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Density is Great, But Walkability Needs More

Manhattan Beach Pedestrian StreetAchieving density and creating public circulation space that is centered around pedestrians are both key components to fostering a walkable environment. Both are things that the typical American, suburban model lack. With homes spread so far apart–from both each other and any non-residential destination–walking becomes senseless in communities that are beholden to the car down to the very fabric of their planning. Raising the number of residential units per acre and designing space for pedestrian travel that would  otherwise be devoted to roads can be important strides in making options other than driving more attractive and plausible. However, walkability hinges on more than only these variables alone and their inclusion does not guarantee success.

A relatively dense neighborhood still needs to facilitate its residents to walk to more than just their neighbors. A mixture of uses that comprise daily destinations need to be within a manageable radius in order to truly reduce net vehicle miles traveled and get people out on the street. If walking somewhere becomes quicker or more convenient than driving, people will throw on their shoes, but if planning choices are made to preserve the convenience and affordability of cars then people will continue to drive even with density and pedestrian-scaled streetscapes.

I recently took a trip to California and stayed in Manhattan Beach, an oceanfront community of Los Angeles. As frequent readers could imagine, the car-centric, highway-strewn, traffic inducing, smog laden metropolis of Los Angeles has never been on my list of top destinations. Although I had been to L.A. a number of times before, it was my first time in this particular section of the city and at first glance it was not what I had expected.

Walking down Highland Avenue, parallel to the Pacific Ocean, a series of small side streets branch off east and west, one side falling down towards the water while the other climbs higher up the hill. While every house seems to be accessible by car, you can only drive on half of the streets spilling towards the sand. This is because every other street is a pedestrian path flanked by small patios and gardens leading to the beach. These veins of walking culminate at a wider foot path along the beach and a bike path shortly beyond–not dissimilar from the Promenade in Brooklyn Heights or the waterside thoroughfare of Battery Park City.

Walkable Streets Beach Density

In many ways Manhattan Beach takes a step away from many common attributes of the American suburbs. To capitalize on the limited space overlooking the water, lots are small with homes built upward and closer together, each one having a one story view over the neighbor down the hill. It is hard not to be struck by the comfortable scale of houses and adjoining planted spaces that one might describe as "European", designed to the proportion of the pedestrian rather than the automobile. The sea of three story homes frame the sloped walking paths with their axial view to the beach.

A view up a pedestrian way. 20150213_145450 Pedestrian ways provide great beach access. Pedestrian patios with water beyond. Typical scale of homes at Manhattan Beach Manhattan Beach's terraced park overlooking the ocean.

The space separating the buildings seems divided roughly into thirds with the middle third comprising the path itself while the outer parcels designate small patches to help blur the delineation of public and private, much like a front porch or a townhouse's stoop. More than once I woke up to watching people greet each other as they sat at a small table outside their door with a morning coffee. Each resident lives without the expansive front or rear yards that are so coveted by most American suburbanites. Grass was (thankfully) exceedingly rare, traded for landscaping in native species attuned to the climate.

While this network of pedestrian ways define a "front" for the housing plots, a separate series of streets define the rear. Here the proportions have changed, toggled for two-way vehicular traffic and providing access to a garage of each unit. Similar to the alleyways of Chicago in their utilitarian roles, these rear streets bear no plantings or porches with many not even sporting sidewalks. The realm of the back door  completely changes one's perception of the space despite being comparable in width and volume to the pedestrian zone one block over.

Anyone Up for a Walk?

Manhattan Beach Promenade

Walking path along the beach.

After the initial surprise at the development pattern wore off, I found myself looking around at this pedestrian environment in search of pedestrians. The arterial spine of Highland Avenue (still a respectable 2-lane road with street parking, sidewalks and street trees on both sides) is a far cry away from the 8-lane behemoths decried by opponents of sprawl, but when it comes to walkers they are few and far between. So if the development pattern is denser and more pedestrian friendly than the typical suburban model, what is keeping all the people from the street?

The problem isn't the size of the blocks. Manageable blocks are key to a walkable neighborhood, but at roughly 100'x30? the block size here is relatively small. In his book Walkable City, planner and author Jeff Speck notes that "the more blocks per square mile, the more choices a pedestrian can make and the more opportunities there are to alter your path to visit a useful address such as a coffee shop or a dry cleaner. These choices also making walking more interesting while shortening the distance between destinations."

Unless there are no choices.

The lack of mixed uses is really the first delinquency of walkability at Manhattan Beach, specifically pieces of program like Ray Oldenburg's "Third Places" or uses that we frequent multiple times a week that inadvertently stimulate community interaction. Outside of the main strip near the pier, the bulk of Manhattan Beach is only housing, lacking the scattered markets, coffee shops and restaurants needed to promote activity. While my fellow urban colleagues and I made a 13-block trek in the morning to secure coffee and try some local pancakes, it was a tall order even for a group of New Yorkers and certainly couldn't be something we would sign up for everyday.

Manhattan Beach Cars

Rear alleys for car access.

However, the larger dilemma was that despite the fact that pedestrian access was easy, access by car was still easier. For every quaint pedestrian street an ample alley was just one block away with a garage to provide door-to-door access for every inhabitant. While the streets might not have been "congested" they were always active with cars. Part of making walking (and transit) more popular is making it a more convenient choice than driving–giving it access that cars don't necessarily have. With plentiful parking and few "places" within walking distance, people used the pedestrian streets for the only edge that it gave them above vehicular infrastructure–to get to the beach.

That irony, of course, is the weather. There may be a fair share of criticism for Los Angeles and its environs as the mecca of automotive homage, but its weather is fairly stellar. While folks in Manhattan are braving the elements as part of just another day, even clear skies, 79 degrees, a light breeze and an ocean view were not enough to motivate the masses to the sidewalks in this Californian community. Ultimately, the neighborhood provides another example of how a truly walkable locale rests on more than one attribute. In the same way that a community of transit-oriented-development needs more than location beside transit, density and pedestrian space alone do not a walkable neighborhood make.