Kaid Benfield is the director of the Sustainable Communities and Smart Growth program at the Natural Resources Defense Council, co-founder of the LEED for Neighborhood Development rating system, and co-founder of Smart Growth America.
Sometimes the best insights come from looking at pictures of a space.
I’m not sure there is any one word that describes my concept of a sustainable community place more than walkability. At least when it comes to describing the physical aspects of a place. Is it safe, comfortable, and enjoyable to walk in? Does it have an abundance of places to walk to and from? Is it human-scaled? If the answer is yes, chances are that it also has many of the characteristics that smart growth and urbanist planners strive to achieve: density, mixed uses, connectivity, appropriate traffic management, street frontages, opportunity for physical activity, and so on.
Tuxedo Park apartments, Miami Beach
(By the way, I'm not saying that "how walkable is it?" is the only question you need to ask to determine likelihood of sustainability. But it's a heck of a start.)
Left, Galway, Ireland; Right, Rue du Moulard, Geneva
Jackson Square, New Orleans
These are places that I have photographed, frequently but not always while traveling, and that for me capture the essence of walkability. I’ve used some here already in various posts, but not most of them. I suspect that many readers have their own favorite walkable places and photos, but these are some of mine.
Salt Spring Island, British Columbia
Jardin du Luxembourg, Paris
I must have 30 images of this wonderful city park, and any one of them could hold a prominent place in anyone's gallery of great city places. It's that special.
St. Peter Street, New Orleans
Inner Harbor, Victoria, BC
Hackesche Hofe, Berlin
East Berlin's Hackesche Hofe, not far from the market and transit station shown at the top of this post, has an amazing series of interlocking courtyards that, uniquely in my experience, create a variety of perfectly-scaled urban environments in the heart of a very large city.
Upper West Side, New York City
Left, St. Peter Street, New Orleans; Right, Via Fillungo, Lucca, Italy
These two scenes are so similar that one might expect them to be in the same place. If there is a large city in North America more photogenic, subtly evocative and impressionistic than New Orleans, I don't know what it is. I can make a case for San Francisco, Washington or Montreal, and all are wonderful. But not as soft and subtle.
If it weren't my own gallery, I would be surprised to see a small city in Texas here. But Fredericksburg is immensely walkable (and the Hill Country around it wonderful for cycling).
Inner Harbor, Victoria, BC
Lynchburg's historic downtown has the right assets to support a comeback.
Gare TGV, Avignon
A great walkable community place needn't be historic, traditional in design, or even outdoors, as Avignon's high-speed rail station demonstrates.
Near Les Halles, Paris
Left, Roussillon, Provence; Right, Les Baux, Provence
It's not a coincidence that so many of the world's most walkable community places were built before the automobile.
City Hall, Asheville, NC
After some rocky years, my hometown of Asheville has done a lot of things right with its very walkable downtown. As a child growing up there, I learned a bit about walkability and imagined what bigger cities were like. Douglas D. Ellington designed the majestic art deco City Hall and several other prominent buildings in Asheville, including my high school.
It seems right to finish the gallery with a scene just a few blocks from my home in Washington.
There will be a follow-up post, by the way. I have some friends who are just ridiculously talented photographers, and who also travel this same intellectual turf. Later this week, or perhaps next, I want to feature some of their great photos walkable community places. Trust me: you’ll be impressed.
All photos courtesy: Kaid Benfield. This post originally appeared on the NRDC's Switchboard blog.