≡ Menu

Creating–and Using–A Rating System for Neighbourhood Walkability: Towards an Agenda for “Local Heroes”

Presented to the 14th International Pedestrian Conference, Boulder, CO – October 1, 1993

ABSTRACT:

“Walkability” is a quality of place, one that is being eroded by the day throughout the world. Although the term has been appearing in literature for some time, the author, a pedestrian rights activist and public consultation practitioner, knows of no attempt to measure it. This paper attempts to do that, as well as give three practical purposes for using the “walkability index”. One such use is to provide a motivation to induce more people to become “local heroes”, by re-establishing their links with their streets and neighbourhoods and committing personal resources to rebuild their local physical and social infrastructure, so necessary to human life and the ecology of “the commons”.

I. WHY MEASURE WALKABILITY?

I believe that I live in one of North America’s most walkable neighbourhoods. Unfortunately, its housing is also among the highest priced in the city. Last year, its homeowners and business owners faced steep increases in property taxes which are based on market values. Many of my neighbours challenged the market-value-based property taxes with the argument that market value of one’s property does not necessarily reflect one’s ability to pay taxes. Others argued differently: that the average person in our neighbourhood is more likely to walk and therefore has less need for the municipal-level infrastructure paid for by property taxes.

This got me thinking. I had always liked the idea of being able to measure this quality called walkability. But now there might be a very important use for it. What if a collection of such measurements – in the form of a rating system or index – could be used in calculating property taxes and, for new buildings, the initial development fee? This may seem unfair, since it comes close to being an example of user-pay, but would be applied not to the individual or the household, but to the basic unit of walkability, the street block and the neighbourhood.

The index could also be useful to homebuyers who could use the index to settle matters such as: Are the streets safe? Is transit service good? Will we need one car, two cars, or even no car?

Finally, there is the use of the index’s indicators as an agenda for collective action. Since the index would apply to an entire neighbourhood, the action would naturally be collective. A neighbourhood could improve its rating through changing itself: its physical form and amenities, its range of businesses, its local services, and collective programs. Therein lies the reference to the “local hero”, the person who enjoys the local scale, has affection for his/her particular surroundings, and commits time and resources to doing something to improve it by working with and through others to improve the conditions for a sense of community: economic, social, and cultural commerce.

II. WHAT IS WALKABILITY?

Walkability has four basic characteristics:

1. A “foot-friendly” man-made, physical micro-environment: wide, level sidewalks, small intersections, narrow streets, lots of litter containers, good lighting, and an absence of obstructions.

2. A full range of useful, active destinations within walking distance: shops, services, employment, professional offices, recreation, libraries, etc.

3. A natural environment that moderates the extremes of weather- wind, rain, sunlight – while providing the refreshment of the absence of man’s overuse. It has no excessive noise, air pollution, or the dirt, stains, and grime of motor traffic.

4. A local culture that is social and diverse. This increases contact between people and the conditions for social and economic commerce.

III. PROPOSAL FOR CREATING THE WALKABILITY INDEX

[Note: Like in golf, the lowest score is best. Each question gives the “demerits,” from 1 to 4, to features or qualities that work against walkability].

1. Density (persons per acre, up to centre-line of bordering features)

1 – over 15

2 – 10-15

3 – 5-10

4 – fewer than 5

2. Parking places off-street per household (unrestricted street access)

1 – less than 1

2 – 1-2

3 – 2-3

4 – more than 3

3. Number of sitting spots on benches per household (include seating in front yards)

1 – more than .75

2 – .5 to .75

3 – .25 to .5

4 – .25 or fewer

4. Chances of meeting someone you know while walking (survey)

1 – 10 or more per mile

2 – 3-10 per mile

3 – fewer than 3 per mi.

4 – “Are you kidding?!”

5. Age at which a child is allowed to walk alone (survey)

1 – Age 6 or younger

2 – Ages 7-9

3 – Ages 10-13

4 – Age 12 or older

6. Women’s rating of neighbourhood safety (survey)

1 – “I walk alone anywhere anytime”

2 – “I walk alone, but am careful of routes”

3 – “I must walk with someone at night”

4 – “I never walk, except to car visible from entrance”

7. Responsiveness of transit service.

1 – Within ten minutes

2 – 10-20 minutes

3 – more than 20 minutes

4 – no service

8. Number of neighbourhood “places of significance” (significant to the respondent) named by average respondent. (survey)

1 – 10 or more

2 – 5-10

3 – 3-5

4 – fewer than 3

9. Parkland (measurement)

1 – >50 acres/square mile and average residence and <1,500-foot walk

2 – >50 acres/square mile and average residence and >1,500-foot walk

3 – <50 acres/square mile and average residence and <1,500-foot walk

4 – <50 acres/square mile and average residence and >1,500-foot walk

10. Sidewalks (single point each)
– Not on both sides of 90% of streets
– Dips at each driveway
– Widths less than 5 feet on residential streets; 8 feet on shopping streets
– More than one discontinuity (1” or more) per block

FINAL SCORE DIVIDED BY 20 WILL PRODUCE INDEX BETWEEN 0.45 AND 2.00

IV. SCALE IN HUMAN ACTIVITY

We live life a different scales:

global

national

city/region

neighbourhood

street/project

household/family

individual

Until recent times, few people lived their lives at scales above the city/region level. In fact, although many people have jobs that operate in the loftier orbits, or favour international news to local news, or buy few locally produced goods, life is still lived locally.

Think of the seven scales as a hierarchy inside a thermometer. As energy and cognitive capacity increases, the mercury expands up the scale as the individual has the ability to operate at larger scale. Over the normal course of a person’s life, the scale starts low, climbs into adulthood, then drops slowly until death. If plotted against time, it would be like a bell curve. But no matter how large a domain we can master, we continue to need to function comfortably at lower scales.

The problem is this—we are losing the “infrastructure” for the street and neighbourhood scales. The streets have become automobile feeders for the city-scale roads. City agencies have replaced neighbourhood and street-level visiting of the sick and elderly. The child, who needs to have ever-widening contiguous spaces to freely explore as he/she grows, is not allowed independent access to the street until after he or she is old enough not to have much use for it. How many of us in our work produce for a local market or purchase local goods or services?

The result is cities designed only for AAAs: active, affluent adults. If you are young, old, or disabled, you stay inside or go out only with a guardian in tow, usually ferried about in a car or bus. If you are poor, transit and long walks under inhospitable conditions is your lot. These people not only are denied the human scale and lively streets they need, but they now need more income to buy the “solutions”: a car and a “better” neighbourhood.

Why has this happened?

1. The automobile – a vehicle more suited to freeways and rural roads – has taken over all streets. As a society we now accept that streets are dangerous and dirty. Drivers are not held responsible for pedestrian deaths and injuries; the pedestrians or their guardians are. The streets reflect “might makes right”, rather than, “the more you wield, the more you yield” that exists between boats on waterways.

2. Women, the traditional nurturers of the local scale, including the household, have joined the workforce and are adopting men’s love of the large scale, which they believe equals power. Unfortunately, street & neighbourhood relations have suffered. (The solution, of course, is not for men and women to go back to their own separate “domains”, but for all adults to reestablish local links).

3. We are moving towards globalism: economy, government, and even environmentalism. There is little in-between that is not owned or controlled by global interests: no “sinew”, no connecting tissue. Why? The large-scale interests want it that way: local interests, loyalties, goods, values, etc. are redundant in the “modern” world.

Urban life, too, is disdained. Life is to be lived only after leaving the city job far behind each day and driving as far away to a non-urban home as money and time will afford.

The result is an imbalanced infrastructure: People buying private solutions to public problems. There is no civic life occurring in civic places anymore. We are told to expect only negative experiences in these places. They are replaced by larger private yards, membership in health clubs, and exotic vacations in places where safe civic spaces and human-scale streets still exist. When they must be used, one takes along “protection”. We buy ever-more sophisticated home and car alarms, rather than spend time rebuilding common, local space. The self-regulating civic culture of the Commons is fast disappearing. In those spaces we now see the “weeds” of crime, litter, unkempt buildings and grounds, noise and grime, and abandoned people.

V. HOW BROADLY DOES WALKABILITY IMPACT ON LOCAL GOVERNMENT COSTS?

Applying the walkability index to taxes and development charges raises the question, “Shouldn’t it be limited only to the portion that applies to transportation infrastructure?” No. The effects of walkability are beneficial over a far broader area.

The walkable neighbourhood makes less demand on several services/resources:

– roads and parking facilities: Because of shorter trips and smaller modes (space and weights), they make lower use of roads and parking, and the real estate and maintenance costs they represent.

– transit: Transit subsidies are lower (or perhaps non-existent) for those living in walkable neighbourhoods: 1) more riders per mile; 2) shorter trips and therefore more fares per mile; 3) more transit use in off-peak; and 4) more bi-directional travel during peak period.

– police protection: The walkable neighbourhood provides a great deal more of its own surveillance, provides more jobs and activities for youths, has fewer new, expensive cars to be stolen; and fewer off-street parking lots where assaults are most often committed.

– density-sensitive services: Garbage collection, underground pipes, fire protection, and general administration are services that cost more where development is less dense.

– social and health services: besides being sensitive to density, these services are also sensitive to the presence or lack of informally provided community services, best illustrated by neighbours visiting sick neighbours or providing babysitting or even a ride for a neighbour having a doctor or job appointment.

– economic development – the higher-density, the mixed land use, the availability of a larger and more diverse work force, and the availability of marginal, “incubator” spaces and services makes these neighbourhoods more powerful generators of economic vitality.

VI. ENTERLOCAL HEROES”:

I have started to invest more of my time into my local communities: my street and my neighbourhood. I am starting to see the need – and the opportunities – for this involvement, and am trying to find a way to support myself doing it. Here are my ideas and initiatives. I predict that, due to the downturn in the economy (and the poor expectations for early recovery) and the arrival of the baby boomers in the empty-nester stage of life, many more people will find their local interests growing.

What are “local heroes”?

The term local heroes comes from a movie of the same name in which the main character successfully resists the moves of Burt Lancaster working for a multinational company to convert the local economy and resources to a “higher use”. In my mind, a local hero is and is simply loyal to that scale and to the specific people and places within his/hers, the same way a mother is loyal to the family and to her family.

VII. AN AGENDA FOR LOCAL HEROES:

Local heroes need to spend time and mental energy getting to know their community and street better and sympathetically. And that takes time. Our employer pays us to spend 40 hours a week focusing on his/her scale, and if we have a family, we will tend to spend most of the remainder on the household and ourselves. Our personal time will tend to be spend with larger-scale information and entertainment sources available in print and electronically.

The first local heroes will need to be real leaders. They will need to conceive and create new institutions and infrastructure for these scales. Here are some ideas that I am working on:

1. Start a “co-transportation” club. This is the way to provide “fractional” access to a car and break the need to use a car a lot in order to justify the high fixed costs.

2. Local stories and maps. Get local people to record/share local knowledge, develop local maps, design neighbourhood walks for newcomers & visitors. Then hold a walking festival with all the walks offered as part of a multi-day blitz.

3. Visions. Organize street and neighbourhood visions/plans and bring together resources to coordinate future changes to conform. Try a Visual Preference Survey (developed by A. Nelessen) to focus people on their communities as place. It gets people mentally out on foot in the settings they usually only drive through.

4. “Be a PESt!” (Pedestrian Environment Steward) and animate and care for – the streets and parks.

5. Start a “DePoT” (corner store, recycling centre, laundry/photo drop-off, and postal station, and delivery point for larger stores and catalogue shopping). Hire teenagers to help with pickup and delivery; supply them with cargo-carrying “bringhy”.

6. Be a “johnny greenseed” and restore your neighbourhood’s ecology.

7. Get local merchants to “localize”: 1) cater to local customers (the ones who don’t use parking spots and don’t expect you to sit on busy road and advertise city-wide, 2) encourage locals to produce for your store, 3) hire locally and help current employees to move into neighbourhood, 4) reduce outbound wastes.

8. Start a neighbourhood BBS (computer bulletin board system) for local information and commerce.

9. Determine your community’s walkability.

VIII. CONCLUSIONS

I hope I have related a context for recreating the missing links in the continuity of urban life, the scales that are closest to the commons, the economic incubators, the cultural breeding ground, the feedback systems necessary for reducing humankind’s “footprint” on the earth and on each other. Walkability is pretty close to livability, to healthy communities, to sustainability, but it’s not as abstract. We can all relate to it. And it relates to so much to quality of life: health, community, social equity, enjoyment, attachment to place, environment, fitness, low stress.

Let’s look at walkability as a positive indicator of what we all want – to replace pollution, crime, traffic accidents as indicators of what we don’t want – and thus become a focus for action, the collective action, action and involvement that re-creates community and caring for each other and the places we share.

Let me close with the words of Wendell Berry in his essay, “Words and Flesh”.

The favourite adjective of [the environment] movement now seems to be ‘planetary’. This word is used, properly enough, to refer to the interdependence of places, and to the recognition, which is desirable and growing, that no place on earth can be completely healthy until all places are. But the word “planetary” also refers to an abstract anxiety or an abstract passion that is desperate and useless exactly to the extent that it is abstract. How, after all, can anybody – any particular body, do anything to heal a planet? The suggestion that anybody could do so is preposterous. The heroes of abstraction keep galloping in on their white horses to save the planet – and they keep falling off in front of the grandstand.

We cannot save the world by riding white horses, heroically or otherwise, or by duplicating global marketing. It will be done locally in the places we know and love, where we live and work and walk and play. It will occur within the dynamics of community and immediate, useful feedback on our own actions.

IX. BIBLIOGRAPHY

Berry, Wendell What are People For?, San Francisco: Northpoint Press, 1990

Jacobs, Jane, The Death and Life of Great American Cities Vintage: 1961

{ 2 comments… add one }

  • martha kelley April 12, 2007, 8:15 am

    Where are the best walking towns?

  • ANNE HARRIS April 28, 2007, 10:21 am

    WHERE ARE SOME OF THE MORE WALKABLE CITIES ESPECIALLY IN THE WARMER, SOUTHERN OR WESTERN CITIES THAT ARE STILL AFORDABLE?

Leave a Comment