Sunday, October 17, 2010

Walk Score

Click image to enlarge.

This is the first of several posts I will write about the recently completed 2010 American Institute of Architects Northwest & Pacific Region Conference – An Emerald Vision – held in Eugene, October 13-16.The conference was hosted by AIA-Southwestern Oregon. As a member of the conference steering committee, I was awed by the efforts of my committee colleagues and the contributions they made to the unequivocal success of the event.

Do you know your Walk Score? Prior to the start of the 2010 AIA Northwest & Pacific Region Conference I was unaware of my mine. I know I wasn’t alone among the 260-plus conference attendees in this regard.

Walk Score and More” was the name of the first session on the last day of the Region Conference. It was intended to be one of the “Tables” events, a panel discussion involving several of our speakers.(1) Unfortunately, only Alan Durning, Executive Director of the Sightline Institute was available to participate.(2) He is an outstanding and highly entertaining speaker, so the fact that the “panel” was minus two thirds of its roster did not detract from an interactive discussion with the audience. Alan was ably accompanied by AIA-SWO’s own executive director Don Kahle, himself no slouch when it comes to being a provocateur or engaging an audience.

The website allows anyone in America to measure the walkability of his or her neighborhood, using Google maps and other sources to determine how easily a resident or office worker might be able to dash over to get a sandwich or a book without driving their car.

Walk Score is a number between 0 and 100:
  • 90–100 is a Walker's Paradise — Daily errands do not require a car.
  • 70–89 is considered Very Walkable — Most errands can be accomplished on foot.
  • 50–69 is Somewhat Walkable — Some amenities are within walking distance.
  • 25–49 is Car-Dependent — A few amenities are within walking distance.
  • 0–24 is Totally Car-Dependent — Almost all errands require a car.
The idea behind the site and the company, Walk Score, which was launched in July 2007, is to promote walkable neighbourhoods as "one of the simplest and most effective solutions to halt climate change, improve our health and strengthen our communities." Walk Score’s vision is for every property listing to read: "Beds: 3 Baths: 2 Walk Score: 84." The company wants walkability and transportation costs to be a key part of choosing where to live.

Economists and realtors are just now learning how to use new tools like this to shape behavior or to measure the likelihood that behaviors will change. For example, it’s becoming clear that properties with a high Walk Score retain their value better than those with a low score.

The creators of Walk Score (3) were directly inspired by Alan Durning, particularly by the blog he wrote during his year of living “car-lessly.”

My conference name badge with my Walk Score.

One of the more inspired moves made by the conference steering committee was to provide everyone in attendance with his or her Walk Score. It did this by placing the number on each person’s name badge. The intention was to get people talking – and it worked. Attendees compared their respective Walk Scores, even before they completely understood what they meant. The numbers “broke the ice” between those who did not know one another, serving as a point of immediate commonality for those otherwise with little in common aside from a shared love for architecture.(4)

My home’s Walk Score is 65, classified as “Somewhat Walkable.” My office, located downtown, boasts a Walk Score of 98, placing it in the midst of a “Walker’s Paradise.” A surprising number of conference attendees could likewise boast high Walk Scores. This was no doubt because many listed their office addresses when they registered for the conference. Architects – being urban life-loving creatures – tend to locate their practices in the vibrant, interesting, and walkable neighborhoods.

Conversely, the Walk Score of many of our fellow Americans is an indication of how car-dependent our society has become. As architects – as leaders in the shaping of our built environment – we must encourage our clients whenever we can to appreciate the suprising benefits of walkable communities to our health, our finances, and our communities. This means offering guidance in the selection of sites and acting as advocates for compact growth.

One of the unintended benefits of Walk Score may be to serve as an adjunct to the LEED rating system by providing a means to further validate a project’s sustainability. I’ve seen too many LEED-certified projects hailed for their “green” design that are only accessible by automobile. How sustainable is that? By factoring into the equation a project’s proximity to the core of a walkable community, we may come closer to certification of true sustainability.

In his earlier address on Friday evening in the Soreng Theater at the Hult Center for the Performing Arts, Alan Durning challenged our gathering to not rest until the rest of the world conforms to the principles of sustainability we espouse. He asserted that we’re on the cusp of an era of a new materialism – a simpler, less expensive, yet richer and greener future.

Alan enlisted all of us in his crusade for the development of compact, pedestrian-friendly communities. He has deputized us. It’s time to walk the walk.

(1) We fashioned the conference schedule to almost always have a distinguished speaker giving a lecture, an intriguing panel hosting a roundtable discussion, or a respected colleague leading a tour. “Talks, Tables, and Tours” became a useful mnemonic for understanding the organization of our conference.

(2) Joe Cortright, president and principal economist for Impresa, and Shelley Poticha, senior advisor for sustainable housing and communities to the Obama administration, were intended to be the other two panelists. They, along with Alan Durning, are members of Walk Score’s board of advisors.

(3) Walk Score is a division of Front Seat, a civic software company.

(4) Conference attendees reflected the vastness and incredible diversity of the Northwest & Pacific Region, which encompasses Oregon, Washington, Idaho, Montana, Alaska, Hawaii, Japan, Hong Kong, Guam, and Micronesia.

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mrs random said...

My score (home address) was 85. I was surprised it wasn't higher, given the number of businesses around.

Salem Breakfast on Bikes said...

I am glad to read your reflections on walkscore and sustainability/LEED! Here in Salem one of the great disconnects is between the green building of the Kroc Center, which you recognized earlier this year in the Salem AIA awards, and its utter strandedness in an industrial wasteland to which virtually no parent would ever let their child walk or bike. It's focused on kids, but totally car-dependent. There are numerous variations on this kind of disconnect around the country.

Also, we have a "green" building, Courthouse Square, that is 10 years old, recently abandoned, and seems likely to be demolished. Lifecycle costs and maintenance seem like inputs that LEED doesn't fully attend to.

Thanks for thinking about these things!