The more you talk about walkability, the clearer it becomes that it’s a vast subject, involving health, community, the environment, demographics, and economics, to name a few. “It’s so complicated, and it’s so simple,” says Carson Looney, principal of Looney Ricks Kiss in Memphis, Tenn. In the end, he says, “walkability is common sense.”
Having designed walkable places in urban, suburban, and rural locations, Looney is quick to add that walkability doesn’t have to be synonymous with urban core. Vibrant city neighborhoods are wonderful, but “only a segment of the population gets to experience that,” he says. “It’s about creating a better place, a destination, an experience.”
Walkability is also a business opportunity. Oft-cited studies by economist Joe Cortright and by developer Christopher Leinberger (both nonresident senior fellows at the Brookings Institution) confirm that homes with access to goods and services by foot perform better economically. “The typical working American pays as much for transportation as housing,” says city planner Jeff Speck, principal of Speck & Associates. “Home builders need to realize that when they build a home where people don’t need to drive, they should be able to charge more.”
Millennials are a big force in the demand for walkability, and they’re opting for the city in droves, says Speck in his latest book, Walkable City. “The biggest population bubble in the last 50 years” wants to live in places with excitement and buzz. How to create that where it doesn’t exist? “If we’re talking about new communities, the only answer is mixed-use and walkability,” Speck says.
Millennials, though, are just part of the picture. As baby boomers get older, many are opting to live in places where they don’t have to drive as much to get to services and where they can age in place. Walk Score, a metric that’s the current darling of the real estate market, is a basic measure of services within a certain radius. However, it doesn’t take into account the quality of the walk to get there--a gritty quarter mile along an underpass being vastly different than a tree-lined three-quarter mile with interesting houses and shops along the way. Still, Walk Score is a start, so the numbers are included in the projects that follow, as well as (when available) market data from Metrostudy, Hanley Wood’s research arm.
Here’s what’s important when you’re thinking about building good places that are walkable.
Look to the past
It’s a great source of ideas that work, says Donald Powers, principal of Union Studio Architecture & Community Design in Providence, R.I. “Density and adjacency increase sociability,” he says. Mid-block alleys, “a staple of residential planning from the 1920s and 30s,” says Powers, lessen emphasis on the car. Small setbacks can help houses relate to the sidewalk, and courtyards encourage interaction. Corners are important, says Looney, and houses built on them should play to the street. “Give 5 more feet to the corner lot and let the porch wrap,” says Looney. “The house is just one element, not the element,” he says.