The Elusive Walkable Neighborhood

This is a cross-post from my montly column, Community Design Matters, inThe Roswell Current.  

 

Recently, I wrote about the Elusive Neighborhood Grocery Store. A number of readers wrote me with disappointment that we have so few here in the northern ‘burbs.' I’m disappointed too. But, there is something even more elusive in our part of metro-suburbia that is even harder to find—The Elusive Walkable Neighborhood.

The first thing I want to point out is this: There are Neighborhoods that are Subdivisions but not all Subdivisions are Neighborhoods. Atlanta’s northern suburbs are largely made up of subdivisions that people call neighborhoods because our country has lost so many true neighborhoods that people don’t even know how to recognize them anymore. A place with houses has become a neighborhood. The second thing I want to point out is that a walkable neighborhood almost always has sidewalks but a subdivision with sidewalks is rarely a walkable neighborhood. 

Okay, you say… you just dissed my subdivided lifestyle, so tell me, Mr. New Urban Smarty-pants, what is a walkable neighborhood? First and foremost, a walkable neighborhood is a place where people generally prefer to walk because it feels comfortable and interesting. Use the following question as a litmus test. When driving, do you feel the urge to get out of your car and walk? If the answer is no, you are probably not in a walkable neighborhood. If the answer is yes, you have probably found one. 

There are other ways to test walkability. The most popular is Walkscore, which is a place whose value of 0 to 100 is based on the amenities in close proximity of a given address. Check yours at walkscore.com. You can also use the immeasurable rules of Walk Appeal coined by architect Steve Mouzon — people on the street, lovable things along the way, magic of the city, safety, nature, and sound. These are all things that impact whether you will walk somewhere but probably don’t enter your thought process when deciding between your shoes or your keys.

Another easy rule of thumb is that people are generally not willing to walk more than a quarter mile to get to their destination if a car is readily available. Exceptions to this occur in places with high Walk Appeal, where the walk is broken up by many interesting ‘distractions.’ These distractions are generally people, shops, or interesting views (natural or manmade). Places like Paris, New York City, Savannah and Charleston are great examples of places where people are more than willing to walk long distances. Places like Windward Parkway that have sidewalks do enable walking but don’t have high Walk Appeal. It gets a Walkscore of 12.  

Walkability is a key component of a true neighborhood. Neighbors don’t meet each other driving from their garage to the big box store du jour and back to their garage. They meet each other on foot. Much of this happens while walking. Walkable neighborhoods promote neighborliness. Neighborhoods with a mix of interesting destinations within close proximity that are accessible by foot promote walking. Walking promotes better health, better social capital, and less foreign oil consumption. And walking under the influence rarely results in serious injury. 

Now that TSPLOST has failed, maybe we should move in the opposite direction and focus less on roads and transit and more on sidewalks and proximity.