What makes a walkable neighborhood?

U Street: Washington, DC

What makes a walkable neighborhood?

What makes you feel comfortable? Welcome? Safe? Both for people living in that neighborhood and others passing through.

The sociologist and urban planner William H Whyte spent decades researching what makes a walkable street. His findings were revolutionary in many regards. And often, he found peoples’ actions ran contrary to peoples’ perceived desires.

For instance, a wider sidewalk doesn’t necessarily correlate to a better walking street. People say they want space, but over and over, they flock towards crowded areas—with other people. (Think: Farmers Market.) Sidewalks should be wide enough, but not too wide. There’s a massive difference between overcrowding and density.

“What attracts people most, it would appear, is other people," Whyte concluded.

But a great neighborhood must be comprised of many great blocks of many great streets.

In my time in Madison, I’ve covered a lot of miles by foot. If not for the bus or my bike, I’d be walking everywhere. And what strikes me is that distance often has very little to do with how much I look forward to a walk.

I’d much rather take a 20 minute walk through an interesting, crowded neighborhood than a 10 minute walk down an empty stretch of blank walls and auto repair shops.

Take, for instance, a walk down East Washington Avenue anywhere west of the Yahara. This walk is sure to look much different in 10 years, but today it remains an often lonely stroll along six lanes of speeding traffic, low foreboding commercial or industrial buildings, parking lots and a smattering of old rental houses.  

I loathe this walk. Even though it's often a short trip for me, it's entirely unenjoyable. 

East Mifflin Street, at Blount

Just one block over is East Mifflin Street. Here you’ll find less space dedicated to cars and typically some heavier foot traffic. There are plenty of trees along the way and even a few shops that beckon you in. Still not a truly great walking experience, but much improved.

So what makes a great walk:

  1. Other people. Crowds make a street feel vibrant and they add a level of security.
  2. Limited road space. Here, the key is to focus on smaller streets, not necessarily fewer cars.
  3. Trees. Even in winter, trees give us shelter—both physically and emotionally.
  4. Easy building access. Even if you have no intention of entering a building, knowing you have access from the street is a powerfully welcoming feeling. A wall completely devoid of access from the street says: ‘Move faster, you’re not welcome here.’ Even residential buildings.
  5. Activity. Blocks and blocks of houses don’t generate a lot of sidewalk traffic. But shops and restaurants do. They also offer a sort of safe house. At least one commercial space every block or two always provides the "next safe destination” along the way.

So how do you get more people to walk? Create better neighborhoods for them to walk through: Embrace a pedestrian-first mentality. Create safe, welcoming buildings. And accept the reality that we like other people around us.