Jobs-Housing Balance and Urban Villages

Improving the balance between the geographical placement of jobs and housing is an often cited goal of sustainability policies. The claim is that modern land use and automobile commuting patterns result in longer than necessary work trips that are inordinately time consuming. The answer is to design self-contained communities in which there is a greater balance between jobs and housing, in what have been characterized as "urban villages."

But the reality has been far from successful. Urbanologist Peter Hall finds that in Stockholm's satellite communities, built with similar intentions, the overwhelming majority of people work elsewhere (Hall, 1998). In 2001, the average work trip travel distance in London area new towns, which were to have been self-contained, was approximately double their idealized diameter. This means that the average work trip length is longer than traveling completely across the new town and that the objective of self containment --- the jobs housing balance in which new town residents work locally, has not been achieved.

London (the area of the Greater London Authority) itself has been cited as an example for this "urban village" approach to urbanism. Here, there are a multiplicity of community high streets that can give the impression that GLA is a collection of urban villages. And, while an argument may be made in favor of a shopping-jobs balance, the data suggests the opposite with respect to jobs. These urban villages are far from self contained. The average work trip distance in 2001 in the London boroughs was approximately 10 kilometers. In the GLA boroughs, the average work trip was 1.6 times the borough diameter (The actual neighborhood or urban village diameters would be smaller).

In the United States, surveys by the Bureau of the Census indicate that considerations other than work location represent the principal reason for neighborhood choice among less than one-quarter of households who move. Overall, only 23 percent of moving households cited proximity to employment as the main reason for their choice of a new neighborhood. Among those purchasing their homes, which represent nearly 70 percent of households, the figure was even less, at 14 percent.

There are fundamental difficulties with the concept of establishing self-contained urban villages in urban areas. As the US Census Bureau data indicates, the planning desire to minimize work to job commuting differences is not shared by the majority of households. There may be more than one worker in the household, which makes commute distance minimization more difficult. It is simply not feasible to provide for a sufficient array of jobs that meet the needs of neighborhood residents and employers. At any point, a worker who lives nearby may accept a more remote job for better pay or conditions and choose not to move closer to the new job.

The most fundamental difficulty with urban villages and the jobs-housing balance is that the very reason that urban areas became large was because they developed as large labor markets in which people could work in the local neighborhood or many kilometers away. To transform the urban area into a series of urban villages would undermine the very purpose of the modern urban area. In fact there is a jobs-housing balance and it is at the labor market level - the urban area level. The fences that urban planners would like to build have been and will continue to be ignored by people who tend to do what they want more than what the planners want.

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