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.

Where I Should Live, According to Math

I don’t live in Washington, DC. I live near Washington, DC. I would like to live in it, but it’s an expensive city, and my income, while above the national average, is well below the regional average, and finding a two bedroom in our price range is difficult.

This got me thinking about affordable housing more broadly. For instance, where could I find a good, walkable neighborhood, anywhere in the country, that is within my price range? That got me started on my current project.

Using census data, I decided to map the variables of affordability and walkability. Affordability wasn’t hard; I mapped all the census tracts in the country that had a median income within $10,000 of mine, both above and below.Affordability

This shows me where I can afford to live, but a lot of the areas are rural places that I would never want to live in. My next task was to map walkability.

Walkability was harder to map. Even though Walkscore covers everywhere in America, it only offers it’s data in downloadable form for Washington, DC. So I downloaded the data, calculated the average Walkscore for census tracts in DC, downloaded virtually the entire American Community Survey, and compared the data therein to the average Walkscore to look for correlation. I found nineteen variables that had some significant correlation with Walkscore.VariablesI took each of these variables and gave them a score of one or zero, one if Walkscore would be above 70 at the value, or a zero if it would be below. Then I multiplied that score by each variables’ R-Square value, and added all the variables together to get a weighted Walkability score. I eliminated the bottom 50% of these values, and added the remainder to the map.Walkability

I was pretty happy with the result. With the exception of a few large tracts in western states, walkable places are where you would expect them to be; densely concentrated around major metropolitan areas

I intersected the two layers to get tracts that were both affordable and walkable.Intersected

This led to an interesting pattern: a few small, walkable town centers on the edge of metropolitan areas, but mostly urban neighborhoods outside of the downtown or in inner-ring suburbs.

However, it was still too many places to look at as a group, so I assigned a score to each tract based on how walkable and how affordable they are. I added these two together to get a combined score for what neighborhood would be best for us, based on these two criteria. In case you wanted the full equation for this score, it is

Combined score = (a – |a – b|) / a + ((if(c ≥ 373.6958, 1, 0) * 0.3153) + (if(d ≥ 21.2983, 1, 0) * 0.2725) + (if(e ≤ 38.8903, 1, 0) * 0.2803) + (if(f ≥ 68.0899, 1, 0) * 0.2971) + (if(g ≥ 67.4557, 1, 0) * 0.3350) + (if(h ≥ 59.9592, 1, 0) * 0.4048) + (if(i ≤31.4668, 1, 0) * 0.2529) + (if(j ≥ 65.5846, 1, 0) * 0.2734) + (if(k ≥ 65.3918, 1, 0) * 0.2839) + (if(l ≥ 58.6467, 1, 0) * 0.3533) + (if(m ≤35.7247, 1, 0) * 0.2576) + (if(n ≥226.8280, 1, 0) * 0.2763) + (if(o ≥78.1848,1, 0) * 0.2779) + (if(p ≥3.8273, 1, 0) * 0.2943) + (if(q ≥ 602.4307, 1, 0) * 0.2795) + (if(r ≤ 4.1293, 1, 0) * 0.2698) + (if(s ≥ 732.9079, 1, 0) * 0.2573) + (if(t ≥ 21.1155, 1, 0) *0.3974) + (if(u ≥82.4877, 1, 0) * 0.2810)) / 5.6596


a = Your Personal Income

Data for Each Tract from the American Community Survey:

b = Median Income

c = Nonrelatives in Household

d = % with at Least a Bachelor’s Degree

e = % Born in State of Residence

f = % 16 and Older in Labor Force

g = % 16 and Older in Civilian Labor Force

h = % 16 and Older Employed in Civilian Labor Force

i = % 16 and Older Not in Labor Force

j = % Females 16 and Older in Labor Force

k = % Females 16 and Older in Civilian Labor Force

l = % Females 16 and Older Employed in Civilian Labor Force

m = % 16 and Older Driving to Work Alone

n = Workers 16 and Older Walking to Work

o = Workers 16 and Older Commuting to Work by Other Means

p = % 16 and Older Commuting to Work by Other Means

q = Houses Built 1939 or Earlier

r = % 10-14 Years Old

s = Population 25-34 Years Old

t = % 25-34 Years Old

u = % 18 Years and Older

So, what got the highest score?

Capital Hill-01Capitol Hill, Seattle led the pack. To be honest, I was expecting something like a smaller, affordable Midwest town or something, but it the highest scoring areas were usually just outside of major downtowns. Other top areas included Cambridge and Somerville outside of Boston, and the South End in Boston; Columbia Heights, Washington, DC; The Mission District, Lower Haight, and Russian Hill, San Francisco; Midtown, Atlanta; Greenwood, Dyker Heights, Kensington, and Sheepshead Bay, Brooklyn; Graduate Hospital in Philadelphia, where we used to live; Lake View, Chicago; and Five Points, Denver.

Holly and I won’t be moving out of the region any time soon, but it’s good to have some idea of where to look if we decide to. And good to know that Columbia Heights is probably the neighborhood in DC for us, when the time comes. The formula isn’t perfect; it’s hard to control for things like how much of people’s income goes toward housing, and there is still a lot of wiggle room in these walkability measures. But it is a reasonable guideline that has provided interesting results.

UPDATE: I’ve gotten a few special requests for specific data on various areas, so I decided to make a little gallery of them below.

McCandless Crossing, or The Town Center is a Lie!

From mccandlesscrossing.com.

McCandless Crossing is a development in McCandless, Pennsylvania, which has been under construction for years and which will be implementing its fourth and final phase soon. Their website bills it as “a central, walkable, livable community that will synergize [sic] all the surrounding amenities with connectivity and by mixing uses.” This is a totally noble pursuit, but the design that the developers are proposing will not accomplish this goal. I want to discuss some ways that they could actually do it.Location-01First of all, is McCandless Crossing in the right location? My first thought was to undergo a McHargian analysis of land suitability for development.McHargThis shows that the location is just the wrong one for a dense, mixed-use development like a town center. The site is best suited for low-density housing development, as it is one of the few remaining stands of dense forest in the township.

My next thought was, wouldn’t it make sense for a town center to actually be near the center of town? I looked at intersections of major roads, and the intersection of McKnight Road and Ingomar Road is very close to the geographic center of the township, but it is a multi-level interchange. The closest street-level intersection is Perry Highway and Ingomar Road, which I think would not be a bad spot. There is a small commercial development there right now with way too much parking that could be better utilized through denser development. But my next though was, is it better to be near the geographic center or the population center? With that in mind, I undertook a density analysis.McCandless-02McCandless is overwhelmingly low density. That being said, the highest concentrations of people are along Perry Highway and Cumberland Road, adjacent to the North Allegheny Schools campus, Northland Library and the Community College of Allegheny County; and along Babcock Boulevard between Duncan Avenue and Cumberland Road, adjacent to La Roche University and UPMC Passavant Hospital. CombinedSo basically, there are at least three locations better than the chosen one for a town center for McCandless Township, with the best probably being either Perry Highway and Cumberland or Bigelow and Duncan. But let’s say that that isn’t an option and, for whatever reason, you want to develop your town center on the existing McCandless Crossing site. What would be the best way to approach it?

The first question for me seems to be whether or not you locate it astride McKnight Road or on just one side of the road. Doing it on both sides of McKnight was my first thought, as it would allow for more room for development and more access from either side of McKnight. The issue with that would be getting pedestrians across McKnight. It is a major highway that is not safe for people on foot, and people are used to blowing through there at high speed. There is no way to make a road both high speed and pedestrian friendly. The closest you could come is to turn McKnight Road into a boulevard.


McKnight Boulevard-01Although I do think that this would be in the best long-term interest of the township as it is forced to densify, for now, it would cause too much trouble. That leaves us with focusing development on one side of McKnight.

From revistasusp.sibi.usp.br.

Calthorpe’s TOD concept, and it’s somewhat analogous Traditional Neighborhood Development, include the idea of creating a walkable Main Street that runs perpendicular to a major arterial. This allows for a measure of compromise between walkable urbanism and drivable suburbanism. A good example is Orenco Station outside of Portland, Oregon.OrencoOrenco Station has a mixed use Main Street along a public space axis that runs perpendicular to a major arterial. Parking for some of the anchor retailers faces the arterial so that there is easy vehicular access while it is still screened from the walkable neighborhood part of the development. I think it is very important to have the Main Street intersect with the arterial so that there is at least a hint of the walkable town center just off the road. This is the problem with Belmar; if you didn’t know there was a cool neighborhood behind it, all you would see is the suburban strip.Real Town Center Part DoneMy plan for McCandless Crossing would be to reorient all the anchors so that they gather around just a few large parking lots facing McKnight Road. The Main Street runs parallel and is lined with small shops on the ground floor and other uses (hotel, office, and residential) above. The small retail lines and softens the anchors to make them seem more walkable. The theater is important, because it can have lobbies on both sides so that people can both walk to it and drive to it. There is a little bit more residential than other upper floor compatible uses, so apartments are laid out around a public green.Real Town Center Full DoneAnother issue is that the plan as it is designed is a retail power center and not a true mixed use town center, the major distinction being that the retail is meant to be supported by regional drivers and not local walkers, and as such there is nowhere near enough residential to support it. I wanted to expand the proposed uses to create a real town center, including range of residential types that fades into the largely single-family context, so the residential steps down from apartments to townhouses to small homes.

McCandless needs a town center, and McCandless Crossing could well be it; they just need to totally change nearly everything about their site plan. It can still serve drivers and be a regional retail destination, but it doesn’t need to be suburban schlock that won’t age well or contribute to the future and betterment of the people of the township. With some slight modifications, McCandless Crossing can become a real town center and help McCandless become a real town, that actually is “a central, walkable, livable community that will synergize [sic] all the surrounding amenities with connectivity and by mixing uses.”

The Next Major Real Estate Cycle: Walkable Urbanism? – The Atlantic Cities

Walkable urban projects in Metro Washington. From theatlanticcities.com.

Emily Badger brings us this post on walkable urbanism in Metro Washington. Christopher Leinberger, author, professor and real estate developer, has said that walkable urbanism has moved from a niche market to the real estate market. These places make up less than 1% of Washington’s land area, but contain 34% of the jobs, and are gaining market share. Leinberger argues that we don’t need to add any land area to the metro, we just need to densify what is already there. Near half of office and residential development in the metro are being developed in walkable areas, and hopefully retail will catch up when the large retailers figure out how to fit into a smaller footprint. Leinberger says that the biggest impediment to walkable urban growth are real estate developers who are entrenched in the suburban model. They are unable or unwilling to change, despite all the information pointing to the shift all across the country. But those developers who will make the shift will create better places for everyone.

Suburban Retrofitting Design Tactics — Build a Better Burb

Urbanize the suburbs. From buildabetterburb.org.

This post from June Williamson details some of the tactics discussed in the book Retrofitting Suburbia. It has details, including real-world examples, of how to implement these strategies in your community. The eleven tactics are:

  1. Reuse The Box: Adaptive reuse of vacant commercial buildings for new, often community-serving uses, such as libraries or medical clinics, is both socially desirable and reduces waste.
  2. Provide Environmental Repair: Restore Wetlands and Creeks: Retrofits sometimes provide the opportunity to reconstruct wetlands and creeks, components in the metropolitan watershed that were erased or diminished by suburban development patterns.
  3. Revise Zoning Codes and Public Works Standards (Re-development): Make it easier to build compact, mixed-use developments with complete streets, and make it harder to build single-use, auto-dependent places.
  4. Keep Block Size Walkable: Without careful modulation, the hybridization of suburban building types and parking into urban blocks and streets can lead to oversized blocks and monotonous building fronts. The rule of thumb for a walkable block is a perimeter dimension of less than 1700 linear feet.
  5. Establish a More Continuous Streetscape with Shallow Liner Buildings: Wrappers can be employed around reused box buildings and liners can screen surface parking lots to provide a more continuous streetscape.
  6. Use Appropriate Street Types and Real Sidewalks.
  7. Improve Connectivity for Drivers, Bicyclists and Pedestrians: Build interconnected street networks to increase walkability and public safety, while distributing traffic and reducing overall vehicle miles traveled (VMT).
  8. Consider Future Connectivity and Adaptability.
  9. Diversify Housing Choice and Price: The future success of suburbs will hinge on their ability to respond to changing demographics; provide more housing choices.
  10. Add New Units to Existing Subdivisions: Infilling residential neighborhoods with accessory dwelling units (ADUs) can provide affordable housing choices for singles and seniors, and increase residential density without dramatically altering the morphological pattern.
  11. Invest in Quality Architecture: The most successful and sustainable retrofits will be beautiful, durable, culturally significant, and built to meet high standards of environmental performance both in the public spaces and the buildings.

Crosswalk Trail

Just a quick one that a friend sent me from Geeks are Sexy:

Pretty good commentary on the walkability of LA.

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