Sustainable Cities Collective has re-launched as Smart Cities Dive! Click here to learn more!

Seattle: Identity Rooted in Walkability

Unlike most major cities, Seattle is truly a city comprised of distinct neighborhoods, and their commonality is an individuality rooted in walkability (and therefore livability). Walkable urbanism is a long-established practice in Seattle due to the city's natural growth boundaries (Elliot Bay, Lake Washington, etc.) and progressive zoning regulations. The city is often cited as the one of the most walkable cities on the West Coast. But what makes Seattle, or any other city, walkable?

Walk Score (a Seattle-based company) developed an algorithm that gives a metric to walkability by awarding points based on the distance to neighborhood amenities (grocery stores, shops, etc.). It rates an address on a scale from 0 to 100, with maximum points given to amenities within a quarter mile. A Walk Score of 90 – 100 is a "Walker's Paradise," meaning that running daily errands does not require a car.

Walkability is more than calculating the proximity to uses. Other factors that are empirically linked with walkability (according to a Brookings Institute study) include:

  • Aesthetics (the architecture and landscape architecture);Jimi Hendrix statue in Capitol Hill
  • Connectivity (public transit);
  • Density;
  • Urban form;
  • Personal safety;
  • And traffic measures (traffic signals and traffic calming techniques).

These additional factors, especially aesthetics and urban form, give neighborhoods a distinct character. In Seattle, neighborhoods such as Capitol Hill and the U-District are given the same Walk Score, yet each place defines itself through its streetlife. The U-District, home to the University of Washington campus, holds the longest running street festival in Seattle. The U-District StreetFair, held annually on "The Ave" (University Way), animates streetlife for residents and visitors alike. In Capitol Hill, public art is used as a pedestrian amenity that entices people to walk. The Jimi Hendrix statue on Broadway is one of the most popular public art pieces in Seattle.

Street festivals and public art are just two examples of how Seattle enhances street life to improve walkability. What other techniques can be employed to improve street life and walkability in American cities?

Credits: Photographs by Amanda Bosse. Data linked to sources.