Thursday, September 5, 2013

Walkability - Science, Reality, and Our Planners

My friends will tell you I'm a hopeless nerd. If I want to know about something, I don't rely on what other people have heard; I look up the information for myself.

So, since last week's zoning workshop, I've been reading scientific studies on "walkable" communities.

By "study," I mean actual research, where scientists have observed residents of walkable and non-walkable neighborhoods, then compared the two. The problem is, the study of neighborhoods is a fairly recent science. In the 1990s, the theory emerged that new suburban communities ought to be planned more on the model of urban downtowns, where residents don't have to use their cars to go on every errand. If people could walk to their library, banks, movie theater, grocery stores, even their workplaces, they'd be healthier, would do more as a family, and it would cut back on air pollution.

Scientific research takes time, though. All the studies I found online were published after 2008, with the most data showing up in 2011 through the present. Here's a sampling:

2009 - Vancouver, British Columbia  -- Studied whether walkable neighborhoods had lower air pollution (specifically ozone and nitric oxide). Found that walkable lower income neighborhoods did have lower ozone, but higher nitric oxide. Higher income neighborhoods had lower pollution regardless of walkability. A similar study done the same time in Minneapolis showed no correlation between walkable neighborhoods and a decrease in air pollution.

2011 - New York City  -- Studied 13,000 subjects to compare their BMI (body mass index) to their neighborhood's walkability. Found that an association between a neighborhood's walkability and a lower BMI "were only apparent in more socioeconomically advantaged individuals."

2013 - Seattle  -- 1000 women answered a survery about how much they walk, their addresses were charted on a map which showed the walkability of each neighborhood.  Found that "Being white and healthy, having a high school education or beyond and greater non-walking exercise were significantly associated with more walking. Neighborhood walkability was not independently associated with greater walking, nor did it moderate influence of intrapersonal factors on walking." In other words, just because they lived in walkable neighborhoods didn't guarantee that they'd walk more.

Perhaps the most telling study I read was a 2012 economic analysis of walkable vs. non-walkable neighborhoods of the Washington DC area. An apartment in a walkable neighborhood cost an average of $301.76 per month more than in a non-walkable neighborhood. A house cost $81.54 per square foot more. "Walkability" has become more of a real estate "perk" than an extra bathroom, and in that lies the main motivation for town planners. Higher housing costs equal higher resident incomes and higher taxes.

What do these studies mean for Norristown? First of all, all the research was done in major cities, so just from that standpoint, the findings may have no relevance here. The whole theory was aimed toward NEW suburban development, not toward established towns like ours. Walkability is defined as having stores, places you'd run errands, and public transportation, all within about a quarter mile. This doesn't apply to most of our neighborhoods. The results of the studies all seem to indicate that walkability only benefits higher income people, and that, often, higher income people benefit regardless of the walkability of their neighborhoods. Norristown's average income is below the US average. Walkability sounds like a lovely lifestyle, but is it worth spending taxpayer dollars to make fundamental changes that may not benefit our residents?

Most important, though, is that our Comprehensive Plan, which pushes walkability in a big way, was published in 2009, before much scientific research appeared on the subject. It's not based on science, but on real estate fashion trends. We need to worry first about building our local economy, using Norristown's existing strengths, not try to turn our borough into some sort of ideal Utopia that it never will become.

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