Walking our way to better places

Note: This article is published in the October-November 2012 issue of Better! Cities & Towns (subscribe).

One of the most powerful tools in city-making is also the simplest. A walking audit engages the mind, encourages collaboration and enables people to come up with practical solutions that are easy to implement on the ground. When community members take a walk together, they discover much about their block, their neighborhood, their neighbors, and their passions. They see all of the things that make up a sense of community, and learn something about themselves in the process.

I have come to realize, after using more than a dozen planning tools to address everything from the simplest problems to the most complex, that this one tool outshines the rest. It calls for standing up and standing for something, namely the shared principles and values that hold a community together.

By bringing people together and taking them out into the neighborhood, a walking audit prompts the kind of down-to-Earth conversations that can build consensus about what’s working and what isn’t. The discussion flows from shared observations, and because participants are discovering for themselves what needs to happen, they take ownership of the task of finding solutions.

Most of us get turned off by the data-driven side of planning because it so often sets up abstract arguments of little value. By relying largely on data, we get away from common sense, which is why I have come to rely on walking audits. Other planning activities focus largely on quantity, which can be distracting or misleading. Planning should focus more on the qualitative aspects of place and how to actively engage citizens in defining a vision. The goal should be to find out how to make a place more welcoming, with pedestrian-friendly urban design that invites people to explore the neighborhood on foot. That is where livability comes to life, and the best way to get there is to start with a walking audit.

A growing number of communities across the country are using this tool, and they are finding funding and other support to help make it happen. In 2011, the walking audit topped the list of tools and strategies that the US Environmental Protection Agency chose to support with technical assistance under its competitive Building Blocks for Sustainable Communities initiative.

Conceptually, the walking audit tool is so simple and so inexpensive to use, that I have a hard time understanding why any community would be satisfied to have people sit in meetings to figure out how to make a place more livable. Okay, meetings are important, too. But a simple, lightly structured amble — a 60- or 90-minute stroll with a group of five to 35 people — unlocks many insights and doors to the future. The walking audit inspires problem-solving that is both creative and grounded in real life.

A classroom on the move 

Think of it as an interactive classroom, with legs. Lots of legs. It’s also a classroom with many eyes and shared goals. When people spend a few minutes watching how traffic moves through two different types of intersection — one with curb “bulb-outs” designed to slow turning vehicles and shorten the pedestrian crossing distance and the other without any curb extensions — they see the effect. A walking audit brings the kind of “aha” moments that I have never seen in a meeting where people are holed up indoors. People who complete a walking audit often say they will never take another walk in their city, or anyone else’s city, for that matter, without seeing and experiencing many new things. How often does a meeting provide that level of insight? 

Sitting inside a building, we can talk theory for hours and think that we are on the right track. But if we take a walk through the reality of what our parking code calls for, we see what it actually permits in the unappealing parking lot that mars the streetscape in the heart of town. We see the effects of a particular radius we put on a corner and of the building setbacks we approved. The walking audit reveals the actual effects of policy in the places we have created. It is impossible, once a group has taken a walking audit, to ignore the obvious. With the right walk we can identify and solve problems, either on the spot or when we return to that “well-structured” meeting. 

A walking audit also reveals much of what we care about. It reveals what we value most, such as the tree canopy overhanging Main Street, and what we value least, such as the sprawling parking lot in another area of downtown. The unintended consequences of our actions speak louder than “we-are-already-doing-these-things” words. If we’re already doing everything right, we wouldn’t be asking: “What’s this?  How did this slip by? Can it happen again?” Walking audits do their heaviest lifting by asking the questions that need to be asked and answered.

On some walks, I have seen 20-minute conversations bubble up in one spot, on one topic. Eyes light up, neurons fire and the ideas start flying. A walking audit transports us away from the distraction of numbers and archaic ways of looking at the purpose or function of streets. The experience lets us see, smell, touch, and ponder what we are creating. It lets us return to our senses and sensibilities.

And doing this with a group enables people to approach community design in a spirit of exploration. It inspires a willingness to work together to bring change. So, when we think about the planning process, we should always include walking audits if we want “sticking power.” It’s the best way to tie us to something we believe in, and to bring us together with people who care about our community.

The American Planning Association defines planning as “a dynamic profession that works to improve the welfare of people and their communities by creating more convenient, equitable, healthful, efficient, and attractive places for present and future generations.” Walking audits get us there faster, better, and they get us there together. 

I will stop here; I want to go out and take a walk.

Dan Burden is co-founder and executive director of the Walkable and Livable Communities Institute, www.walklive.org. Readers can get the Walkability Workbook, with step-by-step notes on how to conduct a walkability audit, at: www.walklive.org/resources

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