Friday, March 23, 2012

Walkable Urban

It’s been only a few days since I first heard the phrase “walkable urban” and it’s already engrained in my vocabulary. It conveys so much content, especially when contrasted with “drivable suburban”.

One message it sends is that new urbanism isn’t limited to the four-story residential buildings that seem frightening to some. New urbanism includes single-family homes up to a half-mile from a commercial core, as long as the streets are “complete streets”, meaning that allowances are made for pedestrians and bicyclists.

One measure of a new urbanist area is Walk Score, a tally of walkability which measures the availability of sidewalks and the distances to typical destinations. The range of scores is from 0 to 100. My standard is that a Walk Score of 50 or above qualifies as urbanist. My home has a Walk Score of 60. My wife and I have great access to elementary, junior high, and high schools, but the nearby retail options are limited to a small grocery, deli, and neighborhood tavern. We’re a half-mile from downtown, so 60 seems about right.

By ranging from 0 to 100, Walk Scores illustrate a key point about walkable urban versus drivable suburban. The two phrases are helpful distinctions, but they’re arbitrary. There isn’t a barbed wire fence across the sidewalk where the Walk Score drops from 50 to 49. A healthy person living an active lifestyle can conduct much of his life on foot from a home with a Walk Score of 40 or even less.

I’ll continue to use walkable urban versus drivable suburban as good shorthand, but ask you to remember that the world is rarely black and white.

For a further explanation of the prospects for walkable urban, I direct you to a article about the demographics behind and the potential for walkable urbanism. To me, the key point is that 77 percent of the young adult demographic, the “millennials”, prefer a walkable urban lifestyle. That number should get the attention of every planning department, developer, and lender in the land.

For a bit of fun with Walk Score, check out this approach to the NCAA basketball Sweet 16. The author plays out the final two weeks of the college basketball season using the Walk Scores of the home courts as the game-winning factor. I only regret that my alma mater, the California Golden Bears, did a face plant in the first round of the tourney. The Walk Score of Haas Pavilion in Berkeley is 98. Had the Bears survived the first weekend, they would have won the walkability crown, beating Marquette’s 95.

Also take a look at a this walkability photo gallery from the same author who did the Sweet 16. All of those places can be on my vacation list. (In fact, I did visit one last summer.)

Lastly, the photo above is another fine example of walkability. Lido, Italy is across the Laguna Veneta from Venice. It’s on the mainland, so cars are again present, but bicyclists and pedestrians are allowed to share the streets. Twice during a stay in Venice, I took the vaporetto to Lido so I could walk to the beach along this street, enjoying the comfortable sharing by cars, bikes, and walkers.

As always, your questions or comments will be appreciated. Please comment below or email me. And thanks for reading. - Dave Alden (

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