Sunday, February 26, 2012

Is there a better descriptor of a sustainable community than its walkability?

On January 31, lawyer, environmentalist, and blogger Kaid Benfield wrote his 1000th blog post (all in 4 yrs time) for the Natural Resources Defense Council.  He started the article “A gallery of walkability” this way: “I’m not sure there is any one word that describes my concept of a sustainable community place more than walkability. At least when it comes to describing the physical aspects of a place. Is it safe, comfortable, and enjoyable to walk in?  Does it have an abundance of places to walk to and from?  Is it human-scaled?  If the answer is yes, chances are that it also has many of the characteristics that smart growth and urbanist planners strive to achieve:  density, mixed uses, connectivity, appropriate traffic management, street frontages, opportunity for physical activity, and so on.” Take a look at Kaid’s photographs, which seem to underscore how comfortable and enjoyable walking must be in the places he cites as exemplars.  Yes, most of them are cities, not suburbs, but can we learn from them? Absolutely!

The website assigns a “walkability score” to cities and towns in the U.S. to help individuals evaluate the livability of their communities. The scoring algorithm calculates a score by mapping out the walking distance to amenities in 9 different categories: grocery, restaurants, shopping, coffee, banks, parks, schools, books, entertainment. Categories are weighted according to their importance, and the distance to a location, counts, and weights determine a base score. After this initial normalization, an address may receive a penalty for having poor pedestrian friendliness metrics, such as having long blocks or low intersection density. The scores range from 0 to 100 with the following ranges of walkability:


For fun, I looked up the walkability scores for the County’s first-tier suburbs, so-called because (1) at least half of their housing stock was built before 1970; and/or (2) they share a boundary with Baltimore City. These are primarily the areas in which NeighborSpace works to conserve land. Thirty-eight percent of them fall into the “somewhat walkable” category, albeit many of them just barely, with the balance ranking as “car-dependent.”

Middle River

Another expert on this topic is Dan Burden, Executive Director of the Walkable and Livable Communities Institute.  The video that is the subject of this link, Planning for People, captures work he did in the town of Brattleboro, VT last fall evaluating how to re-orient movement about the town from a system dominated by cars to one where pedestrians have more of a fighting chance. This is important for a number of different reasons, but, perhaps the most important one is that studies show that where people walk more, they are healthier. The video goes on to show specific steps for improving bicycle infrastructure and sidewalk connectivity. It has particular relevance to Baltimore County, which has a remarkably high percentage of older residents relative to other political jurisdictions statewide, given that much of the work was facilitated with the older residents of Brattleboro in mind by the Vermont Chapter of AARP.

A recent article from the Columbia Daily Tribune in Columbia, Missouri  is closest to my heart among the various sources cited heretofore. The author, an employee of a nonprofit focused on making the city more walkable, laments that “motorists never find themselves suddenly running out of street, only to have it start again 200 feet later” and yet “it is not uncommon for pedestrians to simply run out of sidewalk and be unable to reach their destination.” I live in Parkville and until I put the chart, above, together for this post, I took for granted how easy it is to walk to many things. But a 53 is not a “Walker’s Paradise” on the Walk Score continuum and I can attest to the Missouri columnist’s comments on sidewalks running out.  Here’s a photo of a stretch of Old Harford Rd. I walked recently on my way back to my home in Villa Cresta after dropping my car off at a local car care facility to have new tires installed:

The sidewalk succumbs to a “tilty” and highly unwalkable stretch of macadam that is pitched between the road and a chainlink fence, behind which there is often a gnarly dog. Indeed, the pedestrian path pretty much ended; Old Harford Rd. did not.

I’m absolutely committed to securing more parks and open space within the County’s inner suburbs, but that effort to improve sustainability will be for naught if folks can’t comfortably walk or bike to these areas.  If you’ve got a route that you regularly walk or bike, take a minute to note the challenges you face and respond with them to this post and/or to your elected official, so that we can take the steps necessary to make these paths, and the inner suburbs within our County, safer and more sustainable for everyone.

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