Over the years as both a planner and a traveler, I have noticed that compact downtown areas tend to be more vibrant and healthy than those that are spread out across the landscape. Examples include Manhattan, which is hemmed in by the Hudson, East, and Harlem Rivers; Pittsburgh which is constrained by the Allegheny and Monongahela Rivers, as well as Squirrel Hill to the east; Seattle which is wedged between Elliott Bay and Lake Washington; Madison whose downtown is perched on an isthmus between Lakes Mendota and Monona; Vancouver, Canada’s central city being situated on a peninsula; or Hong Kong’s financial district being shoe-horned between Victoria Harbor and Mountain.
This trend is also observable in smaller cities like Traverse City, Michigan whose central business district is situated between the West Arm of Grand Traverse Bay and the Boardman River and Lake; Duluth, Minnesota with a downtown set between Lake Superior and the hill which forms a backdrop for the city; as well as a number of barrier island cities.
It seems that compactness naturally stimulates density within the core of a city, which in itself contributes to increased pedestrian foot traffic, walkability and bikeability, and the use of mass transit. The reasons can often be tied directly to the fact that road and highway options are limited by topographic constraints. Lakes, rivers, oceans, and mountains can all direct infrastructure in a manner which leads to congestion – it’s simply the law of available land supply and the demand for it. Likewise, these forces drive up parking and housing costs, which leads to denser development to offset the land costs.
Is this theory universal? Of course not. Geography cannot alter the effects of prolonged industrial and economic decline. Wheeling, West Virginia has a very compact downtown which is squeezed between the Ohio River and the riverfront ridge. Nevertheless, Wheeling’s downtown would not currently qualify as vibrant when it’s compared the other cities listed previously in this post.
Similarly, there are cities located on level terrain or amid open plains that have relatively compact downtowns and which are walkable and bikeable. The point is, geography can and does play a role. How much of a role largely depends on factors such as historical precedence, development patterns, available technology, growth rates, business investment/reinvestment, migration patterns, zoning and planning efforts, etc.