Many elements factor into a city’s sustainability. The economy, the quality of life for its citizens, the culture, and the potential for growth all affect a city’s lifespan. It’s easy to overlook how walkability contributes to a sustainable city, but these two qualities can make a small city prosperous and turn a large city into a true treasure. To illustrate this point, let’s compare two US cities and their walkability.
New York City, New York is the most walkable city in the country and an internationally recognized center of urbanity and financial might. Boise, Idaho, by contrast, is a smallish city in a mostly rural state that is moving towards cultural and economic significance in the West. What walkability lessons can NYC offer Boise in terms of sustainability?
Why is walkability important to city sustainability?
First, let’s talk about why any city should even pursue walkability to bolster its sustainability. The health of a city can be greatly boosted by a focus on improving walkability because it is a quality that most starkly reflects the economy, culture, and crime rate of a city. If any of these areas are weak, the walkability of a city will go down. This makes it a barometer of sorts for the health of a city.
New York City: The Picture of Sustainability
New York City doesn’t even have to try. It’s the #1 most walkable city in the country for a reason. New York boasts the world’s largest rapid transit system, a huge portfolio of bicycle lanes, and an impressive 29,000 acres of Parks stewardship. All of these aspects add to NYC’s walkability by providing safe, well-maintained areas for transit and recreation.
Also take into account the fact that New York has a wealth of diverse areas that are sewn together into a quilt of culture. There aren’t huge gaps between social centers or commercial districts. Urbanist Mitchel Loring said in This Big City’s September #citytalk that he believes that a city fails when:
A1 When people only feel comfortable in physical/defined places, never in the spaces between the places #citytalk
— Mitchel Loring (@MLLoring) September 18, 2013
Someone walking on the streets of NYC will have the distinct feeling of New Yorkness that makes such a diverse city feel cohesive.
Boise: A Promising Metropolis
As a case study of a smaller city, take a look at my old hometown, Boise, Idaho.
Culturally, Boise does have areas to recommend it. The Grove Plaza (known colloquially as “The Grove”) spans several city blocks. Bollards block vehicles from the area, making it safe for pedestrians. Children (and adults) can play in the Grove fountain, which shoots water up from the pavement. On any given evening, especially on weekends, this area comes to life. Julia Davis Park, which boarders Boise State University’s very walkable campus, has the Boise River and the Green Belt running through it, as well as being situated right alongside a Rose Garden, Art Museum, History Museum, and City Zoo. A bit farther down the way, Ann Morrison Park is popular for many outdoor activities.
In terms of food and medicine, Boise already has a lot going for it. The downtown location of Boise-based warehouse-supermarket, WinCo, provides a viable supermarket within walking distance of many downtown homes. The Boise Co-Op, too, gives the highly walkable North-End a source of fresh produce. St. Luke’s Hospital proper sits at a corner very near the heart of the city, making it accessible to many people on foot. Steps have already been taken to nurture downtown Boise’s growing walkability. November of 2012, Idaho’s only location of Whole Foods opened right near Winco, at a busy intersection near St. Luke’s Hospital. This year, Idaho’s only location of Trader Joe’s will open smack dab in the middle of downtown.
Meanwhile, JUMP (Jack’s Urban Meeting Place) is in construction for a 2015 premier: the Simplot-sponsored, 65,000 sq ft community center will add much-needed additional walkability to Boise’s “BoDo” district.
Growing a City with Walkability
Outside of these thriving downtown areas, there’s very little walkability of any kind in Boise. Aside from the well-kept Green Belt that runs 25 miles across the city, there are very few places popular for walking and sitting. Most of the city’s bus stops don’t even have benches.
So what should come next for Boise?
In order to share the walkability success that the North End enjoys, Boise should first emulate New York’s commitment to a public transit system. All the most beautiful parks and community events in the world aren’t worth much if one can’t get to them without a car. The likelihood of a Boise subway system is low, but an improved bus system would go far.
Next, Boise should expand its profile of bike lanes. In a city with a large population of cyclists, there are shockingly few truly safe bike routes that span the area.
Despite there being plenty of walkable areas in the North End and even Bown Crossing to the East, there are deserts of walkable areas in West Boise. Putting in a pedestrian-friendly, sitable commerce area like Little Italy would be a great start in making the city truly interconnected.
By undertaking these tasks, Boise could boost its sustainability and make paces in catching up to the nation’s walkability leaders.
Improving walkability is important to maintain or create a successful city. By uniting its denizens in a city’s culture and attracting outside visitors and business, a city can reinforce its strengths and guarantee a bright future.
Robert Dalton is a writer from Portland, Oregon. He currently writes for Reliance Foundry, supplier of eco-friendly bollards.