Richard Florida is a co-founder and editor at large of CityLab and a senior editor at The Atlantic. He is a university professor in the University of Toronto’s School of Cities and Rotman School of Management, and a distinguished fellow at New York University’s Schack Institute of Real Estate.
Miami and Detroit—yes, Detroit—make serious strides in Walk Score's newest rankings.
In an announcement that will surprise no one, Walk Score, the company that produces the go-to metric for walkable cities, has once again ranked New York as the number one most walkable large U.S. city. With a score of 87.6, New York in fact extended its lead over number two San Francisco, which also ranked second the last time Walk Score released its ranking for large cities, in 2011. Walk Score calculates its rankings based on an algorithm that incorporates walking routes, pedestrian friendliness and neighborhood and population characteristics for 2,500 of the country's cities. The chart below shows America’s 10 most walkable large cities for 2015:
Walk Score Ranking of Large U.S. Cities
The list, again unsurprisingly, is dominated by cities along the Boston-New York-Washington Corridor: Boston is third, Philadelphia is fourth, D.C. seventh and Baltimore tenth. But Walk Score’s newest rankings do contain some notable and encouraging surprises that suggest it is more than possible for a city to foster increased walkability.
Miami has jumped three spots, for instance, from the eighth most walkable large U.S. city in 2011 to fifth place today. Since 2011, the Florida city has seen an incredible condo boom, with high-density developments popping up all over. But interestingly enough, the collapse of Miami’s condo market during the Great Recession has also played a role in the city’s walkable transformation. The crisis in the housing market meant that many condos that were built for owners—many of them absentee owners from other countries—had to be rented instead, often to young people. This created more downtown vibrancy, fueling urban street life in neighborhoods like Brickell.
Even more important have been the place-making efforts of people like the late Tony Goldman and others to transform Wynwood into a walkable neighborhood, complete with art galleries, cafes and restaurants. The area has now become a center for urban startups and entrepreneurs undergirded by spaces like the Lab Miami, which is supported by the Knight Foundation. The neighboring Design District, under the leadership of developer Craig Robins, has been transformed into a new kind of high-end urban mall.
These walkable districts have come together independently even though they remain somewhat dispersed and disconnected. The city’s recently proposed Biscayne Green project, an effort of the Miami Downtown Development Authority (DDA), is a model for the types of projects that could help stitch these areas together into a more coherent and walkable whole. The project would cut heavily trafficked Biscayne Boulevard from an eight- to six-lane street, and dramatically cut the distances pedestrians would have to travel to cross. As CityLab has noted, the project isn’t perfect: It would see a net gain of 150 parking spots in the area. Still, the participation of Miami DDA is a good sign that policymakers are now willing to invest in walkable infrastructure.
Detroit has also seen a notable improvement in its Walk Score since 2011. In recent years the struggling city has been the site of substantial downtown revitalization orchestrated by a unique partnership of corporate leaders, such as Quicken Loan’s Dan Gilbert, and local foundations. Gilbert, who famously purchased many older buildings in what he called a "skyscraper sale,” has bought dozens of properties in the downtown area. With the help of the Project for Public Spaces, the entire downtown area, stretching from the old central business district through the arts and cultural district and over to Corktown, has been transformed into a much more vibrant and walkable area.
Miami and Detroit exhibit very different approaches to walkability. Detroit’s transformation has been more business-driven and centrally led, while Miami’s has been more organic and neighborhood-based. But they both show that walkability can grow in places where it previously did not exist. And they demonstrate how far we have come from the heavy-handed, car-centric days of urban-renewal, as businesses and philanthropic efforts begin to focus more on neighborhood upgrading and revitalization.
If it can be done in these cities, it can be done in many more. And such lessons are not just for dense, superstar cities like New York, San Francisco and Boston. What happened in relatively low-density districts of Miami suggests that walkability can happen in suburban areas as well.
We know that walkable cities are good for you. With the right mix of strategies and support, it’s clear that they can be encouraged and built up in many more places.