July 2, 2005

Transforming a Suburban Center

"In one minute in Bethesda, I passed more [pedestrians] than I did in five hours in Columbia."

--University of Maryland professor Reid Ewing, comparing Columbia's designed-for-the-auto Town Center with Bethesda's walkable downtown

As I mentioned in an earlier post, there's a very simple way to see whether a community is walkable or not, and it doesn't require labor-intensive tasks like measuring and counting sidewalks. Just see if people are out walking. If they're not, there's a problem that needs to be addressed.

In Columbia, Md., "General Growth and the county are planning to transform the area into a bustling urban center...." the Baltimore Sun reports. "Ewing pointed out that Columbia has a number of barriers that discourage walking -- low residential density, long blocks, wide streets, poorly marked crosswalks, buildings set far back from streets and no benches along the sidewalks."

That's a good starter list for what discourages people from walking. Note that sidewalks exist in the town center, but the area is so poorly designed for walkability that no one actually wants to use them. "It's not walkable, it's very auto-oriented," Ewing explained.

A key part of the plan for Columbia is developing a 50+-acre parcel with businesses, residences, parking and open space. One planner involved in the project said the proposal will feature shorter street blocks, street-oriented buildings, well-marked crosswalks and additional sidewalks.

I'm not sure I buy the need for short blocks - avenue blocks in Manhattan are crowded with pedestrians, and they're pretty long. But I agree with the rest of the list - especially street-facing buildings, not set too far back. And with windows toward the street! Blank walls are rather off-putting for people on foot.

However, planners are also going to have to grapple with how to combine more walkability with easing traffic congestion, the article notes. But there are plenty of non-walkable places with impossible traffic - Los Angeles comes to mind. Well-designed walkable communities don't cause traffic problems because they're pedestrian-friendly. Forcing people to drive everywhere is also a problem.

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