services to the people who will be using these new spaces.

Urban designers have a core set of metrics for measuring neighborhoods. Research shows that long-term health and wealth outcomes are directly correlated with the neighborhood in which a child grows up.

Specifically, the area within a half-mile of a child’s home.

One of the metrics urban designers analyze is the “walkshed”— the portion of a neighborhood that is accessible by foot within 10 minutes.

This area should include a variety of dwelling units, helping establish community and avoid a sense of isolation in one’s neighborhood. General population metrics will give us a sense of how many people are living there.

Open spaces are crucial in high-density urban areas, offering an outdoor respite from typically smaller homes, as well as places for people to congregate.

Access to public transit is essential in these neighborhoods, reducing the number of cars on the road and thus carbon emissions. But there is a caveat.

New developments that remove street parking can cause added hardship for families who are struggling to get by. Many low-income families rely on cars to get to work, school, the doctor, or the grocery store.

This is often because their neighborhoods were designed without walkable access to these resources. Including this necessities within the walkshed is vital for the neighborhood’s equity and livability.

But to really understand how to design an inclusive neighborhood…

…we need a complete understanding of who is living here and what life is like for them.

Line drawing showing the importance of walkability in cities and towns.

Evolving metrics and a more human-centric approach will allow us to create a new equation for evaluating the livability and social equity of a neighborhood.

I’m happy to say that because of our research—and the research of other urban designers at Perkins&Will—we’re starting to see the pendulum swing toward equity and livability. But urban design as a practice and a profession still has a long way to go. Social movements spurred by inequity and unlivable social conditions, such as Black Lives Matter and Stop Asian Hate, offer proof.

Changing the way we design our urban environments starts with a conversation—not just between architects and designers, but also among owners, operators, businesses, city leaders, and community members. But it can’t end there. We must take meaningful action, collectively. Only then will our cities reach their true potential.