Urban planner Jeff Speck equates dense, well-built and walkable cities with economic growth, environmental resilience and a safer, more livable life. In his book Walkable City he provides plenty of evidence to prove it.
This week I visited Edgewater, a small city (population 5,000) enveloped by the urban fabric that is Metro Denver. It is medium income, has diverse ethnic groups and comprises mixed residential with a commercial street of a few blocks. It is close to what Speck describes.
From a city map it is undistinguished from surrounding Denver suburbs, until you look at its crime.
As the map above shows, except for a few crimes, its crime rate is far below surrounding neighborhoods particularly one crime hotspot to the north.
The question is why? Urban design is not the only reason, but as I’ve shown in blogs on permeability in Langley and High Line Park in Manhattan, it can matter a great deal.
PLANNING AND URBAN DESIGN
Planning students learn about early movements to plan cities. One history textbook that some read is Land Use Planning from 1959. A phrase in that book is instructive:
“The unit of design in New Towns is no longer each separate lot, street or building; it is the whole community; a co-ordinated entity…beauty as well as convenience is produced by the rational relations of the individual parts…”
Unfortunately that philosophy did not survive. Instead, land hungry developers gobbled up huge swaths of city edges to build suburban sprawl, regional shopping malls, supersized box stores and pedestrian-hostile commercial strips.
The idea of planned and walkable neighborhoods was lost. But not, apparently, in Edgewater.
Edgewater clearly works - even the quiet afternoon when I visited had walkers for whom I had to wait before taking photos. There are no more cops here than elsewhere, yet people feel safe and comfortable while walking. Why does it work?
Speck says there are four ingredients to walkability: a reason to walk, a safe walk, a comfortable walk and something interesting to see and do. Edgewater seems to capture most of them.
The residential streets are narrow and tree-lined. Most of them are within a 15 minute walk of the mini-downtown. That downtown is neatly streetscaped and has diverse uses such as restaurants, coffee-shops, a local pub, and other amenities that provide locals a reason to come here. The downtown has only 4 blocks and they are short, about 75 feet each.
Shops are also easily walkable - the distance of one store to another, door-to-door, is no more than 15 feet. Street flower pots are planted by local school children, murals cover blank walls and street furniture, like angled benches, provides both interest and comfort.
THE ALTERNATIVE - THE LIZARD KING
Only a few blocks outside of Edgewater, in yet another pedestrian-hostile commercial strip, the automobile remerges as King. You can almost hear it holler: I am the Lizard King, I can do anything. (Apologies to Jim Morrison).
Here intersections are ugly and vast, speeds are high and walkers are treated like invaders. Such places force people to stay inside their car and avoid all social contact except during moments of road rage.
Speck says: "The worst idea we’ve ever had was suburban sprawl…the reorganization and creation of the landscape around the requirement for automobile use." We will probably need autos for a long time to come, but we need walkability even more. Let's get our priorities right.