Friday, May 17, 2013

Walkability is all about shopping

Two things are needed to build a successful walkable neighbourhood. People and places from them to go. As I’ve been travelling across North America over the years, I’ve noticed how communities have succeeded and failed at building walkable neighbourhoods.

One of the things that many communities thought and still think is that sprucing up the sidewalks, installing fancy lighting, placing elegant street furniture, and putting up flower baskets and banner will build walkable neighbourhoods. Some planner call this: bricks, baskets, banners, and benches. I’ve now seen dozens of examples of communities that have tried this and failed. The other thing I noticed is that residential-only buildings and office-only buildings (whether high-rises or suburban) do not create walkable communities. While sprucing up an area with the four B’s is something worth doing, it really should take a back seat to several thing which I've observed that seem to be key in creating a walkable neighbourhoods.

The first key thing is that people must feel safe. If a neighbourhood has a real or perceived crime problem, the first order of business is to make the neighbourhood feel safe. There are many examples of how to do this including having a visible police presence, making sure that perceived signs of crime like graffiti and tagging are removed, and removing or renovating run-down buildings.

The second key is creating a ground-level retail wall along some key corridors. When you look at any successful walkable neighbourhood, there is always a shopping street within an easy 10 minute walk. The important thing about these shopping streets are that they need to pretty much be a continuous line of retail shops, services, coffee shops, and restaurants. Too many surface parking lots, empty lots, office-only or residential-only buildings, and blank wall and walkability will be killed in the area. I've seen this first-hand.

The third key is that there needs to be a sufficient density of people who live within walking distance of the shopping corridors. I’ve seen a few ways of doing this, but they all seem to be a combination of having apartments (and offices) above the shops in the corridors (anything 4 storeys and up seems to work), and apartments on the side streets around the retails corridors. Between the retail corridors, there should also be a mix of all housing types (including single-family homes), parks, and schools as long as there is a critical mass of potential walkers.

The fourth key is to make sure that the retail corridors are filled with shops and services that people want to go to. It seems that getting the right mix of residential housing types is easy, but much harder to build and retain is ground-level retail. Municipalities must play a role in helping a walkable neighbourhood become established by incentivizing business to locate along the retail corridors. This could mean working with the development community to making it economically advantageous to build ground-level retail. It could also mean subsidizing lease rates or taxes rates to lower the cost of business for retailers in the corridors until the area becomes established. Communities throughout North America have done this successfully, including Vancouver where they basically gave away retail space in the Woodward's Building in the Downtown Eastside that has now attracted other businesses to locate in the area and uplift the whole community economically.

The key to building a walkable region, starts with building walkable neighbourhoods. And from my first-hand observations from going to regions throughout North America, having ground-level retail corridors that front the street seems to be the key.

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