Walkability: The Killer App

The Beatles understood walkability and walked eight days a week.

There was a story in the Wall Street Journal last week that went viral.
The piece talked about how “walkability” has become the hot new rage in car-centric LA.

The reporter wrote about how walkable neighborhoods and developments are fetching higher prices and have become a top preference of baby boomers, millennials and just about anyone who can fork over a fortune on housing close to shops, dining and cultural amenities.
In other words, what we have in downtown Delray Beach.

Our walkability is not only desirable and unique in sprawling suburban South Florida it has created value for neighborhoods within striking (or golf cart) distance of the downtown.
And yet, while we as people value walkability for the quality it brings to our communities, we sure put up a fuss when it comes to enacting policies to enable it.

As a result, there is a shortage of such neighborhoods– not only in LA, but in Florida and all points in between. Because of a limited supply of walkable neighborhoods, everything from housing to commercial rents have skyrocketed in urbanized spaces.  It’s the simple law of supply and demand: when there is more demand than supply prices spike. Hence $100 rents on Atlantic Avenue and really high prices on downtown condos in Delray, Boca and yes LA.

So what’s all the fuss about?

Why can’t we enact policies to encourage more walkable and bike friendly neighborhoods?
After all, walkability is sustainable both environmentally and economically.
Well…in order to create walkable neighborhoods you can’t have policies that preference the car. You need policies that encourage the pedestrian.
Usually that means compact and dense development, the opposite of sprawl.
Hence, the angst.
Sadly,  has become a dirty word and that’s a shame. Because density done well, density deployed strategically creates magical places. It’s all about urban design and placemaking.

But many communities get caught up in a numbers game instead of a form or design based discussion. As a result, they fight density and perhaps unwittingly support policies that preference the auto over the person. They also– I believe unwittingly–support expensive and ultimately unsustainable development. The Strong Towns movement is devoted to lifting the veil on this issue and teaching communities that by promoting sprawl they are hastening their financial ruin. They offer case study after case study using basis math to prove their thesis. To learn more, visit https://www.strongtowns.org/ but fair warning, you can get lost in their website, it’s that good.

Another stumbling block is parking. So much development is driven by parking.
Parking requirements drive design and uses and because structured parking is expensive, we often end up with a sea of asphalt, hardly conducive to placemaking and walkability.
The developers I know struggle mightily with this, especially since we keep reading about automated vehicles and about how the advent of self driving cars will free of us of the tyranny of the parking lot/expensive deck.
Alas, we are not there yet. And the last thing you want to be is “under parked” which makes it hard for projects to succeed.
It’s just not easy.
And yet…
We should try.

Try to learn lessons from Donald Shoup widely regarded as one of the best minds in parking around. He came to Delray a few years back and reminded us that there is no such thing as free parking. Somebody’s paying for it. If you pay taxes, guess what? It’s you.

We should also try to embrace the idea that design and form mean more than numbers and that prescriptive codes won’t allow for creativity and will hinder investment not encourage it. But form based codes enable great design if we push developers, planners and architects. And if we educate elected officials.
Walkability and placemaking are possible. But only if we aspire, incentivize (through zoning, not cash) and insist on it.

Remembering someone special

There has been a lot of loss lately. It least it seems that way to me anyway.

Last weekend, we attended a memorial service honoring the life of Susan Shaw who spent 7 years working for the Delray CRA.

Susan was the first person you saw if you went to the CRA’s offices on Swinton Avenue and the cheerful voice you heard if you called the agency.

She retired only a few weeks ago, took a bucket list trip to New Zealand, posted wonderful photos on Facebook, came home, took ill and sadly passed away.

The news devastated her family, friends and colleagues who considered her family.

Susan was a vibrant, friendly, warm soul with a great spirit. She volunteered at the Caring Kitchen and was devoted to animal rescue. She was also active at Unity Church.

Her fellow prayer chaplains and friends gave her a wonderful send off at her memorial. Unity is a special place. The sanctuary is spectacular and the warm feeling you get when you enter the church defies description. It was an apt place to celebrate Susan Shaw.

CRA Director Jeff Costello gave one of many touching talks about Susan. And it reminded me that it takes so many parts to make a village work.

Susan Shaw wasn’t a department head, her photo won’t hang on the walls at City Hall, but she was a vital part of a team. A team dedicated to building community.

She will be missed by all who knew her.

 

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