Walking Around

The tenets for
sustainable neighborhoods and cities of organizations like the Congress for the
New Urbanism
is that we should like in compact, pedestrian-friendly
neighborhoods, with many daily activities occurring within walking distance. If
you want to find out how well the neighborhood you live in now–or the
neighborhood you want to live in–fits into these principles, visit Walk Score,
enter the address, click the button, and up pops a score on a scale of
1-100.

Walk Score uses
Google Maps to calculate the distances
to a range of important and useful services and amenities such as stores,
schools, parks, and restaurants, and then combines the data into a single “walk
score.” My suburban neighborhood got a score of 66, defined as “somewhat
walkable,” although the homes of friends and relatives in other suburban Chicago
locations scored between 15 and 48, a range considered “car
dependent.”

Walk Score is very useful for getting a sense of how sustainable a residential area is, but the tool has
limitations. First of all, it doesn’t
mean “bike score”; I do most of my local errands by bicycle, and my
home town is much more bike friendly than my old neighborhood in Chicago, which
had a walks score of 89 (“very walkable”). Proximity to services and amenities, while
essential, is not the only important characteristic of a great walkable
neighborhood. The LEED for Neighborhood Development rating system, for
instance, includes sidewalks, safe driving speeds, pedestrian-friendly building
entrances and windows, reasonable block lengths and street trees. There are
other, less measurable qualities necessary for a walkable neighborhood. On-street parking, believe it or not, creates a feeling of safety for walkers
because it separates them from moving traffic.

Finally, there’s such a thing as an amenity that doesn’t require you to buy something. The Chestnut Hill neighborhood in Philadelphia, where I once lived,
scores a modest 73 walk score, because the Wissahickon Woods has no Starbucks,
but it does have a creek and woods and trails. It’s one of the great urban
walking environments in the United States. I used to go there more often than the grocery store. The neighborhood of Chestnut Hill ranks as among the
best urban neighborhoods in the country. Just ask Witold Rybczynski, who lives
there and has written lyrically about the neighborhood.

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