Postcard From Walkable [Old] York!

History is everywhere in York, England. (Click to expand.)

History is everywhere in York, England. (Click to expand.)

Summer vacations can be a great opportunity to check out some different places and see how they compare to our home town, Princeton. While attending a friend’s wedding in York, England, the sense of history was everywhere. Founded in AD 71 by the Romans, York was the capital of Viking England, a key battle site during the English Civil War in the 17th century and was even bombed by the Luftwaffe during the Blitz.

Like Princeton, York is also a university town, and a regional center for shopping and entertainment. But York also has some differences. Like many British cities, a ‘green belt‘ around York means that development is kept within a tight boundary. Jogging out of town along the paved path along the River Ouse, the houses quickly stop, to be replaced by green fields and cows chewing the cud.

Even within York city limits there is ample greenery, either in the form of huge public parks such as the ‘Strays of York‘, in neighborhoods with single family homes with yards, or in completely undeveloped areas, such as around Heworth and Osbaldwick in the east of the city, which are more like rural villages, surrounded by green fields. Yet York has a population density 10%  higher than in Princeton. How is this possible?

Two views of York

Two views of the same street in York: Left, a traditional street, with mixed uses, and no setbacks from the sidewalk. Right, behind the houses, a modern apartment building is tucked away, almost invisible from the street, but adding additional housing. (Click to expand.)

In York, land around the downtown is used really efficiently. As was common with traditional downtown areas, residential units are above retail (mixed use), the buildings open directly onto the street (reduced setbacks), and there is little or no space between buildings. This allows more people to live around the downtown, where they can walk or bike to work. Not only that, but the extra foot traffic supports a wealth of stores, coffee shops, and of course- pubs (over 220 within the city limits!). Nor has York been too precious to add modern housing– in many cases, new-build apartments sit directly next to buildings from the medieval age.

In a walkable downtown such as York, land is not given over to surface parking like at Princeton’s Grigg’s Corner lot. Public spaces are for people, not cars. Parking is either in a multi-level  structured lot, or you take the bus. (Both options are widely used in York.) This frees up space for popular shopping areas:

Shopping areas in York

Shopping areas in York include the famous ‘Shambles‘, (left) which dates to the time of William the Conqueror; and pedestrianized Parliament Street (right). (Click to expand.)

Of course, York is a much bigger town than Princeton, and we shouldn’t aim to copy everything about another place. But visiting York shows that increased density and a focus on walkability is compatible with a truly unique, interesting and fun place to live.

(This post was modified 8.27.13 to correct the statement about population density in York, which is 10% higher than in Princeton, not 10x higher as previously written.)

Ever been to York, England? Or have you been anywhere else good on vacation? Feel free to leave a comment below.

This entry was posted in Density, Downtown Vibrancy, Smart Growth, The Parking Question, Zoning and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to Postcard From Walkable [Old] York!

  1. Heidi says:

    York is a lovely small town with a population density that is 10% larger than Princeton – not 10 times more!

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