Mariela Alfonzo has over 15 years of expertise in the field of urban design and behavior research. In 2014, Mariela was recognized as one of Urban Land Institute’s 40 under 40 best young land use professionals around the globe. In 2013, Dr. Alfonzo was awarded a Fulbright to examine walkability in China.
By Mariela Alfonzo (LinkedIn), State of Place
I get asked a version of this question a LOT. Like, ALL. THE. TIME.
I get it. It’s the Twitter era. 140 characters or bust. People want easy answers, simple solutions, soundbite fixes – even when the problems are complex…especially when they’re complex. Nuance? Details? Qualifiers? That’s for academics. This is why articles like “4 ways to make a city more walkable” and “7 simple ways to make every city friendlier for pedestrians” and “walkability checklists” are such effective click-bait.
But can you create a formula for walkability, livability, great places?
Walkability comes in many shapes and sizes. A solution that’s right for one community may or may not be right for another one. That’s not to say that articles that provide lists of the top X ways to make a community walkable are not helpful. They’re a nice primer on good urban design and as long as they’re not taken as gospel, they’re fun and harmless. If you compare the mostly top-down recommendations generated for say Des Moines or Buffalo or Salt Lake City – they don’t differ much from each other…Add or widen sidewalks. Remove at-grade parking. Narrow the roads. That’s not to say that these things aren’t indeed characteristics of good urban design. All these communities, with such varying strengths and weaknesses, and remarkable differences in context, they all need the same ingredients to suddenly become great, walkable places?
JUST GET ME THE ANTIDOTE, NOW!
You’d never expect a doctor to dispense the same Rx to ten patients who have the symptoms of the classic cold. She would examine each patient’s history: consider their age, sex, race, ethnicity, the severity of their symptoms, and the presence of other symptoms. She’d then offer a diagnosis and present a prescription or prognosis. Cities are just as complex – or more so – than humans. Cities deserve an equally bottom-up, contextual approach. There is NO formula or silver bullet for making places more walkable and livable.
WHAT DO YOU WANT TO BE (WHEN YOU GROW UP)?
STATE OF PLACE URBAN DESIGN DIMENSIONS
Form refers to streetscape continuity, including building setbacks, how the building meets the street, the siting of buildings, and the number and width of buildings. This is what we like to call the “hugability” of a street. If the form is off, a street can feel either aloof or suffocating. You know you’ve achieved the right proportions of setbacks, street width, and building height when it feels like the street is hugging you.
For density, we are measuring building compactness and height, not so much population density – this is particularly important in terms of making it feasible to have enough destinations to walk to within a reasonable walking distance. It can also influence the scale of city – is it for cars or people?
The relative ease of getting from one block to another and the presence of barriers to pedestrians or bicyclists within blocks. You’ve been there – if there wasn’t a fence, road, highway, insert barrier of choice between you and your neighborhood restaurant, you could totally walk there. But instead, what should be a 5-min walk takes 25min so you take the car instead. That’s connectivity (or lack thereof).
The number of non-residential land uses there are to walk to – how many of one’s daily needs, services, and amenities are present within a certain distance. (This is primarily what Walk Score measures).
The presence of hard and soft scape public spaces, as well as their quality and accessibility. These are often the soul and life of neighborhoods; they are the city’s living rooms. Along with museums and monuments, these are the places you bring your friends and families to when they visit.
We look at recreational facilities separately from parks and public spaces. These features get a bit more at recreational walking (as opposed to walking to get to a specific destination or for a purpose other than exercise). The literature found this to be an important determinant for physical activity, so we measure the presence of outdoor and indoor physical activity facilities as their own dimension.
Pedestrian and bike amenities refer to aspects of the built environment that make it comfortable or pleasant to be a pedestrian, including sidewalk presence and quality, seating, bike lane presence and type, street trees, etc. Along with form, these are the features that truly help distinguish car-focused neighborhoods from people-first places – they are the things that make you want to linger…
Traffic safety focuses on the quality and safety of the intersection as well as the presence of traffic calming features. These include the presence of curbcuts, crosswalk markings, traffic standards, and on-street parking. These are the features that help manage all of the mobile members of the public realm – people, strollers, bicyclists, scooters, cars, and buses.
Aesthetics goes beyond the visually pleasing; it also includes aspects of urban design that make places more dynamic and inviting. We look at the transparency of buildings, colors, outdoor dining, street trees, building maintenance, ground floor uses, etc. This is charm, character, the wow factor – the things you’ll most remember about places.
Finally, personal safety refers not to actual crime data but rather the aspects of the built environment that influence our perception of safety – these are called physical incivilities and include features like graffiti, litter, broken windows, abandoned buildings and lighting. These features actually influence walking rates more than the rates of crime incidents.