“Walkability” didn’t exist in many dictionaries 20 years ago. Now it’s everywhere.
In communities all over Central Ohio, elected officials, engineers, and residents are making it a priority. Demographic trends and insight2050 show baby boomers and millennials leading the charge to more compact, mixed-use, “walkable” neighborhoods. And it’s not just about exercise. It’s about the convenience of having shops, restaurants, and other things nearby – and not requiring a car.
The concept of walkability is ages old, but the term is new.
And it has its roots in Columbus.
Dan Burden grew up in the Hilltop, on the west side of Columbus, son of a firefighter who was an active walker, bicyclist and canoeist. When Burden was young, his father put in the only sidewalk on their stretch of Hague Avenue in hope that neighbors would follow suit. They didn’t.
This was not an epiphany that suddenly gave Burden a missionary zeal to devote his life to promoting walkability. But he said it was always in the back of his mind as his career circuitously evolved in that direction.
Along the way, he has been credited with coining the term “walkability” and creating the concept of a “walking audit.”
Burden was back in his Central Ohio stomping grounds in August, conducting walk audits and workshops in Worthington – where city officials are working with MORPC to develop a Complete Streets policy as part of the insight2050 Technical Assistance Program. The city also has engaged Blue Zones, a consulting firm Burden works for, to do a bicycle and pedestrian plan.
“I love the walking audit,” Burden told a dozen or so Worthington residents and city officials on an August afternoon, just before the second of his two public audits that week. “You’ll never again take a walk without seeing something new. It’s about teaching people how to see.”
While audits are typically associated with crunching numbers and verifying details, Burden’s audits tend to be more subjective: Does a stretch of sidewalk feel safe and comfortable? How do parked cars along the curb relate to traffic-calming and a sense of security for pedestrians? Can spaces between buildings serve as sidewalk cafes or attractive, art-filled passageways to rear parking lots?
Still, there are numbers to crunch: the width of traffic lanes; the timing of a hybrid beacon at a pedestrian crossing; the curb radius of an intersection where cars turn from a busy thoroughfare to a residential side street; and the typical speed of passing cars, regardless of the posted limit.
Celia Thornton, project supervisor for Worthington’s Parks & Recreation Department, said the city benefits from the walking audits in a couple of ways. They engage residents in planning projects, and they give city staff a greater awareness of how the city works at the grassroots level.
“It helps put people where others are, and think beyond what you normally do,” said Thornton, who helped organize the events with Burden and Tony Hull – another walkability consultant, who grew up in Dayton and used to be a planner at MORPC.
She said the first of two walking audits focused on downtown Worthington and surrounding neighborhoods, and included a lot of senior citizens. They were acutely aware of flaws and buckles in the pads of curb ramps, and expressed discomfort with narrow sidewalks – especially if they were right against the curb, with no treelawn as a buffer to traffic.
Thornton noted that people generally felt comfortable walking downtown, but less so on High Street just north or south of downtown. That point was echoed the next day by Burden, as well as the city’s service director, Dan Whited.
“We like the feel of the downtown,” Thornton said. “But how do we continue that trend north and south of the downtown? (On the walking audit) I could see the value of putting the buildings close to the street.”
That makes a place more inviting to pedestrians and results in a more-defined space, making motorists more inclined to slow down.
That’s the kind of reaction Burden loves to hear from participants in walking audits.
“It’s a walkshop!” he said – coining yet another term. “Kind of a walking workshop.”