By Dan Burden
Walkability Items to be rated are always on a scale. A 1-10 scale can be personalized and applied to each of the below twelve categories. Common sense and powers of observation are used to make these determinations. The categories are in no particular order. Never pick a town that you have not visited. Always ask for second and third opinions.
If I were making a commitment to move to a town I would want the town to have high scores on 6 or more of the following 12 categories:
Walkable Communities Have:
1. Intact town centers. This center includes a quiet, pleasant main street with a hearty, healthy set of stores. These stores are open for business a minimum of 8 hours a day. The stores include things like barbers/beauticians, hardware, druggist, small grocery/deli, sets of good restaurants, clothing, variety store, ice cream shop, stores that attract children, many youth and senior services, places to conduct civic and personal business, library, all within a 1/4 mile walk (5 minutes) of the absolute center. If this is a county seat, the county buildings are downtown. If this is an incorporated town the town hall is in the town center. The library is open for business at least 10 hours a day 6-7 days a week. There is still a post office downtown.
2. Residential densities, mixed income, mixed use. Near the town center, and in a large town at appropriate transit locations there will be true neighborhoods. Higher densities are toward the town center and in appropriate concentrations further out. Housing includes mixed income and mixed use. A truly walkable community does not force lots of people to drive to where they work. Aspen, for example, is a great place to shop and play…but fails to provide housing for anyone who works there. Granny flats, design studios and other affordable housing are part of the mix in even the wealthiest neighborhoods.
3. Public Space. There are many places for people to assemble, play and associate with others within their neighborhood. The best neighborhoods have welcoming public space within 1/8th mile (700 feet) of all homes. These spaces are easily accessed by all people.
4. Universal Design. The community has a healthy respect for people of all abilities, and has appropriate ramps, medians, refuges, crossings of driveways, sidewalks on all streets where needed, benches, shade and other basic amenities to make walking feasible and enjoyable for everyone.
5. Key Streets Are Speed Controlled. Traffic moves on main street and in neighborhoods at safe, pleasant, courteous speeds. Most streets are designed to keep speeds low. Many of these streets are tree lined, have on-street parking and use other methods that are affordable means to keep traffic speeds under control. There is an absence of one-way couplets designed to flush downtown of its traffic in a rush or flight to the suburbs. In most parts of the nation the streets are also green, or have other pleasant landscaping schemes in dry climates.
6. Streets, Trails are Well Linked. The town has good block form, often in a grid or other highly connected pattern. Although hilly terrain calls for slightly different patterns, the linkages are still frequent. Some of the newer neighborhoods that were built to cul-de-sac or other fractured patterns are now being repaired for walking by putting in trail connectors in many places. These links are well designed so that there are many eyes on these places. Code for new streets no longer permits long streets that are disconnected.
7. Design is Properly Scaled to 1/8th, 1/4 and 1/2 mile radius segments. From most homes it is possible to get to most services in 1/4 mile (actual walked distance). Neighborhood elementary schools are within a 1/4 mile walking radius of most homes, while high schools are accessible to most children (1 mile radius). Most important features (parks) are within 1/8th mile, and a good, well designed place to wait for a high frequency (10-20 minutes) bus is within 1/4 to 1/2 mile. Note that most of these details can be seen on a good local planning map, and even many can be downloaded from the web.
8. Town is Designed for People. Look for clues that decisions are being made for people first, cars second. Does the town have a lot of open parking lots downtown? Are a lot of streets plagued with multiple commercial driveways, limited on-street parking, fast turning radii on corners. Towns designed for people have many investments being made in plazas, parks, walkways … rarely are they investing in decongesting intersections on the far reaches of town. Towns designed for people are tearing down old, non-historic dwellings, shopping plazas and such and converting them to compact, mixed use, mixed income properties. Ask to review the past year of building permits by category. Much is told about what percentage of construction that is infill and independent small builder stock versus big builder single price range housing or retail stock.
9. Town is Thinking Small. The most walkable towns are boldly stepping forward requiring maximum parking allowed, versus minimum required. Groceries and other important stores are not permitted to build above a reasonable square footage, must place the foot print of the structure to the street, etc. Palo Alto, for instance, caps their groceries at 20,000 square feet. This assures that groceries, drug stores and other important items are competitive at a size that is neighborhood friendly. Neighborhood schools are community centers. Older buildings are rebuilt in place, or converted to modern needs. Most parking is on-street.
10. In Walkable Communities There Are Many People Walking. This sounds like a silly statement at first … but think again. Often there are places that look walkable, but no one walks. Why? There is always a reason. Is it crime? Is it that there is no place to walk to, even though the streets and walkways are pleasant? Are the downtown stores not open convenient hours? You should be able to see a great diversity of those walking and bicycling. Some will be very young, some very old. People with disabilities will be common. Another clue, where people walk in great abundance virtually all motorists are courteous to pedestrians. It is true.
11. The Town and Neighborhoods have a Vision. Seattle, Washington, Portland, Oregon and Austin, Texas are just three examples where neighborhood master plans have been developed. Honolulu sets aside about $1M per year of funds to be spent by each neighborhood. Visionary, master plans provide direction, build ownership of citizens, engage diverse people, and create opportunities for implementation, to get past sticky issues, and deal with the most basic, fundamental, necessary decisions and commitment. There are budgets set aside for neighborhoods, for sidewalks, trails, links, parks. The community no longer talks about where they will get the money, but how they will change their priorities.
12. Decision Makers Are Visionary, Communicative, and Forward Thinking. The town has a strong majority of leaders who “get it”. Leaders know that they are not to do all the work … but to listen and respond to the most engaged, involved, broad minded citizens. They rarely are swayed by the anti-group, they seek the opinions and involvement big brush citizens and retailers. They are purposefully changing and building policies, practices, codes and decisions to make their towns pleasant places for people … reinvesting in the town center, disinfesting in sprawl. These people know the difference between a green field, brown field and grey field. They know what Active Living by Design is all about. The regional government understands and supports the building of a town center, and is not attempting to take funds from the people at the center to induce or support sprawl. Often there is a charismatic leader on the town board, chamber of commerce, planning board, there is an architectural review team, a historic preservation effort, and overall good public process. Check out the web site of the town … if they focus on their golf courses, tax breaks, great medical services, scenic majestic mountains, or proximity to the sea … fail to emphasize their neighborhood schools, world class library, lively downtown, focus on citizen participation … they are lost, bewitched and bewildered in their own lust and lure of Walt Disney’s Pleasure Island.