A New Way To Look At The Quality Of Our Cities: Walk Appeal

Steve Mouzon is not an academic; he is an architect who looks at what is around him and tries to figure out why it works or why it doesn't. He once told me that "it's essential to be able to distill either the warm fuzzy we feel about something good, or the vague sense of unease about something harmful into a precise and incisive thought….. Once the insight is precise, it's necessary to tell the story in a way that is rational, compelling, and inspiring."

He did it a few years ago with his Original Green, and now has done it again with what he calls Walk Appeal. It turns a lot of conventional wisdom on its head, and makes a great deal of sense. Forgive the big block quote:

Walk Appeal promises to be a major new tool for understanding and building walkable places, and it explains several things that were heretofore either contradictory or mysterious. It begins with the assertion that the quarter-mile radius (or 5-minute walk,) which has been held up for a century as the distance Americans will walk before driving, is actually a myth.

© Steve Mouzon

Both images are at the same scale, and the yellow dashed line is a quarter-mile radius. On the left is a power center. As we all know, if you're at Best Buy and need to pick something up at Old Navy, there's no way you're walking from one store to another. Instead, you get in your car and drive as close as possible to the Old Navy front door. You'll even wait for a parking space to open up instead of driving to an open space just a few spaces away… not because you're lazy, but because it's such a terrible walking experience.

The image on the right is Rome. The circles are centered on the Piazza del Popolo (North is to the left) and the Green radius goes through the Vittorio Emanuele on the right. People regularly walk that far and then keep on walking without ever thinking of driving.

Steve then goes on to compare different urban forms, and suggests that people are willing to walk different distances in each; quite the distance in Rome and London, perhaps a hundred feet in a Power Center parking lot.
Uncharacteristically, he uses a planning term, Transect, which many will not be familiar with; It is a planning model developed by New Urbanist Andrés Duany and Steve should lose it. But that is my only complaint in the whole thing. Steve concludes that "Walk Appeal just might end up being one of the best economic development tools for walkable places." I agree. More at the Original Green.

Over at NRDC Switchboard, Kaid Benfield picks up on Steve's post and adds his own contribution. (See why I think these two writers are so important and what an influence they have been for me in A Valentine to Steve Mouzon and Kaid Benfield. Kaid writes:

Intuitively, I think he is on to something here. But it raises a lot of interesting questions that I think also deserve to be in the conversation. The most obvious, I suppose, is whether empirical research is consistent with the theory. I suspect it is, at least directionally, but one would like to base “a major new tool” on solid, proven facts.

Kaid appears to be concerned that there are so many variables that have to be taken into account and that can be very hard to quantify. He calls them " suggestions for architects and planners – a basket of techniques that a designer can draw from when designing streets and buildings, particularly areas with significant commercial presence -- more than “measurables,” as he calls them." Kaid concludes:

What I like best about the concept of walk appeal is the suggestion that a comfortable or pleasant walking distance is highly variable, and that part of the reason we choose to drive even short distances sometimes is that the experience of walking to them is so horrible. Steve has provided some useful new vocabulary and an interesting new frame through which we can evaluate streets and neighborhoods.

I’m all in on those ideas, and think Steve came upon a “Eureka!” moment when he found a way to articulate it. I’m going to keep reading – Steve’s writing is almost always engaging, and this time he has sparked a dialogue among his architect and planner friends, as well. But my hunch is that, for me at least, it is the idea of walk appeal that has power, and I would caution against getting too quantitative or definitive about its application.

This is going to be the start of a very interesting conversation. More at NRDC Switchboard.

Tags: Architecture | Cities | Urban Planning