What Makes A Walkable Urban Place?

The term flaneur does not appear in the latest report from the Brookings Institution ranking the most walkable U.S. cities. Charles Baudelaire and Walter Benjamin would shudder at the notion that walking and “walkability” could be measured or planned systematically. In Paris in their respective times (mid-19th century for Baudelaire, early-20th for Benjamin), walking was a given, though neither took it for granted. They raised walking to an art form, an antidote to the alienation of modern life. They called it flanarie.

The Brookings report is extracted from The Option of Urbanism: Investing in a New American Dream, a book published last month by Christopher Leinberger from the University of Michigan. With its attention to rankings, the report seems to be a made-for-media vehicle for promoting the book. It worked for me. If you want a quick overview, check out the Marketplace interview with Christopher Leinberger. That nudged me to download the report PDF and wrangle it into a screen-reader-friendly text. Now I want to read the book.

I was fascinated by the language of Leinberger’s introduction, which conveys how far removed most Americans have become from walking:

The post-World War II era has witnessed the nearly exclusive building of low density suburbia, here termed “drivable sub-urban” development, as the American metropolitan built environment. However, over the past 15 years, there has been a gradual shift in how Americans have created their built environment (defined as the real estate, which is generally privately owned, and the infrastructure that supports real estate, majority publicly owned), as demonstrated by the success of the many downtown revitalizations, new urbanism, and transit-oriented development. This has been the result of the re-introduction and expansion of higher density “walkable urban” places.

Here are the top 3 walkable American cities on Leinberger’s list:

  1. Washington, D.C.
  2. Boston
  3. San Francisco

Leinberger’s ranking methodology is stirring some debate, and why midtown Manhattan doesn’t top the list is a story unto itself. But I nodded in agreement when I read the list. I’ve learned to walk as a blind flaneur in each of these cities, and I love them for that. I’ve walked most in Washington, where Dupont Circle is my base of operation, and I experience a sense of independence and freedom there unlike no other urban place… but Paris.

It will take more than this post to digest this report. I still haven’t explained what it means to be a flaneur, although every post in this blog is a step in that direction. For now, I want to open it up for discussion. Just what is a “walkable urban place”?

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4 Responses to What Makes A Walkable Urban Place?

  1. Pingback: a blind flaneur

  2. tomrobertstennessee says:

    Manhattan! It is as close to perfect as you can get for a walkable city. Regarding my personal criteria: 1) GOOD WALKING DESTINATIONS. Take your choice in NYC. 2) INTERESTING SITES AND PEOPLE ALONG THE WAY. Nowhere else in the world has more diversity of people, street drama and aliveness. 3) ACCESSIBLE PIT STOPS. When nature calls, you can take a 5 star piss in any of New York’s swank hotels’ nicely maintained bathrooms. 4) PUBLIC TRANSPORTATION AND/OR GOOD TAXI SERVICE WHEN YOU NEED TO SPEED UP THE TRIP 5) GOOD COFFEE AND SNACK STOPS
    WHY did we sell our condo in Manhattan??? The boredom here in Tennessee is numbing!!!

  3. Mark Willis says:

    <p>That condo was well-situated between mid-town and the Village. Brendan and I had a blast when we stayed there and roamed all over Manhattan with you. He was pretty absorbed by the Tower Records near NYU on Lower Broadway. Tom, did I tell you that Brendan bought a house and piece of farmland north of town?</p>

  4. tomrobertstennessee says:

    That’s great! I loved Brendan’s stories of spartan and toxic living in the old farmhouse with his roommate. I’m sure he’ll now appreciate dedicating time and money to something with equity.

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