Happy SMART Day Everyone!
Until recently, very few of us purchased a home or rented a house based upon its “walkability score.” But that might be changing. With increased emphasis on the benefits of living in a home where you can walk to community services like libraries, schools and shopping—plus increasing legislation which promotes sustainable regional growth strategies for both housing and transportation—attitudes may be shifting. In fact, as more people attempt to embrace a more SMART and eco-friendly lifestyle, walkability is proving to be one of the best “steps” on the way to going green.
What is walkability? Simply stated, walkability is a measure of how friendly an area is to walking. Another way to describe it is the way in which any neighborhood is welcoming, convenient and safe to the presence of people as they live, shop, visit, play, walk or spend time. On the flip side, we’ve all been in places that aren’t walkable at all—and that includes much of the Coachella Valley where I live. Actually, most residential neighborhoods in our desert communities require the use of the automobile in order to travel to work, use community services, go shopping or visit other conveniences.
One of the problems is that public sentiment and conventional transportation planning tend to undervalue walking. When you think about it, our society, has increasingly considered walking as an old-fashioned, outdated and inefficient mode of getting around. Instead, we’ve grown to believe that speed, convenience and comfort are the highest options available. The “speed” model assumes that slower methods are trivial, and even lower class. But it’s time to consider the opposite. After all, would you rather lose your ability to drive or your ability to walk? Not driving can be inconvenient; but not walking touches every aspect of life.
There are a couple of reasons that walking should be high on our scale of value. According to a study written by Todd Alexander Litman and the Victoria Transport Policy Institute, “Walking is a fundamental activity for physical and mental health…It is a social and recreational activity. Environments that are conducive to walking are conducive to people.” He also believes that walking is a critical component to all transportation because it is a necessary element to and between all modes of transportation from buses, to railroads, to cars to planes. Litman explains in his study that if walking “between” modes of transportation was considered, then walking would take on an increased importance in all planning and improve its worth immediately.
Fortunately, this study and others like it are now showing those with political clout that walkability has a measurable economic value to individuals and communities beyond even the most obvious. To begin with, studies show consumer savings to be substantial. Not only do people save a considerable amount if they use their car less, they also tend to have fewer vehicles. If people don’t drive as much, fewer and smaller roads are necessary, maintenance and parking facilities are reduced and so on and so forth.
But that’s just the beginning of the benefits. Walkability enhances the efficiency of land use and makes commercial areas more attractive and competitive, by creating and keeping jobs in a local area. The “livability” of a community is enhanced and that tends to improve business activity and consumer preference.
Another obvious benefit is the health impact. Recent studies of obesity in the United States go hand-in-hand with a culture that is detached from walking. Fortunately, a report done by Litman in 2009 shows that urban design improvements can not only increase the walking activity in a neighborhood, they can also save the community a great deal of money in the area of reduced health costs. Litman says, “of people with a safe places to walk within ten minutes of home, 43% achieve recommended activity levels compared to just 27% who lack safe places to walk.” His study reveals a statistically significant association between improved walkability and more walking and cycling activity, lower body mass index (BMI) and lower hypertension. Litman also shows that “people living in more walkable neighborhoods are more likely to walk for at least 10 minutes daily and are less likely to be obese than those living in less walkable areas, regardless of age, income or gender.”
From an environmental perspective, research shows that emissions of air pollutants and greenhouse gases increase with every vehicle mile driven. It also shows the direct association between asthma and air quality, as well as life expectancy. By reducing traffic and encouraging walking and biking, we significantly improve the quality of our air and directly cut greenhouse gases.
Last but not least, a walkable neighborhood increases the “livability” of a community. High livability means increased desirability and increased property values. A study by Joseph Cortright in 2009 estimates that a home with a high walkability score is actually worth between $3,000 and $34,000 more than a comparable home in a neighborhood with a low score. In a time of declining property values, the economic reality of walkability is heartening.
Two years ago, Thom and I decided to purchase a home that fit our growing understanding of living a more green and sustainable life. Part of the process was listing those elements that we felt were essential to our new lifestyle. Much to our surprise, a desire for a very walkable neighborhood took a high priority. Once we decided that walkability was a critical factor, we narrowed our search to properties within a 10-minute walk to a variety of services, shops and conveniences. Luckily, for us, the area around Old Town La Quinta offered both walkability, and homes in our desired price range.
What does it mean to live in a walkable neighborhood? Within five to fifteen minutes Thom and I can walk to three different community parks, to both the La Quinta Library, Senior Center and City Hall, two grocery stores, over fifteen places to eat, three banks, Ace Hardware (Thom really likes that one!), two coffee houses, a Post Office, and the La Quinta Museum. There are also hiking pathways, sidewalks, playgrounds, a dog park and a community pool. Even though we purposely downsized to live in this area, we already consider our location to be a considerable offset gain to the square footage of our previous home.
How do you find your walkability score? In the last several years, several websites have popped up to help you evaluate the quality of the walking in your neighborhood. The main site, www.walkscore.com provides a score for your address based upon what it considers to be neighborhood benefits. Another website, ratemystreet.org allows you to review your street or check other potential neighborhoods. There is also a “walkability checklist” for cities and communities at www.walkableamerica.org . All offer information and suggestions about increasing the value of walking.
Moving upwards into a sizable home on a large lot in a gated community or far out in the suburbs used to be a highly enviable and desirable reflection of happiness and success in our society. Regrettably, that goal lead to many of the problems we now face in our country. Or, as said by Bill McKibben in his new book “eaarth,” “Access to endless amounts of cheap energy made us rich, and wrecked our climate, and it also made us the first people on earth who had no practical need of our neighbors.” Striving toward greater walkability in our future might bring us closer to our communities, as well as make our bodies and our climate healthier at the same time.
“If you seek creative ideas go walking. Angels whisper to a man when he goes for a walk.” ~Raymond I. Myers
“Home is everything you can walk to.” ~ Rebecca Solnit
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