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I don’t know if you guys heard, but Pantone recently announced that emerald is the color of the year for 2013. Well, I want to be the first to jump on another important trend forecasting announcement, and it’s about WALKABILITY!
2013 is going to be a banner year for minimalism movements like the tiny house project and the de-cluttering dudes. San Francisco recently approved micro-apartments that are roughly the size of a plate of kimchi, proving that young people are willing to sacrifice nearly anything if it means living in a highly walkable neighborhood.
Walkability refers to how easy it is to access basic goods and services on foot. According to WalkScore, a neighborhood is walkable if it has:
- A center, whether it's a main street or a public space
- Enough people for businesses to flourish and for public transit to run frequently
- Mixed income, mixed use, and affordable housing located near businesses
- Plenty of public parks and spaces to gather and play
- Pedestrian-friendly design with buildings close to the street and parking lots in the back
- Schools and workplaces close enough that residents can walk from their homes
- Streets designed for bicyclists, pedestrians, and various public transit systems
For me, it was a lifestyle choice. I’ve spent the last five years of my life following my gypsy-like family members and significant others around the world trying to feel at home in their towns, suburbs and cities. None of these places were very walkable, so you can imagine how liberated and squishy I felt when I packed up my girlfriend and everything we owned and returned to my hometown of Portland, Oregon.
Even though I was born and raised here, a lot has changed since the nineties, when we were a little-known grisly punk rock Mecca. The Voodoo Donuts I got in line for had Nyquil and Vanilla Pepto donuts, not just semi-ironic bacon maple bars. It would have been unthinkable when I was growing up, but we have our own TV show now. And, getting back to my point, the city has become a lot more walkable.
Walkable neighborhoods are more functional and efficient to live in because their layout relates to how people actually live and move, not just how cars drive. Residents of walkable neighborhoods are healthier, happier and more involved with their communities. Beyond that though, walkable neighborhoods are just more beautiful and WAY MORE FUN.
My last rental had a WalkScore of 60, and my rented room before that came in at a very low 34. Our new place has the Golden Ticket: 100!!!!!!! LITERALLY ANYTHING can be accomplished on foot from here.
I love the social benefits more than anything -- we get to people watch more! I know my grocer on a more personal level since I buy groceries more frequently and in smaller quantities (carrying them home is a free workout, too). Best of all, we see friends by random chance in real life instead of stalking them on Facebook.
Rather than driving to a theater, community resource center, or park, we can walk, bike, or roller skate. We’ve found ourselves visiting the public library more often instead of buying new books. We go out to dollar theaters instead of amassing a DVD collection.
And because we support local, neighborhood-specific coffee shops more frequently, we are exposed to more neighborhood culture (like poetry groups, volunteer opportunities, and open mic nights) and opportunities to share resources, such as the Portland Tool Library, where you can check out home and garden tools for free instead of buying them from Home Depot/China.
I knew already that residents of walkable neighborhoods benefit from lower crime rates and lower carbon emissions, but I found these secondary social effects from a recent report especially interesting: increased sense of belonging and local pride, and increased volunteerism. It’s true! Studies show that for every ten minutes taken out of your daily commute, you are 10% more likely to get involved in a community activity.
Unfortunately, walkability is often tightly linked with gentrification. New property developments all over the country focus primarily on live/work lofts, which are great for walkability but often cost WAY MORE than a young person or new family could ever afford.
On average, each 10-point increase in walkability adds $100 per month to apartment rents. Our rent went up by $200 per month as a result of the move, and I know that not everyone can sustain that kind of a rent increase -- we couldn’t either, which is why I got a second job.
Was it worth it? Oh, yeah. It now takes me about seven minutes to walk to school and 12 minutes to walk to work, and I’m a slooowww walker. My partner, who prefers to bike, can wake up 20 minutes before work and still be on time, which is probably my favorite side effect of moving to a walkable neighborhood -- MORE CUDDLING!!!!!!
The easiest way to check your neighborhood’s walkability is to check out WalkScore.com, a site that gives every neighborhood a numerical walkability value. Portland’s WalkScore is just behind much, much larger cities like Boston and Seattle, and young people flock here in search of that lifestyle.
But that is a short-term solution at best. We can't all move to Portland -- in fact, Portland has an urban growth boundary that protects our forests and limits metropolitan development. Long term, we are going to need strong social warriors who are willing to instigate nationwide conversations about walkability and insist that their local governments address walkability in their 20- and 30-year urban plans.
My dream for the future is that as more and more young people demand change and walkability, like San Franciscans did last year, more and more cities will take heed and work with responsible urban planners and developers to establish a conscientious plan for progress.
If you’re interested in reading more about this topic, check out Jeff Speck’s “Walkable City: How Downtown Can Save America, One Step at a Time” and this PDF. It’s a scavenger-hunt-style checklist that you can follow as you explore your neighborhood.
And if you are ruminating on any kind of major lifestyle change for 2013, consider this: if I dangled an extra-long hair ribbon out my window and slid down it, I’d be inside a world-famous ice cream shoppe, next door to an artisanal chocolaterie. And progress just doesn’t get much better than that.