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5 Characteristics of the Best Walkable Communities

Walkable communities are on the rise in America, with leading examples that include Chicago’s Wicker Park neighborhood and Miami’s Biscayne Green project. These communities offer its residents a chance to live, shop and socialize in a walkable environment, one that is built upon the fabric of our forefathers’ visions for US towns and cities.

Characteristics of Walkable Communities

The landmark book, Suburban Nation: The Rise of Sprawl and the Decline of the American Dream detailed how our country has slowly moved toward suburban sprawl in the past 60 years. Authors Andres Duany and Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk noted how our country’s towns were originally patterned after European towns and cities before the advent of the automobile sent us far and wide and away from each other.

From Suburban Nation: “The traditional neighborhood continues to be a dominant pattern of habitation outside the United States, as it had been throughout recorded history. The traditional neighborhood – represented by mixed-use, pedestrian-friendly communities of varied population, either standing free as villages or grouped into towns and cities – has proved to be a sustainable form of growth. It allowed us to settle the continent without destroying the countryside in the process.”

Over the last 60 years, however, suburban sprawl has been a problem that’s affected life in America significantly. Suburban sprawl was mainly brought on by the post-World War II move to the suburbs and the growth of the automobile as the center of American existence. Cars meant freedom to move, but their popularity brought ever-wider streets and avenues, and neighborhoods less focused on building town squares and Main Street centers.

It’s undisputed that walking has many benefits for us. The physical activity of walking allows for endorphin release, which increases our blood flow. That helps brighten our attitudes and allows us to become more social in our human interactions. Now, again, Americans are awakening to the viability of walkable communities, and the benefits that these types of towns and cities bring to a community. The rise of a millennial professional class coupled with the decline of baby boomers involvement in urban planning, makes this a time ripe for change.

In Walkable City: How Downtown Can Save America, One Step at a Time, author Jeff Speck notes that creative young people are seeking a different way to live. He writes that millennials value a social, pedestrian culture that provides new opportunities for meeting people that eventually turn into connections for jobs, fun, and even romance.


A New Walkability Model

Movement back to historical neighborhoods is growing because they were built on a walkable scale with intentionally-designed mixed-use communities. More people and businesses realize the value of walkable design. When a neighborhood – even an entire city – gets the right density and balance of people, shops, restaurants/bars, service stores and more, evidence illustrates that individuals are happier and healthier.

Today, more residential developers and civic leaders are voicing their support for this model. One new example is the Point Ruston project on the shores of Tacoma. Point Ruston is considered a top model for walkable design, with a focus on public amenities. Just as significantly, the Point Ruston neighborhood on South Puget Sound contributes to the revitalization of the Tacoma waterfront.

The general benefits of bringing walkability to a community are life-changing. There are strong, similar characteristics of walkable communities that feel welcoming.


Characteristics of Walkable Communities

Many studies show that more people want to live in walkable communities. The closeness these communities foster helps lead to richer life experiences, with friends, store owners, and patrons.

Walkability is about increasing the healthy living aspects of the community’s residents, and reshaping their environmental responsibility. Study the intentional design of the greatest walkable communities and you’ll find higher levels of street safety and public friendliness.

In their book, Duany and Plater-Zyberk focused on these five characteristics to be the hallmarks of the best walkable communities:

The Center – Each walkable community the authors cited has a defined center, focused on culture, commerce and governance. The defined town center acts as a hub for the neighboring residents and provides them with a feeling that the things they love in life are just a short distance away, which in turns creates a stronger emotional tie to the neighborhood in which the residents live.

The Five-Minute Walk – In these successful walkable communities, local residents were rarely more than a 5-minute stroll from living, working and shopping and often had no need to use a car on a day-to-day basis.

Focused Street Network – A focused street network is an important characteristic in a walkable community. Intersecting streets offer pedestrians a way to move around the community in simpler fashion, in contrast to maneuvering around high-speed, winding suburban streets. Connected streets offer walkers more safety, and can reduce road rage among drivers.

Urban Density – Another characteristic of walkable communities is about the sense of urban density. Research shows that pedestrians feel comforted in a sense of enclosure in a community. This is seen in urban districts in Portland, San Francisco and other walkable cities.  Many suburban towns and cities lack this enclosing space around people, and matching the space to the pedestrian is an important facet for communities looking to become more walkable.

Public space and city parks – Having a large public space like a park, with benches and gathering spaces helps residents and visitors congregate in a friendly manner. Walkable communities thrive on open spaces where people can meet and gather for events and other activities throughout the year.

Additionally, tips culled from author Jeff Speck’s book, Walkable City, show a few other techniques to increase walkability in towns and cities, including:

  • Mixed uses – Research shows that mixed-use, diverse neighborhoods with more places to walk to can help increase the desire to walk rather than drive a car.
  • Bicycles welcome – Having more bicycle lanes and paths in a town or city can have a slowing-down effect on car traffic and that makes it better for pedestrian walkers

Walkable communities return urban environments to a scale, pattern and composition designed for sustainability of resources (both natural and economic). Walkable communities are being incorporated into new urban villages, helping residents to lead happier, healthier lives.

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