Walkable Does Not Necessarily Mean Big

People I talk to about urbanism tend to think that I’m a “city person.” and I can see why they would think that, since I eventually learned to love Philadelphia, live in DC (okay, Arlington, but I would live in DC if I could afford it), and generally disdain suburbs. But people who know me better know that New York or Los Angeles is not my ideal. When I think of a perfect place, the one that made me want to be an urban designer and the one I would like to replicate in my work, I think of Northampton, Massachusetts.

From ictir2015.org.

Northampton isn’t big. It’s population is approximately 28,592, and the way that towns are set up in Massachusetts, that number includes a lot of people who live out in the countryside and not “in town.” But even though it isn’t big, Northampton feels urban, because you can walk to anything you would need on a daily basis and could live quite comfortably without owning a car.

There is a strong correlation between a place feeling urban and it having a high Walkscore. I’ve mentioned Walkscore before, but to sum it up, it is a measure of how easily one can reach their everyday needs on foot. It goes from zero to 100, and a score below 50 being car-dependent, 50-69 being somewhat walkable, 70-89 very walkable, and over 90 a walker’s paradise.

Parts of Northampton are walker’s paradises, as were all the neighborhoods in Philadelphia that I lived in and all the neighborhoods in DC where I would live if I could afford it. I decided to look and see where one could find walker’s paradises, so I searched the whole country for apartments with a Walkscore over 90 (the apartments are important because no matter how many shops and restaurants you have, if no one can walk to them from their home, you essentially have a mall). I mapped the results, noting that many places may have an apartment building or two with a Walkscore of 90 while the neighborhood as a whole is below that, and that other places are “true” walker’s paradises, where the entire neighborhood has a Walkscore above 90.

Click to enlarge.

Click to enlarge.

“Now wait a second,” you might be thinking, “New York is the biggest dot!” And that’s true, but New York is so big that it has the most of many things, including walkable neighborhoods. What’s important is that Los Angeles, the second biggest city in the United States, is not the second biggest dot, nor is Chicago, Houston, or any other city larger than the one that actually is second biggest, San Francisco. In fact, I think Houston is the best example of how big and urban/walkable are not the same thing. Houston, despite its population of 2,239,559 and its size of 627.8 square miles, only has three walker’s paradises, none of which are “true” walker’s paradises. This means that in urbanism terms it is not the equivalent of Chicago (population 2,695,598 with 17 walker’s paradises), but of Lawrence, Massachusetts (population 77,657 with three walker’s paradises).

CorrelationIn fact, as the graph shows, population explains about 60% of how walkable a place is. While a large city does allow for more services, it’s size has nothing to do with how those services are laid out, which has a huge impact on how urban a place is. That is why San Francisco (second highest on the graph above) is so walkable, even more so than simple population projections would predict, while Los Angeles (second furthest to the left on the graph) is actually less walkable than one would project a city of its size to be. San Francisco was built around the pedestrian and the streetcar; Los Angeles was built around the automobile.

So small cities, don’t think that you can’t be great urban places just because you’re not very big. Great urbanism comes from putting the pedestrian first, from planning great streets with a mix of housing, working, and services, and from making a pleasant and vibrant environment for people. Make these a priority and you will be urban, regardless of size.


Cycling in the US from a Dutch perspective

Just a quick video I came across. In this video, a Dutch cyclist comments on some of the good, the bad, and the peculiar about biking in the United States. One thing many foreigners think is strange about the US is how many of our bikers are the speedy, Lycra-wearing types, rather than average citizens who go at a more leisurely pace. I think his perspective on the bike helmet is interesting. This also doubles as a good primer on the type of bicycle infrastructure you are likely to see popping up in more progressive cities, as well as an assessment of how useful that infrastructure actually is.

Connecting the City

Sorry I didn’t post yesterday. The WiFi at my lunch place was down. Remember back when I wouldn’t post for months at a time? Anyway.

My observant mother-in-law was in San Francisco the other day and spotted this:

From Heidi Van Woerkom.

From Heidi Van Woerkom.

Curious, she found her way to Connecting the City, an organization working creating a series of such protected/buffered bike lanes across San Francisco. These kind of bike lanes are extremely important, because they alleviate the four main issues with common bike lanes:

  1. Separating the rider from vehicular traffic moving at higher speeds
  2. Removing conflicts between cyclists and parking vehicles
  3. Removing conflicts between cyclists and the doors of parked vehicles
  4. Preventing delivery personnel from using the bike lane as a parking lane

What I find particularly interesting about this organization is that, while they are currently focusing on a few exemplary projects, their goal is to create a true network of bike facilities. It is feasible that a person could ride a bike on slow, local traffic lanes and get to one of these improved bike facilities, and take it safely all the way across town. This is very important for getting the less-aggressive or -experienced cyclists onto the road, while they may not currently feel safe enough biking or that there isn’t enough bike infrastructure to get them where they are going. I applaud the efforts of Connecting the City in San Francisco and hope to see similar improvements in other cities across the country.

The Evolution of Urban Planning in 10 Diagrams – Design – The Atlantic Cities

The Transect, one of ten diagrams that has changed urban planning. From theatlanticcities.com.

As many of you know, I love me a good diagram. That’s why I really enjoyed this post from Emily Badger. It’s about a new exhibit at the San Francisco Planning and Urban Research Association (SPUR) about diagrams that have changed planning. Some are specific planning proposals, such as Le Corbusier’s Radiant City, while others have changed how planning happens, such as the Nolli Map. Check out this article, and if you find yourself in San Francisco, check out the exhibit itself.

Spotlight on Mission Bay, San Francisco, California

I had a number of meetings this week in San Francisco, a couple of which took me to Mission Bay. I had never spent any time in this neighborhood before, and it was a really great chance to explore a brand new neighborhood.

The first thing you see when you come into the neighborhood via the N or T train from Embarcadero is AT&T Park. This is a very well executed urban park, which meets the street well while creating plazas at its entrances. Today was a particularly interesting day, because it was game 1 of the World Series, and the streets were very busy with fans, scalpers, and people selling merchandise. The active uses across the King Street make sure that the street stays active despite a single large land user on one side. One thing that activated the street were the numerous sidewalk cafes, as well as a few small green spaces. The central transit lines create an opportunity for mid-block crossings, which allow pedestrians to shorten the fairly long walking distance of the blocks. Further transit activity could be found at the Caltrain station, the end of the line for that system in San Francisco. There were a handful of homeless people around the station. I texted Holly when I got there and told her that even the homeless people in San Francisco are better dressed than half the people in Philadelphia.

South of King Street is China Basin. It has a paved promenade along its northern boundary, and Mission Creek and China Basin parks to its south. It is crossed by two old drawbridges, preserved from its more industrial past. New buildings rise from the northern promenade, while new construction is underway to the south. There are a number of houseboats in the basin, which as far as I can tell predate the redevelopment of the area. The houseboats share a small dock and host a variety of sailing and power boats, as well as a number of kayaks.

One of the major land users in Mission Bay is a branch campus of the University of California, San Francisco, some of which is still under construction. The campus has a few really great semi-public plazas and streets, although there are also quite a few blank walls. Hopefully as it continues to expand there will be more active uses across the street from the blank walls to create a sense on continuity. The T train continues down from King Street through the campus at 3rd Street and beyond.

North of the UCSF campus is Mission Bay Commons Park, which anchors a series of residential buildings. They were a combination of live-work units and apartment towers, which did a great job of creating a streetscape with frequent openings, something Jan Gehl encourages to keep a street dynamic, even if it is mostly residential.

One thing I thought was interesting was that the work is far from done. Construction seemed to be going on in virtually every part of the neighborhood. This gives some hope for the worst part of the neighborhood, the nigh endless fields of parking supporting AT&T Park. While I rarely admit that parking is a necessity, this is a major regional entity which draws people in from all across the Bay Area. They could be improved by thin liner buildings such as those found around the parking fields of PNC Park in Pittsburgh.

Mission Bay is a wonderful work in progress. It is transit accessible, has a number of great anchor institutions, and the standard of design is very high. If you find yourself in San Francisco, be sure to stop by and take a look.

Parking Spaces Become Park Spaces Downtown | Environment | Downtown News

Park(ing) Day in Vegas. From 8newsnow.com.

I’ve honestly been a bit disappointed in the lack of Park(ing) Day images I’ve seen so far. They are just starting to trickle in, and I hope that maybe after the weekend’s over we’ll see some more. I did see one article yesterday from Louisville where they did some really great stuff, but they wouldn’t let you imbed anything, so I didn’t put it up. The image above, as well as this post from Natalie Cullen, show some Park(ing) Day interventions in Las Vegas which were pretty cool. I re-tweeted a few images I saw on Twitter (@DavidBMunson) that you can check out. I know that Park(ing) Day is getting bigger every year, so hopefully we’ll see more interventions soon.


SWA installation in LA. From waltercomms.wordpress.com.

We’ve got some new Park(ing) Day images! First, this post includes images of Park(ing) Day installations in Philadelphia, Cincinnati, San Francisco and Los Angeles.

Installation in Morgantown, WV. From thedaonline.com.

And these installations aren’t just for the big city! This one came from Morgantown, West Virginia, home of WVU. I still wanted more though, so hopefully that’s not all.


Park(ing) Day Phoenix. From streetsblog.org.

Ah, and here is a good cache! Streetsblog put together a compilation of installations from Jacksonville, Oakland, Nashville, Dayton, Austin, Phoenix, Portland (ME), and Cleveland.

Chicago releases 1st pedestrian safety plan – chicagotribune.com

Pedestrian infrastructure/public art. From chicagotribune.com.

Bridget Doyle reports on Chicago’s first pedestrian plan which went into effect on Wednesday. Like San Francisco’s Better Streets Plan, Chicago’s plan includes making sure city projects optimize pedestrian travel. Interventions include wider sidewalks, high-visibility crosswalks, and mid-block bulb-outs in certain areas. I find it really encouraging to see another major American city making pedestrian access and comfort a priority. Everybody walks, but as John Dales recently pointed out, we rarely clamor for our “rights” the way motorists and increasingly cyclists do. Hopefully as Chicago and San Francisco make pedestrians a priority, other cities will take notice, and make their own pedestrian plans.

%d bloggers like this: