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40 percent of Americans believe their neighborhoods are not walkable

Kaid Benfield

Posted October 3, 2013 in Health and the Environment, Living Sustainably

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  walking (courtesy of the Walkable and Livable Communities Institute)

79 percent of Americans believe they should walk more, but forty percent say they do not do so because their neighborhoods do not have nearby services, shops, schools and work, according to a national survey released this week

The lack of nearby walkable destinations ranks as the second most often cited reason for not walking.  The survey found that the biggest neighborhood barriers to walking include a lack of sidewalks, drivers who speed, and drivers who talk on their phones or text.  Crime ranks eighth overall out of 15 items as a neighborhood barrier to walking, but it ranks 5th among both African Americans and Hispanic respondents compared to 12th among white respondents.

The survey of 1,224 Americans nationwide was commissioned by Kaiser Permanente and conducted by GfK Custom Research.  Assisting in the design of the questionnaire and analysis of the data were Professors Peter Tuckel and William Milczarski of Hunter College, City University of New York.  All interviewing took place August 5th to August 13th, 2013.

While six in 10 Americans describe their neighborhood as “walkable,” individuals who live in more walkable neighborhoods (“with places where it is convenient to walk to services, shopping, schools and jobs”) do, in fact, walk more.  Four in 10 describe their neighborhood as “not very” or “not at all walkable.”  A majority of Americans do not choose their neighborhood based on its perceived walkability, however.

These findings were presented at yesterday’s session of the National Walk Summit in Washington, DC, which I attended.  Christopher Fleury of GfK added at the meeting that a slim majority of the respondents support smart growth measures, including smaller home lots, to promote walkability.

Seattle (courtesy of Walk Friendly Communities)Although Americans don’t walk as much as they believe they should, an overwhelming majority recognize that walking brings significant benefits.  Nationwide, 94 percent of those surveyed said they view walking as good for their health.  At least nine in 10 agreed that walking is a good way to lose weight, maintain a healthy weight and can help prevent heart disease.  In addition, 73 percent said they believe their children should walk more.  (For a good summary of the many benefits of walking, go here.)

Americans also view walking as a good way to reduce stress and combat depression.  More than eight in 10 respondents said that walking can reduce feelings of depression and 87 percent said walking helps reduce anxiety.

While the survey findings are encouraging to those of us who believe that land use factors are important to a healthy lifestyle, at least two audience members cautioned that, in their parts of the country, “walkability” was perceived as threatening to those who prefer suburban lifestyles.  They advised that advocates should guard against using “walkable” as code for “high density.”

Although it was surprising to me that even “walkable” is now on the list of threatening planners’ jargon, I do think the fear of high density is real.  Those of us who live and work in big cities can get a distorted view of what is desirable.  I think advocates need to get serious about supporting moderate-density alternatives in appropriate situations, along with neighborhood design measures that can soften the otherwise harsh effects of density. 

Indeed, the research demonstrates that most of the environmental benefits of smart growth – including reduced automobile dependence and reduced stormwater runoff per capita – do not require high densities:  the biggest performance improvements come at the lower end of the scale, as we move from large-lot sprawl to moderate degrees of compactness and, by the time we reach 40 to 50 units per acre, further environmental performance improvements are relatively insignificant.  A dialogue about these issues is largely missing from the current discourse around smart growth, and that is unfortunate.

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Kaid Benfield writes about community, development, and the environment on Switchboard and in the national media.  For more posts, see his blog's home page.  For more posts, see his blog's home page. Kaid’s forthcoming book, People Habitat: 25 Ways to Think About Greener, Healthier Cities, will be released in January.

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Comments

Scott RanvilleOct 4 2013 09:35 PM

I really like the paragraph:
Although it was surprising to me that even “walkable” is now on the list of threatening planners’ jargon, ... get serious about supporting moderate-density alternatives in appropriate situations, along with neighborhood design measures that can soften the otherwise harsh effects of density.

However, the subsequent statement that moderate density is 40-50 units per acre seems off to me. My experience is that families live in the suburbs and in my neck of the woods it seems like there are roughly 4 people per house. I realize that official national statistics may have different average household sizes for suburbs. A typical suburb has ~4 houses per acre, or 16 people per acre. At 40 units per acre, that puts 160 people per acre. I doubt that most suburbanites would call 160 people per acre the suburbs, but rather urban living. I still think that this "moderate" definition of density is way too high.

Mr. Benfield, we were greatly inspired by your previous post on Pocket Neighborhoods and used this to inspire us to create our "Denver Metro City Design Competition". This is for high school students to design a pocket neighborhood consisting of single family residents. So far, we have had significant positive feedback from anti-density suburbanites. To me, the 6-10 units per acre (~1.5-2.5 times increase in density) offered by a pocket neighborhood is much more realistic than the 10 fold increase to 40 units per acre.

One of our research projects is designing a Pocket Neighborhood that is not limited to just single family houses. Our first pass design has 6 family sized houses, 4 patio/cottage homes, 1 group house (aka Golden Girls house) for 4-5 people, and 2 single family looking houses consisting of 4 "micro" units each on 1.5 acres. If you count the group house as 4 units, this would mean 22 units/1.5 acres or roughly 14 units per acre. This would be a 3.5 times increase in density while providing hopefully acceptable options for all ages and states in life from just out of college to mid life with small kids to empty nester to "young old" and "old old" seniors.

T. CaineOct 11 2013 04:06 PM

I agree with Scott's comment above. 40-50 units per acre is no longer even close to suburban development. It could not facilitate detached homes and would be what many people consider "urban" (not that I agree with that definition).

That being said, I do think that this is the level of density that we should be pushing for more often in order to end up with examples that are actually walkable, not just more walkable than suburbs--a low bar to surmount.

In order for a neighborhood to really be walkable, I think people have to be able to walk to their basic needs: grocery store, pharmacy, cafe (school & work are icing on the cake). At 10 units an acre, could enough people be within walking distance to a grocery store to actually sustain the stores business? I'm a little skeptical.

I would argue that designers need to do a better job of making the pitch for what kinds of spatial opportunities are available by sculpting the mass of connected buildings rather than detached homes. These could include private gardens, common interior courtyards, roof terraces... We have the tools to create a more interesting, higher density choice than the standard developer special.

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Switchboard is the staff blog of the Natural Resources Defense Council, the nation’s most effective environmental group. For more about our work, including in-depth policy documents, action alerts and ways you can contribute, visit NRDC.org.

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