24 February 2008

WalkScore: Quantifying urban experience

WalkScore is a piece of genius that quantifies a neighbourhood's 'walkability'. Enter your street address or postcode, and it uses shop and amenity data from Google Maps to give your specific address a walkability score out of 100.

So what does this concept of 'walkability' entail? They say:
Walkable communities tend to have the following characteristics:

* A center: Walkable neighborhoods have a discernable center, whether it's a shopping district, a main street, or a public space.
* Density: The neighborhood is dense enough for local businesses to flourish and for public transportation to be cost effective.
* Mixed income, mixed use: Housing is provided for everyone who works in the neighborhood: young and old, singles and families, rich and poor. Businesses and residences are located near each other.
* Parks and public space: There are plenty of public places to gather and play.
* Accessibility: The neighborhood is accessible to everyone and has wheelchair access, plenty of benches with shade, sidewalks on all streets, etc.
* Well connected, speed controlled streets: Streets form a connected grid that improves traffic by providing many routes to any destination. Streets are narrow to control speed, and shaded by trees to protect pedestrians.
* Pedestrian-centric design: Buildings are placed close to the street to cater to foot traffic, with parking lots relegated to the back.
* Close schools and workplaces: Schools and workplaces are close enough that most residents can walk from their homes.


However, their algorithms are not this complex. (That'd be some pretty hardcore GIS!) Instead, they're working off Google Maps to assess the distances from a particular location to its nearest amenities, then combining these figures and finally ranking that location's cumulative walkable accessibility from 0 to 100, bad to good. This means it doesn't actually address most of the criteria of 'walkability' above. So is it any use - does it provide any assessment that makes real-life sense when compared with our own detailed, lived knowledge of places?

I'm impressed. I currently live in the City's northern inner suburbs in a nameless locale not quite part of half a dozen districts. My address gets a walkability score of 60, which I think bang on. 24-hr petrol station & grocery store 500m up the hill; a medium size Tescos 10 minutes walk a way, as is the tube. Bus stop outside the door, tailors and dry-cleaners 100m away, bank and library and coffee shops (aka civilisation) about 15 minutes up the hill and down again. Of course there are innumerable chicken'n'chips and pizza takeaways in walking distance - or should I say fat-arsed waddling distance? re. issues of obesity and food poverty - as easy access to cheap fried grease make up the very fabric of the City's 'burban fringes! But 60% walkable? I think so. Day-to-day maintenance is by-and-large local & walked - but for work, pleasure, socialising it's straight on the bus into Central.

Does me good. First place I've lived in this City that I've remained in for more than six to nine months...

...Though damn, yes, I still miss the yuppie student brat pad I shared in Bloomsbury a while back, affordable courtesy of a friend with a daddy who was 'something in mineral extraction'. Not quite up there with LSE's Russian oligarch-spawn and their penthouses in Covent Garden, but not miles away either... Walkability score 95% + Soho in 12 minutes = bliss.

Grew up on the edge of the City's commuter belt in a supposed market town that was more one big dormitory 'burb. Now, it's clear that Google Maps doesn't provide such good shops/amenities tagging outside the City - the library's not tagged, the sports centre's not tagged - and, more generally, there's a problem that newsagents don't seem to get tagged, when they're the standby saviour shop for residential areas. So perhaps the WalkScore for my childhood home of 5% is a little harsh - but shit, it felt that cut-off from any life, so I do not criticise too far!

My friend Ash: "I say keep hating your hometown: it encourages aspiration."

WalkScore currently works for the UK, the US and Canada - with more countries to be added soon. So give it a shot and tell me - how's its alogrithms compare to your subjective feel for your neighbourhood's walkability?

17 February 2008

Starting point I

Raban 1974 Soft City
Cities, unlike villages and small towns, are plastic by nature. We mold them in our images: they, in their turn, shape us by the resistance they offer when we try to impose our personal form on them. In this sense, it seems to me that living in cities is an art, and we need the vocabulary of art, of style, to describe the peculiar relationship between man and material that exists in the continual creative play of urban living.
(p. 2)

Both the villagers and the media sophisticates watched themselves living; they were all actors, and their performances were subject to a continual critical scrutiny. The studied gesture, the hand cupped around the igniting tip of the cigarette, the flounce of the caftan, the muddy stride across the Green, these were part of a calculated repertoire. To be part of the city, you needed a city style - an economic grammar of identity through which you could project yourself. Clearly this was something to be learned; an expertise, a code with clear conventions. If you could not get the surface right, what hope was there of expressing whatever lay beneath it? ... Some people dealt so finely in its niceties that they li
ved out a kind of vulgar poetry.
(p. 54)

Most of my acquaintances there had no real precedents for the life they were leading; they wanted to be 'in London' without knowing where London really was. And so they conspired to build a metropolis as glamorous, witty and up-to-date as the place they'd imagined as sixth formers in some small town or suburb.
(p. 55)