Monday, November 26, 2012

Downtown Walkability Isn’t Inherent

It can be easy to think that urban equals walkable urban.  After all, isn’t being able to find groceries, prescription drugs, screws, and camaraderie within a quarter-mile of one’s front door almost a definition of urbanism?
But it’s not quite that easy.  When I was a young engineer, I worked in an office building a short distance south of Market Street in San Francisco.  I traveled into the Montgomery Street BART station and then walked several blocks south.  Part of the walk, along the frontage of the Palace Hotel, was interesting and drew me onwards.  But much of the walk was alongside the uninteresting and largely blank facades of aging office buildings.

This recollection of the walk isn’t meant as a complaint.  It wasn’t a bad place to walk and it was conveniently short.  But it lacked much to draw a pedestrian onward.  In my case, professional advancement and a paycheck were adequate incentives.  But it wasn’t a walk that I would have taken on a sunny Sunday afternoon.  And that is a warning sign for urbanism.

After five years, I moved to Seattle, a place where I had a longer walk from a bus stop.  But the architecture was more interesting and the occasional views of Puget Sound were always thrilling.  Even in the omnipresent drizzle, I remember my daily walks in Seattle with more fondness.  And often found myself walking the same streets for recreation.

Making an urban setting function as a compelling place to walk isn’t a trivial task.  But if it isn’t accomplished, if a quarter-mile walk is perceived as boring or even dangerous, then residents are more likely to hop into a car.  And once in their cars, they might drive five miles to a different grocery store.  That decision would sap the vitality of the nearby store, making it more likely to close its doors, depriving the residents without cars of a needed service.

But despite the importance of a good walking environment, it’s often overlooked in the planning process.  John King, the architectural critic for the San Francisco Chronicle, recently wrote about walkability issues related to new building design, including a setting in New York City where walkability was disregarded and another in San Francisco where the development team is puzzled by the local concerns about walkability.

Even if walkability isn’t overlooked in the planning process, finding a good solution isn’t trivial.  Effective walkability relies on a complicated calculus of good sidewalks, pedestrian safety and comfort, interesting surroundings, and compelling vistas.  It also requires an accurate assessment of the human emotions related to walking decisions, which might be the toughest task of all.

With the recent release of Jeff Speck’s “Walkable City”, walkability is now a hot topic among urbanist thinkers.  Expect more on this subject in coming months.  And feel free to share thoughts on the walkability issues in your town.

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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