In a World of Walkability
Walking is all around us. We walk through aisles of stores, between buildings, and along rivers and roads. Places of walkability are a network of interactions between people and the environment – both natural and built. Where do we imagine these places to exist? They exist in areas of high density, of culture, and of vitality. These are our urban centers. Home to approximately sixty percent of the population (U.S. Census Bureau), urbanism in America is realized in cities such as New York, Chicago, and San Francisco. What do urban places typically look like? Sidewalks may be designated for you, proximity to the market and restaurants is of an essence, and most importantly, a populated sidewalk filled with activities and exchange. Walkability and urbanism are units of a system. Each of their successes are sourced from the other. Thus, a truly walkable place must be urban and a truly urban place must be walkable.
The Extents of New Urbanism
The longing for diversity, mobility, and individualism has driven a movement of people to return to the American city. New Urbanism is used to describe the revival of cities and the birth of new cities. What is the foundation in which new urbanism is established on? That it is a place must be walkability, connectivity, mixed-use & diversity, mixed housing, quality architecture & urban design, traditional neighborhood structure, increased density, smart transportation, sustainability, and quality of life.
Historically, Los Angeles is a precedent city in freeway development. In 1940, Arroyo Seco Parkway was one of the first to be considered an urban freeway. Today, driving alone accounts for 67.1 percent of commuters, while 10.8 percent relies on public transportation, 9.9 percent carpools, and 3.6 percent walks (U.S. Census Bureau). In order for Los Angeles to compete with cities such as New York, it must first address its problems concerning walkability. Currently, Los Angeles’ has a walk score of 66.3 and a transit score of 51.3. To compare, New York has a walk score of 88.9 and a transit score of 84.1. What advantages does New York have over Los Angeles that and can be attributed to its urban success? Much of it has to do with the sense of space. New York covers a land area of approximately 305 square miles with a population density of 17,867 persons per square mile. Almost 1.5 times larger in land area, Los Angeles stretches 469 square miles with a population density of only 27,578 persons per square mile. That’s a density of almost 3.5 times less than New York. So, what strategies have Los Angeles taken forth to improve its ranks as an urban city? Over the years, Los Angeles has rapidly transformed itself with the construction of high-rise residential units and large scale civic projects. As a result, many affected neighborhoods have experienced what is referred to as gentrification, forcing many to pick up and to relocate to affordable neighborhoods located in the suburbs. This type of sprawl has grew what is today Los Angeles’ glorified car culture.
In response to suburban sprawl, the Long Range Transportation Plan for Los Angeles proposes a multi-modal model to compliment the resurgence of its expo line. The rail will expand itself to ninety-three miles and will connect Santa Monica to neighboring Downtown Los Angeles, Pasadena, San Fernando Valley, South Bay, and Long Beach. Part of the budget is allocated for improvements in bicycle and pedestrian connectivity. The extension of the expo line for Los Angeles is a modern example of new urbanism. As depicted below, to increase rail usage and frequency, the expo line brings together neighborhoods and activities. This in turn encourages rail users to walk or bike from their stops to an assortment of destinations. In theory, the expo line appears to be a fool proof plan for Los Angeles’ issue of walkability. What it fails to consider is the foundation in which the city was built upon – Los Angeles is a city of suburbs and has been from the start. Although convenient, what is even more convenient is the luxury of a personal car and a pristine home with plenty of lawn space. What appears to be an initiative that is pushing the city forward may be experiencing resistance from a population fixated on what the city has always been. Thus, what are the limits of new urbanism and what are the affects of new urbanism in cities such as Los Angeles?
The Urban Experiment
The momentum that is new urbanism can also be studied at a more local scale. In 1993, in response to the city’s popular vote, a plan to strengthen Oklahoma City’s urban core was set to take place. As of today, MAPS (Metropolitan Area Projects) has already completed quality of life projects such as the Bricktown Ballpark, the Bricktown Canal, the Chesapeake Energy Arena, the Civic Center Music Hall, and the Downtown Library. Currently unfolding its third phase, MAPS 3 pushes the limits of urban Oklahoma City quite literally. The Downtown Public Park will act as a node for development just south of the Oklahoma River, which is already a place of recreation with the construction of world-class boathouse facilities and the family-friendly Riversport Adventures. To increase mobility throughout downtown Oklahoma City, a modern streetcar will push the boundaries of a currently low transit ridership. Finally, MAPS 3 will tackle the city’s walkability with plans to improve its sidewalks and trails. Although MAPS is not projected to be completed until the year 2021, there is evidence that it has already grown Oklahoma City into a city worth noting. For instance, the annual rate of population has increased to 1.6 percent. Many Americans are relocating to cities such as Oklahoma City in search of jobs and lower costs of living. The oil and gas industry are job attractors for Oklahoma as well as the aviation industry – recently having captivated the interests of one of the big leagues, Boeing Commercial. Additionally, micro businesses have strategically taken over the market in Oklahoma City. A rapid settlement of small shops and local fare in the city’s historic districts are now popular spots for both visitors and residents.
It is as though we have all fallen back in love with our downtown; there is a yearning to be apart of its growth. Although most of the state are not urban dwellers, Oklahomans against all odds will make the trip in to experience life in the city – even if it is just for an evening. The commute to Oklahoma City is still most convenient by car. Once the car is parked, in walking distance are restaurants, shops, housing, museums, live music, galleries, and sports arenas. By making available these diverse programs, people are discovering reasons to walk. There is still a ton of work to be done – walkability is not something that can be solved with brick, mortar, and a few feet of asphalt. It is solved through a change in lifestyle. Below, Mayor Mick Cornett tells the story of a city and its people that has already overcome a number of its differences all due to walkability.
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