Let's not fool ourselves about 'walkability'

Walkable neighborhoods take more than density and sidewalks. You have to create conditions where small stores can survive.
Crosscut archive image.

Walkable streets mean viable shops

Walkable neighborhoods take more than density and sidewalks. You have to create conditions where small stores can survive.

You can'ꀙt go far these days without hearing the word 'ꀜwalkability.'ꀝ If you ask the person who used the term what it means they often look a bit puzzled as though you were some kind of dunce, because of course we all think we know what it means. The term walkability is a word image, but that image isn'ꀙt exactly the same for everyone.

In Seattle if you sit in a Starbucks, say on Queen Anne, with your mate on Saturday afternoon you might be between 20 and 50 with a good job, live in a condo or an old, remodeled single family home, and you got to this location on foot. In fact you live in this neighborhood because you consider it walkable. Your walk is partly exercise, partly to visit a local establishment, and to meet friends or socialize en route. You'ꀙre much less likely to be there because it'ꀙs something you have to do. It'ꀙs a lifestyle choice.

Were you to be in an undeveloped nation with scattered villages, however, walkability takes on a different meaning. There you walk because you must. The farther back in history you go, the more you find walking wasn'ꀙt a recreation; it was survival. But here in Seattle in 2009 walking has very different meanings based on where you live and your economic status. The affluent walk for pleasure or recreation or physical conditioning, but the less affluent walk because they must.

One thing, for sure, is that city planners and elected officials all seem to use the word 'ꀜwalkability'ꀝ often, and are intent on making laws, writing regulations, and funding programs to create walkability even if they can'ꀙt pinpoint exactly what it means. It'ꀙs not a plan so much as it'ꀙs a buzzword.

Urban planners, often in a theoretical world by themselves, say they are attempting to create a more functional city. They talk about walkability associated with transportation planning while others point to creating sustainable high-density neighborhoods. Unfortunately, as much as urban planners and lawmakers bandy about the term, it still has meanings that change depending on who you ask, where you ask, and how affluent is the person you ask.

My Crosscut colleague Knute Berger, when speaking about his new book Pugetopolis, tells of growing up in a Seattle neighborhood that had lots of stores where people walked to satisfy daily needs: the hardware store, the butcher shop, the dime store, the grocery. The store owners knew their customers, the parents, and their kids. It was local and a bit like an extended family. Sure there were cars, buses, bikes, and streetcars going and they were all used, but people walked because it was a convenient and free way to tend to daily needs. It was a model that evolved over time, and it worked because it was economically viable and there was something you needed at the other end of the trip.

But then the effects of 'ꀜprogress'ꀝ descended on neighborhoods. Mom N'ꀙ Pop groceries were forced out by chain grocery stores like Safeway and Albertsons. Our loyalty to the local grocer who knew our kids by name faded as we flocked to the lower prices and greater variety of foods. We did the same thing with with hardware stores, drugstores, and neighborhood clothing stores or appliance stores. Home Depots and Fred Meyers and Walmarts and Costcos snatched the rest of the business from neighborhoods.

In this new economic model you can buy car accessories, groceries, new socks, baby diapers, and a new television in the same store. Somewhere in this evolution, which took an amazingly short period of time, the Mall or shopping center was created.

The Mall was created to be like the small town in America'ꀙs heartland, a place where you would arrive by horse and buggy and have all the goods you needed in a small walkable space. The modern version of the artificial small town, 'ꀜthe Mall'ꀝ worked because it brought larger numbers of customers to stores with competitive prices, large selections of goods, and safe, clean surroundings. Progressive Seattleites hate to admit it, but Malls are walkable!

Meanwhile the traditional neighborhood shopping districts in large cities became vacant, or the shops turned into yoga studios, boutiques, or antique stores. There are a few neighborhoods where affluence has seen the return of some of the businesses last there in the '50s and '60s. But with a major difference: Everything is more expensive.

A few Seattle neighborhoods are flourishing, but most are quite different from the neighborhoods of the past. Some survived by creating a niche retail image that wasn'ꀙt offered in big box or malls. Greenwood neighborhood, for example, struggled along for some time with second-hand stores, antique stores, and a few restaurants that stayed alive by drawing customers from the entire region. Greenwood was helped because there was parking, banks, food stores, and department stores. More important there was a concentration of one type of business that appealed to the destination shopper. However, the attrition rate of small businesses was still a major problem.

Many of these neighborhoods that are revitalizing themselves and acquiring the image of being walkable have customers who come by car because, in most cases, the businesses can'ꀙt survive on foot traffic alone. Success now depends on a blend of business whose customers arrive by a variety of means — on foot, by bus, or by car. It takes all three. Also, the availability of inexpensive parking is directly related to the success of these small businesses.

City planners who are certain they know how to achieve walkability often overlook the most critical component of the formula. Walkable communities require the right kind of business to locate in neighborhoods, and these stores need to be successful. Some urban planners theorize that if the neighborhood had bigger buildings with more people ("density"), businesses would succeed without autos. Small business people argue that without cars they can'ꀙt compete with the malls, Home Depots, and Costcos where more profitable big ticket items are sold.

Is it possible to draw a circle on a map, designate it as a sustainable walkable neighborhood, and have it be economically viable for the small business person? Planners say, 'ꀜsure, just create more housing units.'ꀝ New jargon calls them 'ꀜurban villages,'ꀝ 'ꀜurban centers,'ꀝ TODs (transit-oriented developments), sustainable communities, or walkable neighborhoods.

But how often does that work out? Let me cite the example of how the City created the urban village of Fremont and the Urban Center of Ballard, hoping to create a business area with walkability where one could shop without a car. Then in their great wisdom they permitted a totally car-oriented Fred Meyer megastore halfway between to draw business away from the established shop keepers in the two business areas.

These planners reasoned that successful business would flourish if they created more customers with zoning and building codes, They didn'ꀙt come to grips with the reality that they can'ꀙt force a business to locate or thrive in these new areas. Most urban planners and most elected officials have never run a small business. They simply don'ꀙt understand what it takes to operate a retail store successfully. Compounding the problem, other divisions of government very often make it more difficult for the small business owner to succeed, piling on excessive license fees, regulatory functions, taxes, and prohibitive parking fees.

If walkability and healthy neighborhoods are the goal, then planners need to make some major changes in how they do their job. The first logical step might be to incorporate the Hippocratic oath into their decision-making: 'ꀜDo no harm.'ꀝ That means hanging on to the neighborhoods and stores that still function.

Arrogance also plays a part. Government needs to listen to those with experience. If a neighborhood is thriving, talk to the shopkeepers who have been successful for a number of years. Listen to them. More important is not doing something that makes success more difficult. Maybe the city should pay less attention to the big downtown business leaders and the Chamber of Commerce. They may know how to run WAMU or sell luxury downtown condos, but not many know how to run small shops in neighborhoods any more than do planners. And, though it should be obvious, not all neighborhoods are alike. Each has its own demographic and character and neighborhood mainstays.

If elected officials and city planners lack small business experience, then maybe we should have a separate and different kind of planning commission for neighborhood business. They should include small business owners who have a history of success. The group should not include property owners, developers, architects, or chain store administrators. (Local managers, maybe.) This planning group needs to operate under a mandate that has teeth. Their decisions must override the Department of Planning and Development.

This new kind of body can become a vital link for decision-making that affects neighborhood businesses. It might also make good sense that city department heads be required to listen to the advice, since they also play a role of 'ꀜdoing no harm'ꀝ as they did by permitting a full service grocery and department store between Ballard and Fremont.

Good information is essential for good decisions. The city might avoid major missteps if it hired a small group of forensic small business accountants to study the impact of the city'ꀙs licensing and tax structure on small business. If the city is willing to give Russell investments of Tacoma a tax break to locate in Seattle or to award local condo developers with tax exemptions for creating new buildings, would it not also make sense to insure that new small businesses be given a leg up until the get on their feet?

And for all the people clamoring for walkability — let's not fool ourselves. You can walk now, and if you really want your neighborhood to be more vital and appealing you better start spending some of you money with local businesses. You can'ꀙt support a business district with an occasional latte.


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