Walk Appeal Immeasurables

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plaza in Rome with large fountain in center and 4-story stucco buildings all around

   People on the Street, Lovable Things Along the Way, and the Magic of the City are three Walk Appeal factors I have no idea how to measure, but they clearly contribute to making more walkable places. How do you think they might be measured? And what other immeasurables have I left out? As I was writing this, George Osner tweeted a link to a new post by my friend Kaid Benfield on Walk Appeal. Kaid lays out several other immeasurables I hadn't thought of, which I'll comment on as well.

People on the Street

small sidewalk craft market in Rome

   Few things make a walk more interesting than seeing lots of other people along the way, while a walk down deserted streets might even be spooky. There are several reasons for this. First, we are social creatures so we need to interact with other people regularly. And people are entertaining to watch. And if there are lots of people on the street, that's confirmation that others think it's an interesting places as well.

sidewalk cafe in Rome

   Length of stay is more important than you might think. Walk a half-mile, and you'll be on the street for about ten minutes. But stop at a sidewalk cafe for lunch, and you may be there for an hour or more. Sidewalk shopping, other types of eateries, and gathering places of other sorts are useful as well.

   This factor isn't completely immeasurable because people on the street can be counted at various times of day. But what are the people thresholds at which a streetscape goes from spooky to just plain boring to nominally interesting to intriguing to teeming with vitality? And what's the upper limit beyond which "nobody goes there anymore because it's too crowded" as Yogi Berra once observed?

Lovable Things Along the Way

Rome sidewalk cafe at the foot of 4-story stucco building

   Buildings and site elements along the way that are lovable clearly enhance Walk Appeal. This principle is so obvious as to require little explanation. Who would not rather walk where there are things of beauty rather than through a landscape filled with ugliness?

   Buildings are the top candidates for creating lovability along the way because each building face, if well-composed, can be beautiful. And if there is some degree of agreement on how to build in the region, then the entire streetscape can be harmonious as well, as this one is.

   All other elements in the public frontage (between street and property line) and the private frontage (between property line and building face) are candidates as well. Thirty years ago, most cities only installed "cobra head" streetlights downtown, for example, but most have converted to much better post lamps in recent years.

Magic of the City

piazza in Rome backed by church, and with monument in center

   Great cities hold promises of secret delights waiting to be discovered just around the next corner… maybe a little plaza you don't yet know, like this gem I stumbled across recently while traveling in a city I've visited numerous times. This promise of undiscovered magic entices people to get out and explore, even if you live there. For example, nine years after moving to South Beach, I still get out and explore little nooks and crannies I haven't seen before. Sprawl, meanwhile, is a place we know like the back of our hand, so there's nothing to discover there.


two little girls playing hide-and-seek in piazza in Rome

   The remaining immeasurables, beginning with this one, are based on Kaid's items. He makes the point that people are discouraged from walking in a place with otherwise good Walk Appeal metrics if it's reputed to be unsafe. I visited Over-The-Rhine in Cincinnati last year. For decades, locals decline to go there. Today, it's it's in the middle of a strong recovery and I felt perfectly comfortable walking everywhere and photographing streets of architectural treasures most people haven't seen in years because of fear. The high standard of safety is illustrated in the image above: is it a place you'd let your children play?


huge canopy of trees along embankment of Tiber River in Rome

   There's no doubt that nature in many forms enhances Walk Appeal. "A Walk in the Park" is synonymous with things that are easy to do. But lesser doses of nature will do as well. Walking beside the park is almost as good as walking through it. This image illustrates a canopy of trees along a river embankment. Smaller street trees are effective as well.

Time, Weather, and Burdens

   Time of day and available time are two big factors. Safety varies widely in many places between noon and midnight, for example. Also, have you cut your available time so short that you simply can't walk there in time? South Beach is hopping 24 hours a day, so I feel perfectly safe walking home at any point during the night. And it's difficult enough to find a parking place that I can almost certainly walk to work faster than driving. The only two reasons I ever drive to work is if it's raining enough to flood the sidewalks (I have an umbrella) or if I have a heavy load of some sort to carry.


fountain in Rome piazza with people sitting on steps all around

   Kaid makes the point that sound along the way can make a huge difference. Loud traffic noise or construction noise, for example, can be a huge negative for Walk Appeal.

   There are two types of positive sounds: those we provide, and those we set the stage for. A fountain provides the sound of falling water directly into the environment. The sounds of water has the side-benefit of making people feel cooler on a hot day. We set the stage for pleasant sound to occur by allowing sidewalk cafes to provide music (either live or recorded) and by creating a place that's vibrant enough that the street musicians show up.

   What have we missed? And can you think of any way of quantifying any of these items that seem to me to be immeasurable? Thanks in advance for your comments!

   ~Steve Mouzon

   Other Walk Appeal posts on the Original Green Blog:

   Sprawl Repair - A 12-Step Program

   Walk Appeal

      Walk Appeal Measurables

      Walk Appeal Impact

   The Sky Method

   The Transect

      Fried-Egg Cities?

   I've also started a Walk Appeal BlogOff that lists everyone's posts on Walk Appeal.


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Legacy Comments

Kaid Benfield · Senior Counsel for Environmental Strategies at PlaceMakers

Keep it up, Steve! You won't be surprised that I especially like Loveable Things Along the Way. And your reference to the sound of water is also spot on - there is something almost biological about our attraction to water sounds, I think.
You and I are both very fond of Over-the-Rhine. My sense is that it is moving quickly from "unsafe" to "still unsafe only in a few places and times of day." In the parts that have recovered, the neighborhood has immense Walk Appeal. My hope is that OTR's recovery and restoration can continue in a way that is in fact and perceived to be fair and equitable, and I'm optimistic about that.

Jul 30, 2012 10:32am

Nancy Bruning · Author, Founder and CEO at Nancy Bruning's Nancercize

Steve, well done as usual. I don't know about measuring this qualities other than by qualitative measures I learn in grad school. All the senses come into play including sound ( nature sounds are soothing) and smells ( NYC in the summer is notoriously stinky. I think we also need to make a distinction between the kind of place we like to vist (Times Square) and places we like to live (Park Slope).

Jul 30, 2012 10:36am

Jeffrey Jakucyk · University of Cincinnati

I think Kaid is overestimating the appeal of walking through a park. Yes it can be a nice break on a hot day, especially if you're stressed out. On the other hand, it can be pretty darn boring and un-engaging compared to good urbanism (good being generally absent in the USA because of our excessively wide traffic-enslaved streets). Small parks or little squares are great, but any big park that you have to traverse on foot is usually a chore.

Jul 30, 2012 2:10pm


"People on the Street, Lovable Things Along the Way, and the Magic of the City are three Walk Appeal factors I have no idea how to measure, but they clearly contribute to making more walkable places. How do you think they might be measured?"
I think I'll take a Devil's Advocate position in answering this question! 
WHY should we bother to quantify/measure these characteristics at all? Since when is quantification the only valid way of understanding the value of something? If anything, our irrational 20th century drive to quantify architecture, urban design, and planning (the 2,500 square foot house is "luxurious," the ten-minute walk is "ideal," the fifty-foot-wide street is "safest", etc.) led to all the urban problems we have to deal with today. 
I doubt City Beautiful designers were sitting in some back office, panting over statistical models and saying to themselves "A 45% tree cover for the streets of Detroit would be ideal for environmental reasons." Nah, they merely thought "Formal lines of trees are exhilarating to have on wide streets because they make them feel like cool, dapple-lit outdoor public rooms, so we'll plant them wherever we can." Boom - no numbers, slick iGizmos, or computer models needed.
We need scientific quantification for things like building efficient sewer, electricity, and water systems (and other utilities), but after that, IMO, quantification is totally unnecessary for creating good public places. Civic art is far more important.

Jul 31, 2012 3:02pm

Robin Renner

Good work! here some ideas that poped in my head while reading it.
The local climate and the public open spaces. in rio de janeiro, or mexico it's very hot, so they prefer streets with trees that gives shade. in europe you choose the sunny side of the road for a cafe, especially in cooler areas like germany. I use to walk through a city from one square (like italy) or park (brasil) to another, they normaly have interesting stuff (magic of the city). The more connected they are, the more likely I walk further, expecting another one.
And then there is the purpose why you take that road. copacabana is beautiful to have a slow, long walk along the beach, but if you have to do some shopping, you take the inner road, which is even more crowded. (i walked the same distance for the view and the shopping). the qualities extended their walking appeal.
Looking at it from a chinese point of view, I think the realtion between the area for cars and pedestrians on the road has an impact. if you walk or bike to another place in shanghai, you take the streets with an almost equal ratio between road and sidewalk (both, crowed or empty streets) but you always avoid the big traffic roads. they are hard to cross and with small sidewalks. Both, shanghai and rio de janeiro, have modern, urban developements (Pudong & Barra the Tijuca), with streets the size of highways, and a tiny and empty sidewalk besides. no people nor bikes there!

Aug 27, 2012 9:28pm

Michał Czepkiewicz · Researcher at University of Iceland

Interesting ideas! Thanks for the posts about walk appeal, it was inspiring to read. Trying to answer your question from the last paragraph: I wouldn't call the factors you propose "immeasurables". They might be well measured by aggregating residents' and visitors' perceptions. There is quite a lot of research on subjective urban quality measures including even urban soundscapes. Well, you clearly can't code these factors into urban design guidelines, but you can measure them to diagnose the place, as a form of a post-occupancy evaluation, and think of interventions. One exception to my point is the presence of nature: this can be measured by vegetation indices from remote sensing data, for example. They correlate pretty much with perceived contact with nature.

Mar 11, 2013 2:24pm


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