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"Walk Appeal" - Beyond the 5 minute walk, Savannah edition

Steve Mouzon has a very well-done piece this week about “Walk Appeal” – and a thorough critique/evaluation of the 5 minute walk radius over at The Original Green. Steve’s piece is important because it dissects one of the dogmas of planning and the New Urbanism, and points us towards a better understanding of what makes for truly successful walkable places. And, isn’t that the goal?

The notion of walking distance (or ped sheds in New Urbanist jargon) is something that’s been on my mind since I moved to Savannah about 2 years ago.  For the previous 17 years I lived in a Midtown Kansas City neighborhood that I consider one of the most walkable in the city. Unlike many of my neighbors, I actually did walk on a regular basis for routine trips – dining, coffee, going to the park, etc. But, even as I ventured around, I did notice a pretty tight limitation I placed on how far I was willing to walk, or at least how far I’d walk on a daily basis.

Since coming to Savannah I’ve had the pleasure of observing how my own behavior has changed, simply by living in this place. Where once I rarely went beyond a 10 minute walk, I now routinely walk 20-30 minutes for the same kinds of destinations. The 5 minute walk radius that we cherish so much in New Urbanism has in fact become meaningless for me. If I limited myself to that 5 minute distance, it would eliminate nearly all of the places that I visit daily – the park, the coffee shops, the bars/restaurants, the grocery store, etc. (cont'd below the pics)

Savannah walk radiusx
Savannah walk radiusx
Savannah walk radius 1x
Savannah walk radius 1x

So, the question is – why do I walk so much farther here, and what can we learn as designers/planners from this?Steve alludes to some of the elements in his post, but I’ll add my experience:

  1. Beauty. We simply don’t talk enough about how important beauty is in the physical environment. If a place is beautiful in either building or landscaping (ideally both), the act of walking around NEVER gets boring. In fact, it’s invigorating and restorative for the mind.
  2. Public space / parks. Of course Savannah is renowned for its 22 squares (of the original 24). And, I would add, one of certainly the top 5 urban parks in America in Forsyth Park. The sheer amount of beautiful, useful public space encourages a walking culture, even at the expense of developable real estate. Of course, it also creates valuable real estate, as so many parcels have frontage on a beautiful space. But there’s another key lesson here – those public spaces are well-placed as well. They’re not just great parks or squares – they are also along primary pedestrian routes, to and from downtown and key destinations in the entire historic district.  More on the importance of this in a subsequent post…
  3. Walking (or even biking) is the easy, common-sense thing to do. In order to make walking appealing, there has to be a trade-off that makes driving more of a pain to do. It’s not that it’s impossible to drive in Savannah or to destinations downtown, but, it’s slow, sometimes frustrating, and parking is not always easy to find, or cheap. It’s just enough of a disincentive to make walking even more appealing than it already is.
  4. The importance of destinations, and embracing the muddle.  That’s right, the muddle. I suppose if I had to use Transect-based zoning for Savannah’s historic district(s), the majority of it would be T4 or T5. But living in a place like this shows the value of allowing the character to change on a block-by-block basis, and not to get too caught up in the hyper-coding of place. When walking around, you can just as easily spend time walking down beautiful residential-only streets as you can walking down streets that have a haphazard mix of all kinds of uses. Businesses seem to pop up in all kinds of locations (including some that as planners we’d typically not allow), rentals are inter-mixed with single family homes, and civic uses abound. Now, that sounds like a description of many T4/T5 zones we aspire to. The difference that I observe is that it’s far less rigid here than what our form-based codes tend towards.  And the important result of that flexibility is that it creates more destinations for walking – arguably the most important element for success.
OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

When I first was drawn to the New Urbanism, it was in large part because of the emphasis folks like Andres Duany and the founders of the CNU put on discarding dogma. That is, we are going to take a cold, hard look at what actually works – measure it, analyze it, and talk about it – even if it goes against some of our preconceived notions. Unfortunately, for the last several years I fear that the New Urbanism has ventured off into its own, ever-smaller dogmatic practice and language. We’ve become more and more enamored with our own techno-speak and techniques, and less willing to embrace that attitude from the early years. In the big picture, I suppose this is what happens to all movements based on ideas. But my hope is that discussions like this can begin to get us out of our collective bubble. In truth, our understanding of creating successful, walkable places is still in its infancy.

What does your walking map look like? Continue the discussion here, or at www.urbanismblogoffs.com

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