Tagplaces

People want more walkability and property developers can make it happen

Columbus Commons

The Columbus Commons in the tationty center. Photo by Brandon Bartoszek

This is my favorite part of Sam Schwartz’s book “Street Smart” so far. You’ll find it on page 117 following a discussion of Walk Score, a tool used mostly by realtors that measures “walkability” of any place in American cities based on the location and diversity of services, shops, and amenities nearby.

Every way you slice the data confirms that what all the polls say is true: people want more walkability.

Why, then, is there so little of it?

Why is there such a mismatch between the supply of, and the demand for, walkable neighborhoods?

Is it because, as one observer wrote, “Americans would like to live in places that don’t really exist”?

Do you live in a walkable place? Answer, and then check your Walk Score. I’m curious to know if they match.

Schwartz answers these questions with “not really”.

They want to live in places that do exist, but there are far too few of them.

Schwartz mentions that the housing prices in the most walkable cities – San Francisco, Washington, D.C., and New York City – are so expensive, but being walkable is what makes them the “coolest” cities.

Higher Walk Scores positively correlate with higher housing prices, “which is a problem”, Schwartz says.

[It’s] also an opportunity. By definition, only a few neighborhoods can be the coolest places to live. But that doesn’t mean we can’t make everywhere cooler.

Many pages later Schwartz describes how one city attempted to get property developers to make their proposed buildings or complexes more receptive to walking and biking (active transportation).

Columbus, Ohio, needed to lose some body weight. The city’s sprawling nature contributed to 59 percent of adults being obese or overweight, and 38 percent of children in the third grade (here’s the citation).

The Columbus Healthy Places program was formed in 2006 and implemented by the transportation and public health departments. Here’s one of the strategies they undertook to affect the built environment.

[The transportation and public health officials] persuaded the [buildings] department to grant them an opportunity to comment on all requests from developers to rezone a particular bit of land.

With that opportunity, Schwartz explained on page 133, they proposed that developments with shopping centers, bus stops, schools, park, libraries, drugstores, or grocery stores, within half a mile of residences, “include a suite of active transportation elements” like bike parking, connections to bike lanes and trails, and wider sidewalks.

It worked, he said. Before the program only seven percent of projects requesting a zoning change included active transportation elements, but after it was reviewed by the Columbus Healthy Places managers it “jumped” to 64 percent.

Can we use location-based services to make urban planning “rise”?

Facebook launched a feature called Places that allows its users to “check in” to Places and to see where their friends are. People can also see where the most popular venue is at any given time (provided they have friends there).

SeeClickFix has mobile apps (and a website) that enables users (in participating locales) to report issues (like graffiti and potholes) in their neighborhoods.

Augmented reality apps for smartphones overlay the virtual world (of yellow pages and restaurant reviews) on the physical world depending on where you point your phone’s camera.

Is there something (an app, a concept, a teaching) that we can develop that uses these apps or the same technology to raise awareness of “urban planning” in all of our cities’ citizens? Such a scheme would attempt to educate and involve more people into the city’s social, cultural and built environments, the urban fabric (buzzword alert!), as well as the history of their surroundings.

Possible scenarios

1. While riding the train through a neighborhood, the new location-based service that encompasses everything about urban planning might aggregate information relevant to the location and activity. Perhaps the application would display to the user information about the history of this particular elevated train’s construction on this branch as well as pull up information on upcoming schedule changes. Lastly, the transit operator may ask the user to take a survey about this particular trip, looking for information on how the user accessed the station (via bike, walking, car, or bus?).

2. My friend Brandon Souba created a proof-of-concept app called Handshake that tells you about nearby app users with similar interests. But this hardly raises civic or urban awareness. Maybe non-profit organizations who need volunteers could create profiles in Handshake and when you’re near a staff member or the headquarters, your phone alerts you to a possible volunteer opportunity.

3. What are your ideas?

Your city’s Schelling point

Not a selling point, but a Thomas Schelling point. Also known as focal point, a segment of game theory. Without communicating, how will two people make the same choice?

To illustrate (based on Thomas Schelling’s own example, and Yuri Artibise, who inspired this post), I ask you this question:

If I called you and asked you to meet me in downtown [your city] in an hour and then my phone’s battery died, where would we meet?

Yuri said “According to Adam [Greenfield], most cities have Schelling points, because, without effective communication between people (i.e., cell phones), meeting places ultimately converge on a couple of high visibility—and usually iconic—destinations.”

Seattleites, might you meet your friend at the Central Library in Seattle, Washington? Photo by Dolan Halbrook.

It seems for New Yorkers, the traditional answer has been at the information booth in the Grand Central Station main hall. Yuri suggests that “there is nothing inherent about Grand Central Station that makes a particularly desirable meeting place.”

Schelling’s theory explains why people might pick the same location. Contributors to the “focal point” article on Wikipedia write this:

Consider a simple example: two people unable to communicate with each other are each shown a panel of four squares and asked to select one; if and only if they both select the sameone, they will each receive a prize. Three of the squares are blue and one is red. Assuming they each know nothing about the other player, but that they each do want to win the prize, then they will, reasonably, both choose the red square. Of course, the red square is not in a sense a better square; they could win by both choosing any square. And it is the “right” square to select only if a player can be sure that the other player has selected it; but by hypothesis neither can. It is the most salient, the most notable square, though, and lacking any other one most people will choose it, and this will in fact (often) work.

The destination choice should change with context. If you were to meet a classmate on campus, you might meet in the building where the class you share meets.

Placemaking roundup

A roundup of recent posts on the blogosphere about attempts at placemaking. While engineers, planners, designers, and architects can spend time and money on making a place, only its users have the authority to call it one. How will these “places” fare?

  • Disney will be revamping its stores to match the Apple Stores’ level of attraction and attention by no longer placing the attention on toys, but more on experience and interaction. “Imagination Park” from Brand Avenue.
  • A team led by MIT researchers entered a competition to build a new, permanent, tourist attraction to be built for and after the 2012 Olympics in London. Visitors would ascend one of two 400-foot towers and watch the city from inside plastic bubbles, while on the face of the bubbles, a “mood barometer” would be projected. Read deeper into the project’s beginnings and the people behind “The Cloud” on City of Sound.
  • Two new parks (or plazas?) open in downtown Chicago, Illinois, and both feature boxed up lawns. This new “park” phenomenon helps Lynn Becker refine the definition of a park.
  • Council on Tall Buildings and Urban Habitat changes “tall buildings” standards to now include lowest pedestrian entrance. The result: Trump Tower now taller than Jin Mao Building in Shanghai, China. Burj Dubai still world’s tallest: “John Hancock Center stacked atop Sears Tower.”

Photo of typeset as seating in Printers’ Row Park in Chicago, Illinois. See item three below.

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