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Joe Nathanson: Walkable urban places

Recently, while working on an assignment in an office building in downtown Columbia, I was reminded how pedestrian-unfriendly this part of the planned new town can be. It is helpful to pay full attention to the traffic and to be fleet of foot to run across Little Patuxent Parkway to grab a sandwich. While Columbia’s villages were designed for children to be able to walk or bike safely to their schools, the downtown was designed primarily to accommodate the circulation and storage of automobiles.

Walkable downtowns are becoming a valued part of urban America, particularly among millennials. These are young adults, now in their 20s and early 30s, often working in professional fields, many of them technologically savvy or in other ways members of what Richard Florida has dubbed the “creative class.” Many choose to live in urban areas where they are less likely to depend on automobiles and instead get around on foot, on their bikes or relying on public transit. According to Planetizen, the urban planning and design website, “Recent studies show that upwards of 77 percent of millennials are opting to live in urban areas. The impact on the local economy will be huge, IF urban planners rethink how we build our downtowns.”

Christopher Leinberger is among those who think about how we build our urban places. He has worn many hats, having been a real estate consultant, author, lecturer and developer. He is currently a George Washington University professor and is a leading advocate for “walkable urbanism.” Leinberger, who was the keynote speaker at Maryland’s Sustainable Growth Commission’s forum earlier this year, describes walkable urbanism as locations that “could satisfy most everyday needs, such as school, shopping, parks, friends, and even employment, within walking distance or transit of one’s home.”

Back In 2007, while a non-resident fellow at the Brookings Institution, Leinberger conducted what he called a “field survey” of the walkable urban places in the 30 largest metropolitan areas in the country. Based on his personal observations, supplemented by the work of an international consulting firm, other Brookings Institution scholars, public officials, and academics, among others, a ranking of these metropolitan areas in terms of their walkability was established.

Metropolitan Washington topped the list. Its walkable neighborhoods included many in and near downtown Washington, such as Dupont Circle and Adams-Morgan; the colonial-era settlements of Old Town Alexandria and Georgetown; inner suburbs, including Bethesda and various suburban nodes along the Metrorail system; and Reston Town Center in Northern Virginia. In Leinberger’s updated lexicon, all of these places are now known as WalkUPs (walkable urban places).

Other metropolitan regions ranked among the top five on the list for walkable neighborhoods were Boston, San Francisco, Denver and Portland. Baltimore was in the middle of the pack, ranked at number 15.

There are indeed a few walkable communities in the Baltimore region. Places such as Fells Point and Federal Hill in Baltimore would qualify, as would downtown Annapolis. All of these examples are places that were developed in the 18th or 19th centuries, in the era before automobiles became ubiquitous.

One possible example of a post-automobile era suburban community with qualities of walkable urbanism is Rodgers Forge. Stuart Sirota is a local urban planner and practitioner of traditional neighborhood design. He also serves as president of the Rodgers Forge Community Association. The community was recently recognized as one of Baltimore County’s best neighborhoods. Its walkability was among the criteria that placed it at the top. Sirota says “that we like to think of Rodgers Forge as Baltimore County’s pre-eminent walkable community. All kids can walk to school and most do, many ride their bikes. My office is at the end of the street I live on and my daily commute is a 4-minute walk to work.”

The greater challenge will be to retrofit those places that were built for the convenience of driving cars and then parking them. That’s the case as plans are being advanced to create a walkable downtown Towson. Baltimore County planners are in the process of moving forward with their Walkability Master Plan that takes into account each block of the downtown area and assigns objective measures to capture their respective walkability characteristics.

Similarly, changes are in the early stages of implementation for downtown Columbia. The new master plan has “sustainability features, including measurable goals for saving energy and water, improving public transportation, ecology and livability. It will be walkable, feature extensive bike trails …” These aspirations raise the possibility that the next generation of downtown Columbia will incorporate a better balance in accommodating the needs of autos and pedestrians.

Joe Nathanson heads Urban Information Associates, Inc., a Baltimore-based economic and community development consulting firm. He contributes a monthly column to The Daily Record. He can be contacted at urbaninfo@comcast.net