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What is walkable urbanism?

Marc Lefkowitz  |  07/17/13 @ 2:00am  |  Posted in Vibrant cities

We’re often asked to define, what is walkable urbanism, and how does it relate to sustainability?

Visualizing density<br />In this image, the pattern of development in Shaker Heights (left) is compared to Boulder, CO (center) and a newer town, Glendale, AZ. All have similar density (4 housing units per acre), but varying street grids and architectural character. Image from nonprofit Lincoln Land Institute.Well designed density<br />A nice brick-lined street in Lakewood. When EcoCity Cleveland conducted a Built Environment Rating survey, this image was favored by most.Keeping it rural<br />This image of a road in Geauga County produced positive response in a 2004 Built Environment Rating survey.

In answering, we refer to the work of planners, architects and researchers on the subject, such as Jeff Speck, who authored the book Walkable City, to define its characteristics.

When he spoke in Cleveland in February, Speck noted that living in a place where it is safe, comfortable and interesting to walk promotes its growth. Places that are supported by a population who walks include “traditional” commercial districts like Shaker Square, E. 4th Street and Hudson’s First and Main. Making a walkable city “comfortable and interesting” usually involves the creation of attractive public spaces such as parks and town squares.

A walkable city might mean seeing streets and buildings from a pedestrian viewpoint. It may influence decisions such as placing a prominent building like a church or city hall at a corner of Main Street that serves as a gateway to a walkable town center and signals an arrival. A walkable city might be designed to capture a vista, such as a striking view of a natural feature. An example of this is how Lake Erie can be seen from certain spots in downtown Cleveland. These elements and more are discussed in Making Better Places, a guide to walkable urbanism in Cleveland that was produced by EcoCity Cleveland and the Cleveland Urban Design Center.

All of these elements help define a walkable city that attracts people who want to live or work there. And that, it turns out, is good for the environment, too. Speck cites data that living in and using a walkable city saves as much energy in a week as changing out all of the lightbulbs in your home saves in a year. The reason for this is another interesting feature about the walkable city: by designing places that bring daily needs into close proximity, both walking and other forms of mobility, such as biking and public transit, become more convenient for transportation purposes, and carbon emissions from personal vehicle use actually drops. Some include as a measure of walkability how many people are within a 1/4 mile walk of a transit stop.

A walkable city is supported by directing transportation investments that create a virtuous cycle of walking to nearby places, consuming goods locally and reinvesting the profits in to the city. Portland, Oregon is probably the best example of this in America, Speck said. A 20-year, $65 million investment in biking and safe streets translated to 20% less driving, and a savings equal to 3% of the city’s gross domestic product. The savings are spent locally—Portlandia has more book stores and spends more on recreation, alcohol and restaurants per capita than any American city.

So, that explains some of the “what” and “why” of a walkable city, but “where” do we see walkable cities in Northeast Ohio, and “when” is the important moment in creating a walkable city?

When evaluating the underlying form of a walkable city in the book, Visualizing Density, authors Julie Campoli and Alex MacLean discover that one should try to keep activities close and housed in appealing spaces. "It is not density that makes a neighborhood appealing or appalling, but form," they write, "the street layout, arrangement of buildings, quality of architecture, and use of open space."

Interestingly, they include Shaker Heights in their illustration of communities with a mid-range of density—4 housing units per acre (see image above). By evaluating its form, they discover that Shaker has areas that are more walkable than cities of similar “density,” such as Glendale, Arizona because of the presence of the light rail and just enough density on the adjacent residential streets to provide a customer base within walking distance from train stops. The shape of the street “grid” may not be perfectly square in Shaker, but when it's compared to a city like Glendale, which has “dendritic” shape to its streets, one can see the blueprint for why Shaker is considered a national significant place: its combination of interesting architecture (a nice reason for a walk) and knowledge that destinations are within reach by walking, biking or hopping on a train, are values that define places like Shaker and lend it enduring value.

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8 years ago

The image of Lakewood did appear in the Built Environment Rating workshop conducted by EcoCity Cleveland in 2000. The workshop displayed pictures of the existing built environment in our neighborhoods and cities and arranged them in a sequence so that community members could rate the images. Professor Anton Nelessen of Rutgers University pioneered the technique, and he suggests in his book, Visions for a New American Dream, that "Images must reflect what people see when they walk along, streets, sidewalks, and public spaces... The purpose is to review a sufficient number of images so that a common preference and consensus vision begin to emerge."

Using a set of 80 images from across the region (taken out of an image bank of over 400 images), we had workshop participants rate each image on a scale of +10 to -10. We asked each person to rate those images they liked as positive and those they disliked as negative. We then took the average for each image as well as the standard deviation and found those positively rated images where there was nearly unanimous agreement. From there, we then developed 47 principles that can be used to guide development throughout the region.

The workshop included images that did and did not rank highly from Cleveland, Lakewood, Cleveland Heights, Shaker Heights, etc.

We invite you and other readers to continue to share images with us from places in Northeast Ohio that you feel could use improvement -- and images of places that are working well from a design standpoint. Please include an explanation of what you like or how you feel it might be improved. We can then create a slideshow on the site that invites reader comment and continues the work of developing a common design language so that we can build better places.

McMansion House
8 years ago

Thanks for the post and clarification, but I think that this post can and should be expanded upon.

Interesting to me that the brick street in Lakewood was so highly rated. Does "favored" necessarily mean "I want to live there"?

Also, I agree generally with the points about Shaker Heights, but it - like other walkable communities and neighborhoods - still has much work to do to make the city more walkable. There are too many missing crosswalks, channel right turns (many of which are unnecessary), unnecessarily long crossings, etc.

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