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WalkScore and the Great Neighborhood Book
Alex Steffen, 30 Jul 07

Density, done right, offers one of the most transformative tools in the worldchanging workchest. Not only does good density reduce residents' environmental impact (smaller houses are less wasteful, shared infrastructure is more efficient and living close to places you want to go reduces driving), research shows that good urbanism can battle the dire social problems with which so cities are beset. Making a good neighborhood better -- or starting a struggling neighborhood on the way to righting itself -- is one of the most powerful actions any of us can take.

Density is easy to measure, at least in most developed world cities. Livability is a little tougher. That said, there is one pretty convenient stand-in for livability that's measurable in a whole lot of ways, and that's how easy it is to walk around.

The places to which you can easily walk are your walkshed. Having a big walkshed, with lots of places you want to go, is one of the best signs that your neighborhood is healthy.

One of the trends I'm most excited about is the convergence of an increasingly sophisticated understanding of what makes a neighborhood walkable with a growing number of technologies that help you get more out of your neighborhood and/or connect more easily with your neighbors. I call the tools spawned by this convergence walkshed technologies.

One of the cooler new walkshed technologies I've seen in a while is Walk Score. Walk Score is a Google Maps-based site that lets you calculate how walkable your neighborhood is by measuring the number of potential destination sites in a one-mile radius.

My home got a 77 out of 100 (I suspect the number would go up if more recent data were used, as my neighborhood is growing rapidly, adding lots of new businesses and amenities); the Worldchanging offices got a 98.

Like Google Transit, Walk Score is great but not perfect. In a refreshing bit of transparency, the creators are totally up front about what it won't do:

We'll be the first to admit that Walk Score is just an approximation of walkability. There are a number of factors that contribute to walkability that are not part of our algorithm: • Street width: Narrow streets are better for walking because they slow traffic. • Block length: Short blocks make it easier to navigate the grid. • Freeways, Rivers, Canyons: These things can divide neighborhoods and hurt walkability. • Public transit: Good public transit is important for walkable neighborhoods. • Safety: How much crime is in the neighborhood? How many traffic accidents are there? Are crosswalks well marked and streets well lit? • Aesthetics: Are the sidewalks shaded by trees? Are there appealing parks and public spaces? • Pedestrian-friendly design: Are there walking paths? Are buildings close to the sidewalk with parking in back? If buildings have large parking lots in front, they are less inviting to pedestrians. • Weather: Some visitors have suggested that in some places it's simply too hot or too cold to walk significant distances on a regular basis. As MarlonBain said, "You should use the Web 3.0 app called going outside and investigating the world for yourself"

Of course, pedestrian-friendliness is far from the only measurement of neighborhood livability. One might measure the true cost of housing in the area, the quality of the new housing being built, how easy it is to bike there or even just how happy people say they are to live there.

It is precisely that complexity that makes neighborhood-building as much an art than a science. And to imagine nourishing that inexplicable and creative element of community, check out Jay Walljasper's Great Neighborhood Book: A Do-it-yourself Guide to Placemaking.

Full of both specific examples and suggestions (many drawn from projects affiliated with Project for Public Spaces, for whom Walljasper wrote the book) and more gut-level observations about what makes places work, The Great Neighborhood Book is a rough-hewn little gem. If it'd been out when I edited the book, I would have included it as a resource for sure.

It's hard for me to say why I like this book so much. In terms of creative insight, A Pattern Language is far superior. Jane Jacobs offers a more solid intellectual framework for understanding urbanism. If you're looking for concrete actions, David Sucher's City Comforts: How to Build an Urban Village has much to recommend it.

But The Great Neighborhood Book feels, well, neighborly. You get the sense that Jay Walljasper would be a great guy to have live down the block. He gets people, and likes them too -- a trait rarer in some urban theorists than one might wish. All of the suggestions he makes seem focused on making space not just livable, but lively.

This is no manifesto. It's no masterpiece. But like a Wednesday barbecue in a friend's backyard, with homegrown produce on the table, chicken on the grill and cold beer in the cooler, it doesn't have to be perfect to be well worth the walk.

(Thanks to both Cary Moon and Eric Rodenbeck for pointing out Walk Score!)

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Comments

The "walk score" idea is great!

The only problem I have is this: even though we can be good carbon-neutral residents by walking, the places that we can walk to are almost always nowhere near carbon neutral.

Sure, I can walk to my local grocery store, but every day there are still going to be an (un)healthy number of large trucks shipping them goods from thousands of miles away.

We need to seriously rethink our long-range transportation systems within the next few decades.

That said, I really like the "walk score" idea, and I will definitely use it if (when) I consider a new place to live. It's a great step in the right direction.


Posted by: Mike on 27 Jul 07

When using Walk Score (or any other app), it is well to remember the adage 'garbage in = garbage out' (cradle to cradlers are going to have to work on that!)

Anyway, in this case, if you want a meaningful result, make sure that Google maps has all the local information. I tried my location and found it was missing all schools, shops, and a couple of large parks!


Posted by: Tony Fisk on 27 Jul 07

Nice little mashup, but I have to say that the word "walkshed" doesn't do it for me.


Posted by: Norton on 27 Jul 07

I like the Walk Score idea but it does have a few bugs to work out: it told me there's a Starbucks in my neighborhood (there's not) and located some non-existent steakhouse in my neighbor's yard. But that's good news about Jay Walljasper's new book-- his Project for Public Spaces is full of imaginative ways to make downtowns more liveable.


Posted by: Marilyn Terrell on 28 Jul 07

Whatever the limitations of Walk Score in its current incarnation, the idea of a walkshed as a planning touchstone is important for improving connections within communities.

A related concept that is more often mentioned in an economic context than in planning, is that of effecive densities. The need for density, at least from a mobility point of view, is driven by the intention to reduce effective distances to destinations. You can increase the number of destinations (or opportunities) accessible within a walkshed by increasing densities, but in some cases this may be difficult, for various reasons.

An alternative approach is to improve walking connections through urban design, effectively increasing the physical size of the walkshed and thereby improving access to opportunities without changing physical densities. I am not arguing against increasing densities, but where this is not feasible, there are other strategies that can achieve similar results, such as encouraging walking instead of driving for a larger share of trips.


Posted by: Rory Williams on 29 Jul 07

Alex -
My city neighborhood in Columbus (which I moved to for its walkability) scores 52. The suburban subdivision where I used to live (which I moved away from largely for its lack of walkability) scores 64!

I like the idea of Walk Score, but as they point out Walk Score's algorithm lacks alot of variables that contribute to the walkability of a neighborhood. Most importantly, can the algorithm account for the presence of contiguous sidewalks that actually go places? Density alone does not equate to walkability. You must be able to go somewhere on foot for a neighborhood to be walkable. The condo is my suburban neighborhood was situated very close to a strip mall, but there were no uninterrupted sidewalks that extended beyond the mall. On the other hand, the city neighborhood that I now live in is located proportionately further from some of the independently owned restaurants and coffee shops I frequent (a few blocks away) but I am able to walk there on a sidewalk.


Posted by: David R. Brown on 31 Jul 07

Like the first poster, I have a problem with the automatic assumption that density is more sustainable. I can see why density is a necessary part of an overall sustainable portfolio, but what about sustainable systems?

Permaculture is sometimes referred to on this site as one of the most established tools to guide the development of sustainable systems. In permaculture, systems must be self-sustaining--each output must also be an input. Trucking things into densely populated cities and then disposing of them either into a landfill or through storm or sewer water is not nearly as sustainable as any system that I could build where my chickens eat my food waste and also lay my eggs.

Doesn't this seem like an inconsistent stance on the part of WorldChanging? If there's something that I'm not getting, I'd love to hear it. At the very least, it seems like the issue often gets oversimplified and the complexities are glossed-over.


Posted by: Tristan on 31 Jul 07

Like the first poster, I have a problem with the automatic assumption that density is more sustainable. I can see why density is a necessary part of an overall sustainable portfolio, but what about sustainable systems?

Permaculture is sometimes referred to on this site as one of the most established tools to guide the development of sustainable systems. In permaculture, systems must be self-sustaining--each output must also be an input. Trucking things into densely populated cities and then disposing of them either into a landfill or through storm or sewer water is not nearly as sustainable as any system that I could build where my chickens eat my food waste and also lay my eggs.

Doesn't this seem like an inconsistent stance on the part of WorldChanging? If there's something that I'm not getting, I'd love to hear it. At the very least, it seems like the issue often gets oversimplified and the complexities are glossed-over.


Posted by: Tristan on 31 Jul 07

I agree that this is a great start to something that coulod become a lot better. There were a few things I noticed missing/am not sure about:

Is the distance based on a strait line or path? My grocery store may be .5 miles away if I could fly over houses, but if I have to walk around a large housing block, it may be 2 miles. This can be fixed, any GIS mapping program can learn to follow routes, the trick would be ammending it to do walking routes, not driving routes, so you wouldn't be able to walk down an interstate, but you could cut across a park.

I also think there should be more user inputs, like neighborlyness. At home, (score 59) I walk everywhere because I walk to peoples houses, at my sisters house (score 76) I walk nowhere because I know noone. Another user input feature might be the ability to add/remove businesses not on there/no longer around to the database, wiki-style, that way if it keeps more up to date


Posted by: Marty on 31 Jul 07

A great idea - thanks for posting this. Sure, the current algorithm is far from perfect. But that's the beauty of the internet. All the complaining about the choice of variables, etc. will lead to improvements.



Posted by: Simon D on 31 Jul 07

Tristan--

The overall footprint benefits of density are pretty well-proven (follow the links in the story to learn more). In addition, food is a minority of the average American's impact, and the footprint difference between food grown by local commercial farmers and by one's self is a fraction of that, as I understand it.

In addition, most people who live in exurban areas live in fact suburban lifestyles, just at a greater remove, more than counterbalancing any good they do by growing their own food.

That's not to say that rural living is bad, or growing your own food is bad: it's to say that in the absence of other systemic adjustments, density ecologically trumps low-density in almost every way.


Posted by: Alex Steffen on 31 Jul 07

Marty wrote
""Another user input feature might be the ability to add/remove businesses not on there/no longer around to the database, wiki-style, that way if it keeps more up to date""

Thats a great idea. The google map seems to be a bit outdated. In my area, there were several stores that aren't what they were listed under or are closed.
Not that I could walk to any of them -no sidewalks.



Posted by: Tethys on 16 Aug 07



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