Walkability and neighborhood walking scores are the new buzz words in urban planning. Getting ready to buy or rent a house, and want to know if it is close to cafes and bookstores? You can go online and get the walkscore for that neighborhood…really.
Last Monday at 7:30 in the morning, urban planners from La Paz, members of the International Community Foundation, some young architects, a professor from UNAM in Mexico City, Antonio Suarez, this writer, and Paul Zikofsky the person that dragged us all out so early, walked from the municipal pier on the Malecon to Café El Corazon on Revolucion and Constitucion. During the walk Zikofsky stopped many times to assess the walkability of the sidewalks and connecting streets.
What is walkability? Who is Zikofsky and why do we care? Zikofsky is the Associate Director of the Local Government Commission (LCG) based in Sacramento. He is a trained architect and spent many years working as an urban planner. He grew up in Mexico and is bilingual. LCG’s mission statement says in part: “The Local Government Commission (LGC) is a nonprofit, nonpartisan, membership organization that provides inspiration, technical assistance, and networking to local elected officials and other dedicated community leaders who are working to create healthy, walkable, and resource-efficient communities.” Paul has consulted with small cities in the US and Mexico.
Walkability, simply put, is how friendly an area is to walking. Are houses, work places, public transportation, and businesses within a comfortable walk? And is there shade? Are curbs in good condition? Are sidewalks maintained, are they wide enough for two lovers to walk hand-in-hand? Can a person in a wheelchair propel themselves up a sidewalk ramp? Can they safely negotiate the sidewalks and street crossings?
Walkability and bicycle access go hand-in-hand. And Suarez, also known as Fevo, was here to promote bike riding instead of using a car. He has been consulting with some bicycle groups in La Paz, specifically with Lucia Coral and the Balandra Bike Ride which was 150 people strong last year. He sees a future 20 years hence when bicycles dominate downtown La Paz. So what does all of this mean? And did La Paz pass the audit? Yes and no.
Let’s start with what it means. Large malls have been built outside of Centro. And one mall has a movie complex and a Starbucks, that since it opened, has had a never-ending line and all the tables filled in the afternoon. The view is the parking lot. You need a car to visit these stores, and you take your life in your hands trying to get in or out of the mall. Or…
Drive downtown and park. Walk to a café, have an ice cream and sit on a bench on the beach with your toes in the sand. Walk to the bank, a restaurant, and shops. Stop and talk to people that you know. Pet a dog, pat a cute kid on the head. Step into a crosswalk and cars stop for you. Try crossing from Liverpool to Wal-Mart on foot. Are you crazy? You could get killed! And four cars would flatten you before they could stop. Which scenario appeals to you?
So when it comes to the audit or test, La Paz has room for improvement. I think of Roy Orbison singing Pretty Woman. He lets out a sexy growl after he sings about the pretty woman walking down the street. On many sidewalks in La Paz, you may hear a growl, but it is far from sexy, it is an expletive because someone just tripped on a raised sidewalk, tripped in a hole, or bashed their head on a low-hanging air conditioner. Or all three!
On the brighter side, the streets downtown are narrow, the sidewalks are fairly wide; there is some shade but not enough. You can walk to the post office and bank and stop at different restaurants. Why are narrow streets good? According to Zikofsky, they make cars behave; they cannot speed or pass at high speed.
So what did we see on our walk? One item was a Coke machine outside a store that forced us to walk single file or step into the street to get around it. Big columns supporting awnings, the columns blocked the way for those strolling lovers. And on a four-corner intersection, there was only one wheelchair ramp. And there were no trees.
So why is Zikofsky here critiquing our city? He was invited. There was a New Partners for Smart Growth convention in San Diego. The International Community Foundation (ICF) paid for the city planners of La Paz to attend. That is where Zikofsky found out about La Paz. His expenses and those of Fevo were paid by ICF.
At the end of our walk, we were treated to breakfast and slide presentations by Zikofsky and Fevo. One of the most dramatics slides showed the difference between how a pedestrian perceives a crosswalk and how a driver sees it. For the pedestrian, it is clearly marked with wide yellow bands that lead them across the intersection. The driver sees nothing but road and some pedestrians interfering with driving. When I try to cross the Malecon, I often step into the road and point down at the crosswalk and then hold up my hand to stop the cars. And if I am really irritated, I might yell “Don’t you see that I’m in the crosswalk?” Well now, I know that the driver cannot see the crosswalk.
Zikofsky pointed out that walkable cities have healthier populations. Obesity is a growing problem everywhere. Getting people, especially kids onto bikes or on foot is better for the air and for their health. Fevo says that planning is not to be left to the government. Planning is the people pushing the government. Fevo pointed out that a walkable city is a safer city. He said that, the more women and children that are on the street, the less likely there is to be criminal activity.
After the presentation, small break-out groups formed to work on ideas about making La Paz Centro more walkable. Worldwide, people are moving to the older parts of cities. They want to walk to cafes and bookstores and are willing to hoof a little farther if they can get to work on public transportation.
Was this just a feel-good exercise? Not at all. This work is to help formalize urban planning in La Paz and for the city to apply for funds from the Inter American Development Bank (IDB). IDB is the largest source of funding for governments in Latin America and the Caribbean. This is part of a plan to create sustainable cities.
When asked if La Paz was lost. Zikofsky said, “No, it is a spectacular landscape, just gorgeous, a lovely downtown. But it needs help. The crumbling sidewalks and curbs need to be fixed. The streets are well connected and generally easy for cars and pedestrian to get where they are going.”
How important is walkability? Important enough that two major real estate search sites Zillow.com and Trulia.com score each property on its walkability. Walkscore.com allows you to enter an address of an apartment or rental to get its walkability score. And a good 50% of the people coming to rent or buy in La Paz say they want to be within walking distance to the Malecon. La Paz, in general, garnered a walk score of 50, which means somewhat walkable. And when I typed in El Malecon, the score dropped to 37 and was labeled “car-dependent”. We know that this is a little off. One of the joys of El Centro is that you can walk everywhere.
Get out there and walk!
Susan Fogel is the broker-owner of PrestigePropertyGroupLaPaz.com. And she loves to walk on the Malecon.