Just as washing your car seems to attract rain, so does scheduling a group walk, it seems. Fortunately tomorrow’s weather doesn’t seem to be that bad, so I’m going to stay optimistic and go ahead with this week’s group walk (but I’ll bring an umbrella). If you are interested in joining me, I’d be delighted to have you come along. Details can be found here.
As you well know, I do a lot of walking. Walking gives me a lot of time to think, and lately I’ve been giving a lot of thought to what makes a particular area—such as Redwood City’s downtown—attractive to a pedestrian. Why is walking along Redwood City’s Broadway, for instance, so much more interesting than walking along El Camino Real or Winslow Street?
To better understand the factors involved I’ve been reading books on the subject, including Jeff Speck’s eminently readable Walkable City. From Walkable City I learned that the degree of “walkability” for a given path is determined by four basic factors: safety, comfortability, usefulness, and interest.
Safety seems pretty self-evident, but Speck takes pains to point out that a walk must not only be safe, it must feel safe as well. Although you might be safe from passing cars, if the sidewalk is narrow you might not feel that you are. And just because you might feel safe, that doesn’t necessarily mean that you are. I put Theatre Way in this category: you feel safer than you are; it isn’t crystal clear where the sidewalks end and the street begins, as people not familiar with the area quickly find out:
Usually, though, the two go hand-in-hand. I’ve experienced this when crossing Highway 101 at Whipple Avenue: drivers are traveling at a high rate of speed in a place where they don’t expect to encounter a pedestrian, making for a truly unsafe environment. And as a pedestrian surrounding by those speeding cars, I absolutely feel unsafe. Both of which are why I avoid making this particular crossing whenever I can:
When determining walkability, “comfortable” refers to how the surroundings make you feel. Surprisingly, wide-open spaces can make people feel uncomfortable. Apparently we have an instinctual need for refuge that makes us uncomfortable when we are in the great outdoors. To feel comfortable, we need a sense of enclosure—some way to feel that our flanks are protected. Buildings provide this sense, while open parking lots do not. Thus, somewhat counter-intuitively, we are most comfortable on a street when there are buildings along both sides, and less so when we come to an open parking lot in the middle of a block. Fortunately Redwood City’s downtown doesn’t have much of this; a lot of our parking is in above-ground or below-ground structures, and our biggest surface lot—the Main Street lot that occupies the center of the block bounded by Broadway, Main, Middlefield, and Jefferson—is entirely encircled by buildings, and thus has little negative affect on pedestrians walking along those streets.
Comfort not only comes from buildings, but also from trees. Trees provide shade. As well, they make the street seem narrower, which slows the automobile traffic. And they serve to soften the hard edges and surfaces provided by buildings, streets, and sidewalks, which makes us feel more comfortable.
Safe and comfortable are important, but they aren’t the only requirements for an area to be highly walkable. It must also be interesting. By this, Speck talks about sidewalks that are “lined by unique buildings with friendly faces and signs of humanity abound.” A wide variety of buildings along a block makes it far more interesting than one monolithic building that occupies the entire space. Smaller building widths make for a more engaging environment, which is why, according to Speck, more people linger in the West Village than the Upper East Side in New York. Fortunately many architects now recognize this, and, when faced with designing a building that occupies a large part of a city block, create structures that appear to the passerby as if they are composed of several smaller ones.
As for a “friendly face,” buildings should have windows that you can actually see into, numerous doors that beckon to the passing pedestrian, and surface materials that not only look inviting but are comfortable to the touch. Allowing street-level retail spaces to become used as offices is a way to turn a friendly face into an unfriendly one: not only is the office door firmly shut—since walk-ins make no sense—often the business inside desires a level of privacy that compels them to install window coverings, blocking those inviting views.
Redwood City’s efforts to prevent retail spaces to be used as offices on certain streets, such as Broadway and Main Street, is partly to ensure that these streets remain interesting to the pedestrian, encouraging people to walk along and discover the restaurants and retail establishments that are there. Of course, reserving such spaces for actual retail and restaurant use also means that there are more such places to discover, further encouraging foot traffic.
Interesting buildings are one thing, but what people find most interesting is other people. An interesting urban space is one that has people in it. Thus, sidewalk cafes and bars, plus other shoppers, all make for an environment that we recognize as comfortable and welcoming. Our natural desire to observe people encourages us to move through the crowds as well as to sit and enjoy the passersby. Redwood City is doing a good job here, allowing increasing numbers of restaurants and bars to spill out onto the sidewalks. This not only allows those establishments to take advantage of the extra space when the weather is good, but it also marks the street and the establishment as a friendly place, one that is open to others.
Jeff Speck’s last criteria for a walkable area is perhaps the most important: it is that it be useful. That is, it needs to have most of the things you need in your daily life (shopping, restaurants, entertainment, banks, post offices, and the like), organized for the pedestrian. Here, with the possible exception of shopping—Redwood City’s downtown is sorely lacking certain retail segments, such as clothing—our downtown seems to be doing pretty well. Restaurants, banks, entertainment: we have those in spades.
All of the above, of course, assumes that you are in the area and on foot, which for many of us only applies when we’ve driven downtown and parked. If you live downtown, however, or are close to it, you can enjoy our downtown’s relatively high degree of walkability without having to first drive there. As happens with nearly everything these days, when it comes to determining how walkable a given area is “there is an app for that.” Someone came up with a website and app that calculates a “walk score” for any given location. Put in an address—your home address, for instance—and it’ll give you a single number that is calculated from the address’s proximity to the following:
- Dining and drinking establishments
- Culture & Entertainment
You’ll find the website at https://www.walkscore.com, or you can obtain an app for your smartphone from either the iOS App Store or from Google Play. Their “patented system” analyzes walking routes to nearby amenities, awarding points based on their nearness. The score also takes into account population density, block length, and intersection density. Finally, in many cases the app and website also produce both a Transit Score (a measure of how well a location is served by public transit based on the distance and type of nearby transit lines) and a Bike Score (indicating how good an area is for cyclists based on bike lanes and trails, hills, road connectivity, and destinations).
The walk score ranges from 0 to 100, with a score of 90 or above being a “walker’s paradise.” For fun, I put in a couple of different locations:
- “Redwood City” has an overall walk score of 58
- My house (in the vicinity of Sequoia Hospital) has a score of 31.
- 201 Marshall has a score of 96.
Although that score for my house seems about right—Sequoia Station, for instance, is almost a mile and a half away—I clicked the score to learn how it was calculated. My house scores 100 for proximity to parks (Stafford Park is only two blocks away), but about 50 for both errands and schools, 30 for shopping, less than 20 for dining/drinking and groceries, and single digits for Culture & Entertainment. This partly explains why I’m so interested in the fate of the former Emerald Market: once the Bonfire Market and the small two restaurants (“Hilltop” and “Kaigan Sushi”) open in that space, I’ll have more shopping and dining within a relatively easy walk.
The reason for 201 Marshall’s very high score is rather self-evident: its close proximity to Caltrain, to Sequoia Station, to numerous restaurants and bars, and to our downtown entertainment district all make the place ideal for one on foot. Living in that building (or in one of the other large apartments that are now coming online in our downtown) makes a life without a car not only possible, but reasonable. Especially with services such as Uber and ZipCar for the few times you actually need a car, these buildings make a good argument for not owning a car.
Incidentally, the Walk Score site has some great photos of the apartments going up in our downtown; if you want to see what the apartment interiors look like, along with the common areas and amenities made available to residents of those buildings, check the walk score of a local building (such as 201 Marshall Street, Redwood City, CA) and then take a look at the “Nearby Apartments” section on the lower right side of the web page. It will have links to other buildings such as Marston (at Main and Broadway), Indigo (at Jefferson, between Bradford and Veterans), or even Franklin 299.
If Redwood City could lure more retailers to our downtown, it would make our downtown even more useful and interesting. That would attract more people, which would make our downtown even more interesting—and more walkable. Unfortunately it is a bit of a chicken-and-egg situation: new merchants won’t come in unless there are sufficient customers, but customers won’t come unless there are a sufficient number of quality merchants. By luring high numbers of potential patrons with events such as our downtown summer concerts the city is at least doing what it can to show potential merchants that for the right reasons people will indeed throng to our downtown. If we could just get one or two high-profile “anchor” tenants to lure people more regularly, Redwood City could earn its way onto the list of highly walkable cities. Along these lines, the city would like your feedback on your experiences with downtown Redwood City retailers. It behooves every resident to take their brief survey and provide your feedback. Do so at http://www.redwoodcity.org/departments/city-manager/city-manager-s-initiatives/economic-development/proposed-downtown-shoppers-survey.