Walk the Walk

Walk the Walk

La Citta Vita / Flickr

It’s official: Walking works. The Brookings Institution has put out a study, and the Sunday review section of The New York Times has ratified it. Not only is walking good for your health; walking is good for making places livable. And in the one way that seems to count: by adding on average a value increase of $8.88 per square foot to office rent, $6.92 to retail rent, $301.76 per month to apartment rent and $81.54 to home value with every increase in degree of walkability, according to the Brookings paper which drew on metropolitan Washington D.C. for its data.

It may seem obvious that places where people can convene, converse, and commute with ease are superior to places where you slip from car through garage into your home unseen, but it needed to be said, and with dollar signs and real estate values. Thus armed, developers and planning agencies can put some weight behind making walkability a development and planning priority over, say, surface parking, competitive height, or suburban-style sprawl.

It’s a lesson that architects, landscape architects, and planners have already absorbed. “Weaving together” and “reconnecting urban fabric” have been in common parlance for at least a decade. Hudson Yards in New York has walkability at two levels, along a new boulevard and up on the rescued last stretch of the High Line; the Southwest Ecodistrict and Wharf in D.C. are all about “mixed use across the site in continual rotation” which sounds like planner-speak for “you can walk there safely at night.” In Los Angeles, the visions recently released for the 40 acres around Union Station all presume courtyards and parks before those emblems of auto-centric planning, axes and gateways. The director of one team, NBBJ/Ingenhoven Architects, Ben Dieckmann pronounced bluntly that “towns are not created by buildings but by the voids between them.”

As large-scale urban master plans talk the walk in the United States, what are they saying abroad? More American firms than ever, and at all sizes, are working in Asia, the Middle East and India. They are hired over local designers as a sign of aspiration by governments and developers expecting to get the most sophisticated and advanced planning and architecture available in the world. Too often, instead, architects find themselves rising to the occasion of what one British journalist described as the most common brief: Build me an icon, here’s the budget.

And while green roofs have quickly surfaced on mega-structures of every size and ambition, variation in scale, walkability, and true connections to context appear more rarely. The Gensler-designed Dubai International Financial Center built with speed in the early noughts is basically a 60’s-style towers-in-the-park complex dressed up with some sustainable flourishes and surrounded by streaking roadways. Recently, for the Korean developer aptly named Dreamhub, Daniel Libeskind created a master plan for 34 million square feet based on the concept of islands in a sea of green, called Archipelago 21. That’s for the 21 or so renowned architects—many American—each doing their own thing in the splendid isolation of their own “island” (see a few of them on page 8). Even as the plan invokes sustainability, high-speed rail and green spaces, it barely addresses the street-level experience of people trying to get from, say, Murphy Jahn’s 1,050 foot double-tower with its four-story skyparks and solar shading to REX’s high-performance, "mega-braced" frameless facade for a short term residence or to SOM’s 64-story diagonal tower with monumental lobby braced by what appear to be the very legs of Ozymandius.

Announced in May, a 4.3 million square foot mixed-used development in Zhengzhou, China promises something more. The concept by Louisiana-based Trahan Architects doesn’t lead with towers but with infrastructure including a boulevard of green space that flows not only across the site from the city but up and into the mezzanine level of a hotel plus live/work program. That certainly sounds better than the usual retail base as the standard way to connect with walking, talking humans.

Obviously, architects have limited sway when called to a job. Still, it would be nice to believe that architects when working as planners will make that extra effort to espouse the same values of human scale and walkability when working abroad as they are beginning to do so effectively here.