Walkability, Walkability, Walkability.

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As I work with clients, each unique in their preferences and must-haves, the term I hear most often these days is “walkability.”

It may not be first on the list, but it always seems to make the list. “Stacy, we want an urban city feel, where we can walk at to a variety of coffee shops, grocery stores, restaurants and maybe a bookstore or library within a couple of blocks. We must have walkability.” Or, “You know, we really need quiet and solitude, tree-lined streets, hiking trails nearby— a real neighborhood feel — and it must be walkable.” The personalized definition of walkability, it would seem, runs the gamut and, according to what I’ve been hearing from my many clients, should be ubiquitous regardless of a neighborhoods level of urbanization.

Well, of course we want it all. Or do we?
At first, this seemed like a case of wanting to “have your cake and eat it too.” But, the more clients I talk to, and the more questions I ask of my clients, the more I’ve come to realize that walkability isn’t always about the “walk score” or how urban planners define it. Like beauty is in the eye of the beholder, walkability is in the experience of the journey (and destination) of the walker. Anyway, that’s what I’ve come to think.

But enough about what I’ve come to surmise. Here’s how walkability is defined by Wikipedia.

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Walkability is a measure of how friendly an area is to walking. Walkability has many health, environmental, and economic benefits. Factors influencing walkability include the presence or absence and quality of footpaths, sidewalks or other pedestrian rights-of-way, traffic and road conditions, land use patterns, building accessibility, and safety, among others. Walkability is an important concept in sustainable urban design.

One proposed definition for walkability is: “The extent to which the built environment is friendly to the presence of people living, shopping, visiting, enjoying or spending time in an area”.

For some, I’d argue, a more fitting definition of walkability is found in the dictionary, where a walkable area is “capable of being traveled, crossed, or covered by walking: a walkable road; a walkable distance.”

You need to define it for yourself.

The bottom line is, when you are looking for a new home and exploring neighborhoods, I think it’s important to determine what walkability or a walkable neighborhood is for you. I ask my clients the following questions (among about a gazillion others) to get them thinking about what it is they really want:

  • If you want walkable proximity to retail and restaurants, how far would you be willing and able to walk?
  • Do you really need/want to do all your shopping in your neighborhood — what is it you really want? For me, it’s a great coffee/breakfast place where I can feel like a regular and a decent grocery store with fresh fruits and vegies I can run out to if I need a few items.
  • Does walkability mean strolling through a serene neighborhood, feeling safe, comfortable and at peace?
  • Is it the journey or the destination that matters most?

And I always ask them to prioritize. If you want a happening “sense of town” with retail, restaurants and a New Seasons, and you don’t want crazy-busy and hard-to-park you’ll probably need to be willing to walk a little further to reach that coffee-food-shopping mecca.

Having said more than enough about walkability, my next post will talk about Portland’s close-in walkable neighborhoods. Hint: I merge livability and walkability and will include Portland neighborhoods that don’t always make the top ten. But, for now, I need… err, want… to walk about 2 miles to grab a coffee.

Stacy Butchart