For cities looking to attract talent, boost business and enhance quality of life, walkability is becoming a key initiative. More communities than ever are looking for ways to increase foot traffic to downtown districts and key gathering spots, and make roadways more appealing to pedestrians and cyclists.
The government has even begun to reward cities for focusing on this. With its new livability emphasis, the U.S. Department of Transportation has been giving out lots of grants lately for pedestrian-friendly projects that offer alternatives to driving. And recently the EPA released guidelines encouraging urban planners to consider accessibility for pedestrians and cyclists in street designs.
Regions with cultural, recreational and quality of life assets to promote are also using walkability to their advantage. Michigan, for instance, often gets a bad rep as a less than desirable place to live and work, but cities throughout the state are banding together to create walkable urban centers, which they see as key to drawing new jobs and investment.
Elements of the Walkable City
So what makes a city walkable? From densely packed cities to lightly populated rural towns, that varies, but they all share a few common qualities, as noted in this AARP blog post on walkability. Some of those include:
•Pedestrian-friendly design. Walkable cities accommodate pedestrians just as much as cars and incorporate elements such as tree-lined promenades or bike lanes into street plans.
•Nature-friendly feel. Roads located near trees, woods, streams, ponds, lakes or rivers or that connect with trails, parks, green spaces or ecological areas are common in the most walkable cities and invite residents to venture down them.
•Authentic ambiance. Well-designed walkable areas reflect a sense of place and capture the community’s character, whether it’s a historic downtown full of restored buildings or architecture distinctive to the region, or green space tucked among local landmarks.
•Attraction-oriented. The most effective walkable areas actually go somewhere and link to a destination with things to do, see or experience. Whether it’s a road to a park, theater, restaurant or shopping district, it should lead to a place reachable within 5 to 10 minutes and offer enough diversity along the way to stimulate.
Cities Embracing Walkability
Waco, TX is becoming known for its walkable downtown, which it uses to attract Baylor graduates, young professionals and business owners, and encourage them to settle there. Its 6-mile riverwalk along the Brazos River attracts hikers and cyclists, and the city is currently developing space for riverfront restaurants, shops and residential lofts.
Already a popular spot with cyclists for its rolling hills, Dalton, Ga. is using that natural advantage to bring more people downtown, with a $10 million greenway under construction that will connect its business district to biking, hiking and running trails. Nearby, Chattanooga recently extended its popular riverwalk and developed a 2,800-acre nature park with 10 miles of trails next to the city’s new Volkswagen facility to encourage activity among plant employees.
Wichita is already known for drawing a crowd downtown with its its brick, tree-lined historic neighborhoods, mid-town condos and riverfront trails leading to local attractions. City leaders hope to build on that with downtown development plans that include improved streetscaping, designated biking lanes, more transit options and an interpretive history area featuring storytelling and street performances.
In Nashville, which recently made economist Richard Florida’s list of “Most Walkable Metros,” city leaders are focusing not only on developing more greenways, but also raising awareness among residents about pedestrian-friendly places. The city’s NashVitality program publicizes the numerous walking, running and biking options around town, and its free GreenBikes service allows anyone age 18 and older to borrow a bicycle for the day.
How walkable is your city? Check out Walk Score’s walkability rankings to see how your city measures up to others across the U.S.