Walk Appeal

Steve Mouzon has started a great discussion about the role of design in walkability. Walkability is, in my opinion, the most important factor in crafting great human places. There are other factors in making great neighborhoods, towns, and cities, but walkability must come first. Where walkability leads, the others will follow.

Steve began the discussion with his initial post, Walk Appeal, on his Original Green blog. This initial post focused on the idea that the distances people are willing to walk are directly proportional to a new metric Steve has dubbed “Walk Appeal”:

Walk Appeal promises to be a major new tool for understanding and building walkable places, and it explains several things that were heretofore either contradictory or mysterious. It begins with the assertion that the quarter-mile radius (or 5-minute walk,) which has been held up for a century as the distance Americans will walk before driving, is actually a myth

In this post, Steve looked at 7 different environments from world class city to suburban arterial with their associated walk distance assumptions. I would be interested in seeing data supporting Steve’s assumptions, but overall they seemed reasonable.

As an interesting comparison, I measured my local suburban mall and determined that the distance from anchor to anchor is slightly less than a quarter mile. This is a two story mall, so a patron who walked from their parking spot at one end throughout the mall could conceivably walk a total of over a half mile (1/4 mile per floor) and maybe up to a mile (1/4 mile per floor both ways). Of course browsing within individual stores would add to that total. Nobody complains about the idea of walking the mall, partly because the main corridor of the wall is designed to mimic a walkable urban street with lots window displays, small storefronts with lots of variety, and good spatial enclosure. Thus we have an example from current suburbia of a place where people are willing to walk more than a quarter mile.

Steve followed up with an additional post, Walk Appeal Measurables, where he explored the measurable factors that make great walkable environments. He listed six factors, some of which aren’t exactly empirically measurable but still can be evaluated somewhat objectively:

  • View Changes

  • Street Enclosure

  • Window of View

  • Shelter

  • Goals in the Middle Distance

  • Turning the Corner

Kaid Benfield has a response on his blog where he explores the idea some more. He adds some additional criteria:

  • Purpose

  • Safety

  • Convenience and Time

  • Nature

  • Alternatives

  • Environmental Intensity

Kaid provides a good counterpoint to the professional architect/urban designer viewpoint and makes some good points. The variation in Walk Appeal by time of day is a particularly salient point.

I also liked his perspective in the second to last paragraph:

What I like best about the concept of walk appeal is the suggestion that a comfortable or pleasant walking distance is highly variable, and that part of the reason we choose to drive even short distances sometimes is that the experience of walking to them is so horrible. Steve has provided some useful new vocabulary and an interesting new frame through which we can evaluate streets and neighborhoods.

Steve’s third post, Walk Appeal Immeasurables, follows up with six additional factors that are hard to evaluate objectively but are still critical to making great human places:

  • People on the Street

  • Lovable Things Along the Way

  • Magic of the City

  • Safety

  • Nature

  • Sound

Some of these were in response to Kaid Benfield’s post that I mentioned above. I think a lot of these factors can be summed up in one word: Delight. Making places delightful is about crafting a positive sensory experience. Lovable things, magic, nature, sound, beauty - these are all tied up in delighting the senses. I’ll explore this idea further in a future post.

Kevin Klinkenberg also weighs in with his thoughts including four additional criteria:

  • Beauty

  • Public Space/Parks

  • Walking is the Easy Thing to Do

  • The Importance of Destinations and Embracing the Muddle

He prefaced those criteria with this:

Since coming to Savannah I’ve had the pleasure of observing how my own behavior has changed, simply by living in this place. Where once I rarely went beyond a 10 minute walk, I now routinely walk 20–30 minutes for the same kinds of destinations. The 5 minute walk radius that we cherish so much in New Urbanism has in fact become meaningless for me. If I limited myself to that 5 minute distance, it would eliminate nearly all of the places that I visit daily – the park, the coffee shops, the bars/restaurants, the grocery store, etc.

Kevin is fortunate to live in the supremely walkable city of Savannah but I think his experience is enlightening.

The whole conversation is captured at Urbanism Blogoffs so check there for more updates as the conversation continues. I found the whole series fascinating and an important discussion. The rule of thumb 5 minute walk is limiting and ignores the power of place. It is great to see the conventional wisdom questioned in a way that can only bring a better understanding of what makes places great for humans. I hope to add some additional perspective to the conversation, but for now I thought these posts provide some great insight and wanted to share them.

« Sensory Urbanism - Crafting Places to Delight | Main | Los Angeles Narrow Streets »

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