Sunday, October 4, 2009

How Walkable is Your Neighborhood? Walk Score Has the Answer

Two of the most important concepts in the field of sustainable urban design today are dense, mixed-use development and neighborhood walkability. Dense developments are those that make the most of the available land and pack a lot of urban infrastructure into a small geographic area. Mixed-use developments are those that include buildings from diverse real estate sectors (office, retail, residential, etc.). Walkability refers to the degree to which residents can effectively and comfortably walk around their neighborhoods and also incorporates what they have access to on foot. The two ideas are related in that it is a lot easier to walk to work if your office is close to your house or apartment (the same argument can be made for grocery shopping, schools, yoga classes, and so on). The opposite of dense, mixed-use development would be a sprawling neighborhood where most uses are accessible only by car. Consider the comparison below:

One mile walk in a compact neighborhood (Seattle's Phinney Ridge, left),
and one mile walk in a sprawling neighborhood (
Bellevue, WA, right).

Even though you are walking the same distance, it is clear that you can access a lot more in a densely planned area than you can in a sprawling suburb. Not only does dense, mixed-use urban design reduce transportation-related carbon dioxide emissions, but it also improves the health and well-being of residents, strengthens local businesses, and enforces a sense of place lost to most commuters who are insulated in their shells of metal and glass (i.e. automobiles).

One company is trying to quantify this somewhat vague idea of walkability and make this information accessible to all. is a user-friendly website which rates neighborhoods on a scale from 0-100 based on their proximity to amenities (including schools, grocery stores, movie theaters, parks, libraries, pharmacies, retails outlets, etc). Simply plug in your address to the search bar and the software - integrated with Google Maps - provides a readout with your score. For example, below is the walkscore of the White House:

As you can see at the top, it scores a whopping 97 percent and is classified as a "Walkers' Paradise." Given it's location in the heart of a major metropolitan area this should come as no surprise. But let's try another example. Below is the walkscore for former President Bush's ranch in Crawford, Texas:

This property scores a pathetic 0 percent and is classified as "Car-Dependent." Does anyone else think this map looks really lonely?

I will be one of the first to point out that Walkscore isn't perfect: for example, some of the destinations they include in their calculations aren't truly what they claim to be (for example, Shop N' Go Inc near my dorm in Providence is not exactly what I'd call a grocery store...). But it is important to note that the company acknowledges these flaws and includes a page on their website identifying further drawbacks. The algorithm can't account for everything and no score will ever supplant actually hitting the streets and deciding for yourself, but Walkscore is nevertheless a valuable tool that will continue to be updated and improved.

The following statement is part of the company's mission:

"Our vision is for every property listing to read: Beds: 3 Baths: 2 Walk Score: 84. We want walkability and transportation costs to be a key part of choosing where to live."

I eagerly await the day that dense, mixed-use and walkable neighborhoods become highly valued and sought-after communities.

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