What do we mean when we talk about “Walkability?”

By Dane Forlines

If your spell checker is like mine, “walkability” will usually be underscored with a squiggly red line. You won’t find it in Mirriam-Webster either. 

But walkability is becoming a household word among a growing number of people rediscovering and recreating active urban neighborhoods and districts. 

On the surface, walkability looks like it should simply mean the ability to walk, and that the primary reason for walking is to get from one place to another. When seen in these terms, there is little reason to walk if another mode of transportation is available that will get you there faster. But walkable places are more than just places where walking is possible. When describing walkability in cities, the term represents much greater depth with social, cultural, and economic ramifications. 

A 2014 study found that walkable cities have a 38% higher per capita gross domestic product than cities that are not walkable

The years following World War II marked a distinctly different urban form in the United States than had ever been seen anywhere in the history of the world. Although the automobile had been a growing mode of transportation in American cities since the 1910s, the urban fabric remained largely unchanged. 

For reasons we now know to be driven in large part by racism, corporate interests, and political ambitions, public policies and municipal budgets promoted the automobile not only above all other modes of transportation, but above the many qualities that made American cities great. The environment, use of land, and even ways in which social networks developed were all undermined in favor of making the automobile as essential as possible to the American way of life. 

The result was a mass exodus from cities. Here in Memphis from 1970 to 2010, nearly 200,000 people left the city limits, only to be chased by an ever-expanding annexation strategy. Crumbling infrastructure, blighted buildings, and disinvested neighborhoods were left in the wake. 

But times are changing. Beginning around the 1980s and gaining momentum in the early 2000s, many American cities are experiencing a renaissance of sorts as more and more people are choosing to live in places with more distinctive identity and personality. 

In Memphis, neighborhoods like Binghampton, Uptown, and Cooper-Young come to mind, among others. The opportunity to live within walking distance of shops, restaurants, parks, entertainment, and employment centers is one of the most noted reasons for this shift, but the secret sauce that we commonly call “walkability” involves a whole lot more. As American anthropologist Clifford Geertz points out, walkable places have shown to more effectively build trust and reciprocity among neighbors as the marketplace, town square, and front porch become natural habitats for socializing. 

Along Midtown’s Union Avenue, bold developers have recently embraced building designs and site plans that cater to the pedestrian, and place parking to the rear.
Left to Right: Starbuck’s 1420 Union Ave., ArchInc designers; The Citizen, Union at McLean, Belz HRP Partners designers; Union/Diana building, Loeb Properties designers

Quality architecture and urban design can create a unique multisensory experience that connects individuals with something bigger than themselves and compels them into public life. 

For example, walking down the Champs Elysees with the vibrancy of people thronging in and out of specialty shops, the delightful smell of freshly baked baguettes, the whimsical allure of street performers, and a view of the beautiful Arc de Triomphe in the distance creates a public life experience that prepares one’s mind for social connectivity. This kind of experience is not unlike that of walking down Main Street in downtown Memphis. In fact, this was a normal way of life in America until the middle part of the 20th Century.

Walkability – Jobs

Walkability also means job growth and economic development. A 2014 study by Smart Growth America and George Washington University found that walkable cities have a 38% higher per capita gross domestic product than cities that are not walkable. In 2015, the Journal of Planning Education and Research published findings from Wei Li and Kenneth Joh confirming that investment in pedestrian infrastructure and walkable neighborhoods can yield the highest rate of return for cities. Another study by Smart Growth America and real estate advisors Cushman & Wakefield found that from 2010 to 2015 nearly 500 companies in the U.S. relocated their offices from suburban locations to more walkable downtown neighborhoods. Nearly half of all Fortune 500 companies made that move.

All of this could be good news for Memphis. Of the city’s strongest growth periods in its history, many happened before World War II. The result is that much of the city, from South Memphis to Orange Mound to Highland Heights, resembles the mixed-use, walkable, multi-modal neighborhoods that foster economic growth and community development. Indeed, in 2018 Memphis was listed as one of the top cities where the coveted Millennials are moving. 

How to Design for Walking

But getting the design right is critical to creating a human-centric environment and reaping the benefits walkability provides. Design pedagogy can be endlessly nuanced, but a few key principles can put the “there” there:

One: Harmony – The whole is greater than the sum of its parts. Each builder in the city, larger or small, is contributing a piece of what can become a beloved place. Pay attention to detail, but maintain harmony with the surrounding context. 

Two: People First – Think people first, machines second. Quality urban design invokes participation and engagement in public space. Windows should be large and abundant, facing the street, and in proportion to the human form. Façade elements like awnings and ornamentation can greet the bystander and cultivate an interaction between public and private spaces. Off-street parking, garage doors, and other automobile infrastructure should be hidden as much as possible. 

It’s worth repeating: Include awnings into building design. A simple concept, but in a region of abundant sun and rain, awnings provide shade and shelter to the weary pedestrian. 

Three: Authentic Materials – Build with durable, high quality, and authentic materials. Stone, brick, and durable metals (for example) have been used in building construction for thousands of years, and the artistry and craftsmanship they reflect give dignity to a place and promote the use of it. Technologically engineered materials like cement boards, plastic, corrugated metal, and fake veneers were developed in the age of suburbia, and are better suited for mass-produced subdivisions. 

Four: Built to the sidewalk – Buildings should be close to the sidewalk and built at a scale proportional to the size of the street. Buildings provide the surfaces that define public space, so it is important that they be placed and sized cohesively to give dignity to a place and create the sense of having arrived.

Walkability in Cooper-Young streetscapes
Cooper-Young: Historically Hip, and Walkable. The corner at Young Ave & Cooper St.

Ill-conceived policies of the past have obviously taken their toll on our City, and we face our share of blight, poverty, and other complex challenges. 

However, we still have the urban bones and human tenacity to leverage these walkable trends and move forward in a positive way. But prosperity usually doesn’t happen by accident. 

In addition to following good design principles, let us resolve to be intentional about investing in Capital Improvement that creates quality (walkable) public spaces in our neighborhoods. Let us commit to preserving and reusing all of our many remaining historic treasures. Let us support a Transit Vision and transportation infrastructure that is balanced and fair. 

In short, add walkability to the lexicon of redevelopment efforts in Memphis, and allow our neighborhoods to be the best they can be. <>

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Dane Forlines is the Director of Special Projects for the Heights CDC and lives in Highland Heights.

More on Walkability:

An “avenue” or a highway? Poplar Avenue heading west toward downtown. Street-widening and the building of surface parking lots from the 1920s thru
the 1960s were car-friendly, but not pedestrian-friendly. Among other negative effects, these trends saw decreases in property values and precipitated blight.
Downtown streets slow traffic down and promote walkability. Above, Madison Avenue downtown. Great for walking, but many complain that “there’s nowhere to park!” A recent study by the Downtown Memphis Commission shows there’s plenty of parking downtown. Downtown Parking, story by Tom Jones at Smart City.
Walkability addressed in a Daily Memphian article about the Union Avenue Starbucks
Design. Preserve. Renew. ArchInc.

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