It’s Walking Season! How Walkable is Your Community?

One of my favorite things about living in downtown Durham is the proximity to almost everything I need. There is a pharmacy, grocery store, post office, hair salon, and a variety of restaurants and small shops. I can even walk to things I don’t need, but am grateful for nonetheless, like a candy store and an ice cream parlor.

Walking is good for your health and better for the environment. Taking a stroll through downtown on a nice day is downright pleasant. If you need more convincing, do a quick Google search for “benefits of walking” for 569 million articles on the subject. However, in the middle of a dark, cold New England winter it is tempting to hop in my car and drive instead. Now that is finally spring again (sort of) the temptation to drive has faded and it is walking season!

In both my graduate and undergraduate course work I studied the relationship between the built environment and public health, so, out of habit, I find myself thinking a lot about the ways our communities are designed and how it influences our choices (to drive or to walk, for example). Then, in February, I attended the Carsey School of Public Policy’s Coffee and Conversations. On this particular morning Robin LeBlanc of Plan NH, who was presenting on the relationship between community design and economic development, reminded me of the four pillars of walkability outlined in Jeff Speck’s general theory of walkability.

After LeBlanc’s presentation, I purchased Speck’s book immediately. My impulse purchase arrived two days later and as I read “Walkable City: How a Downtown Can Save America, One Step at a Time,” I was thinking about my own neighborhood and drafting this post in my head.

According to Speck, walkability is about more than providing pedestrian amenities like sidewalks or streetlamps, for a community to be truly walkable it must satisfy four main conditions: it must be useful, safe, comfortable, and interesting.

The Useful Walk

The first of the four pillars, the useful walk, is rather straightforward: walking is more likely to be favored when you’re going somewhere. From my downtown apartment, I can access a pharmacy, a grocery store, a post office, the bus route and train station, and a variety of shops, cafes, and restaurants. I walked through downtown last week to deposit some cash at the ATM, drop something off at the Post Office, grab a smoothie, and buy some groceries. It was a very useful walk.

The Safe Walk

Crosswalks and other pedestrian infrastructure is just the beginning

In order for walking to be the preferred method of travel, it must be – and feel – safe. If you’ve driven through downtown Durham you know that pedestrians rule and cars are at our mercy. Seriously, the pedestrians in Durham are bold. Crosswalks are merely a suggestion and looking both ways before you cross the street is optional. The mobs of unpredictable pedestrians leave drivers with no choice but to travel slowly around the one-way loop that circles the downtown.

All jokes aside, Durham isn’t perfect (if I had it my way, the chunk of downtown between Young’s Restaurant and The Juicery would be a pedestrian square – no cars allowed!), but the pedestrian infrastructure and presence of people make Durham’s downtown safe for pedestrians.

The Comfortable Walk

This one is a lot less straight forward than the first two. In this case, “comfortable” means that the “buildings and landscape shape urban streets into ‘outdoor living rooms’ in contrast to wide open spaces.” Speck further explains this as an instinctual, animalistic desire for prospect and refuge – humans seek spaces which allow us to simultaneously “see our predators, but feel our flanks are covered.”

To put this into the context of urban design, the “parking lot is the principle problem.” We (humans and animals) prefer to be spatially contained by the walls of buildings and require a sense of enclosure to feel comfortable as pedestrians. Neat, right?

The Interesting Walk

Speck’s idea of the interesting walk revolves around there being signs of life. Durham, especially during the academic year, is flooded with life. Residents, University students, and adorable dogs flood the downtown.

I’ll leave you with another example. A couple years ago, I lived in downtown Newmarket. If you’re familiar with Newmarket, you know it has a cute, little downtown. On one side of my apartment there were a variety of restaurants, a cute coffee shop, an ice cream parlor, a post office, and a small grocery store. On the other side, there was a pharmacy and a bank. Sounds pretty great, right? Well, I almost never walked to the pharmacy or the bank. Why? The route from my apartment to the pharmacy or the bank was useful, but it wasn’t safe, comfortable, or interesting. There were no signs of humanity, the sidewalks and crosswalks were minimal, and the traffic on 108 was speedy. So, while the distance was reasonable, it wasn’t walkable in the true sense of the word.

So, how does your neighborhood stack up?

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