Why Walkability Matters to Us

In Why I Walk, Kevin Klinkenberg writes, “creating better places to live can in turn improve our lives. And better places are places where we can walk.”

This statement perfectly captures the central belief that drives our work at Opticos Design, and over the last several years, we’ve watched with excitement as the the demand for walkable living has grown among everyone from millennials to baby boomers and city dwellers to suburbanites.

If you’ve been reading our blog for awhile, you know that we’ve written about walkability extensively and passionately, but today, we want to return to the basics and address some of the fundamental reasons walkability matters to us. It never hurts to revisit the reasons you love your work, right?

What type of walkability?

For the uninitiated, the trend toward walkability is sometimes misinterpreted as a movement motivated by a growing interest in physical health. After all, many physicians hold that walking is the single best form of exercise available, and we tend to agree. We’ve certainly seen evidence of the health benefits of walking in the communities where we work and among members of our own team. But walking solely for exercise, or recreational walking, is not what motivates and inspires us here at Opticos Design.

As designers and planners, we’re driven by a belief in the power of destinational walking, the act of walking to complete regular activities that take place in everyday life, with a specific end destination in mind. Walking 10-15 minutes to a restaurant for dinner with friends, to school with your children, or to the grocery store to pick up fresh produce are all examples of destinational walking, and it is this type of walking that can improve both individual lives and entire communities.

Destinational walkability decoded

So what factors contribute to destinational walkability? Most people think first about the proximity of uses and services. This is what Walk Score, the most well-known scoring system for walkability, measures. Walk Score looks for uses like drug stores, restaurants, workplaces, transit stops and grocery stores in close proximity to a given location and then ranks that location on a scale of 0 to 100 based on its number of nearby uses and services. Numbers on the lower end of the spectrum indicate that almost all activities require a car, while numbers on the higher end of the spectrum indicate that you can complete most or all daily errands and activities on foot.

Proximity of uses and services is highly important, but this factor alone is not enough to make a community desireable for those seeking destinational walkability. Walkable communities  must also present opportunities for high-quality, comfortable, and  interesting walks. There are many communities that have a large number of uses and services within walking distance of residential areas, but getting to these uses on foot is neither easy nor enjoyable. Your grocery store could be just across the street, but if you have to cross an 8-lane highway to get there, you’ll have a tough time making it on foot and will likely resort to your car. In communities where issues like these are prevalent, it is crucial to look for ways to create a greater number of safe, desireable opportunities to walk.

Walking makes an impact

Our belief in the importance of access to nearby uses/services and safe, enjoyable, walking routes for reaching them is what guides our work in communities around the world. Destinational walkability is the foundation for everything we do here at Opticos, from our downtown revitalization project in the small town of Kingsburg, California or our work in Gabon, Africa  to our work on planning and Form-Based Codes in Beaufort County, South Carolina and Cincinnati, Ohio.  It even inspires our architecture work and drives us to help our clients choose the best, most walkable locations for new residential and commercial developments.

We pursue destinational walkability with such passion simply because we believe it can help solve so many of the problems many individuals and communities face. Consider a few examples:

Problem: Climate change

Destinational walkability takes cars off the road, decreasing carbon emissions that are harmful to our environment. In fact, according to a study originally published in the Journal of the American Planning Association, “a 5% increase in the walkability of a neighborhood is associated with a per capita 32.1% increase in active travel, 6.5% fewer miles driven, 5.6% fewer grams of NOx emitted, and 5.5% fewer grams of volatile organic compounds (VOCs) emitted.”

Problem: Declining home values/Growing demand for walkable living

High destinational walkability has a notable impact on both commercial and residential real estate prices. A report from CEOs for Cities notes that “buyers paid premiums of 4 percent to 15 percent for otherwise similar houses located in new urbanist developments,” and notes “an additional one point improvement in average Walk Scores adds between $700 and $3,000 to the value of a typical house.”

Problem: Dementia and depression among our aging population

Between 2000 and 2030, the number of older adults over 65 years old is expected to double, and the Center for Disease Control reports that 15-20 percent of adults in this age group have experienced depression. It seems that destinational walkability can help. A study published in the Journal of The American Geriatric Society by Berke ME, et. al. found “a significant association between neighborhood walkability and depressive symptoms in older men.” Other pilot studies suggest that destinational walkability may impact cognition and even slow the onset of dementia among older adults.

And this just scratches the surface. Should you ever happen to encounter one of our team members at a social or professional event or in one of the walkable neighborhoods we live in, we could talk your ear off for hours about the many economic, social, environmental, lifestyle and public health benefits of destinational walkability, but we’re guessing we wouldn’t have to. If you’re like many Americans, you’re already convinced of the importance of walkable living, and are seeking more ways to incorporate walkability into your everyday life and the lives of your friends and neighbors.