Neighbourhood accessibility and walkability of subsidised housing in shrinking US cities

Neighbourhood accessibility and walkability of subsidised housing in shrinking US cities


Written by:

Li Yin, Kelly Patterson, Robert Silverman, Laiyun Wu and Hao Zhang

First Published:

17 Nov 2020, 3:29 am


Neighbourhood accessibility and walkability of subsidised housing in shrinking US cities



Walkability, One Size Does Not Fit All

During the past decade, there has been growing awareness that walkable neighbourhoods are desirable. Walkable neighbourhoods get people out of there cars, make street life more vibrant, increase opportunities to enhance physical activity, and promote social interactions. In short, they make neighbourhood experiences more tactile and allow for daily activities to occur on a human scale.

Despite growing interest in incorporating walkable elements into neighbourhoods, we were concerned about the lack of attention to walkability in older neighbourhoods, particularly lower income areas experiencing decline. Instead of examining walkability across the spectrum of neighbourhoods, much of the literature on walkability examined newer communities in growing metropolitan areas. As a result, analysis and policy recommendations were generated for middle-class and more privileged communities. Places that already had a leg up. Left out of the discussion were older legacy cities with larger African American and Latinx populations. To us, recommendations being forwarded ignored the needs of working-class neighbourhoods in older cities impacted by decades of population decline.

Our Article, speaks to two shortcomings in the discourse on walkability. The first involves fundamental flaws in how scholars and practitioners measure walkability. The second, involves the need for urban planning to become more dynamic and approach topics like walkability through a social justice lens.


Refining Walk Score

One of the most widely used measures for walkability is Walk Score, a publicly accessible walkability index. Walk Score is problematic for a number of reasons discussed in our article. In general, Walk Score is relatively generic in how it measures walkable features and it lacks attention to more localised data. In particular, Walk Score does not incorporate data points that differentiate between relatively affluent neighbourhoods and those riddled by historic patterns of disinvestment. To correct for this problem, we constructed an accessibility-walkability index (AWI) which accounts for characteristics like the presence of abandoned property, access to public transportation, and proximity to large economic and social institutions that provide residents with critical resources (i.e. key destinations that pedestrians seek to access). When we compared Walk Score to our AWI in legacy cities, we found that our index was better at identifying walkable neighbourhoods where social equity could be promoted. This is important, since the AWI was shown to be a better tool for siting affordable housing and other physical development projects in areas where people can access opportunities for upward mobility. In light of our findings, we recommend that the AWI be adopted by equity planners.


Walkability = Social Justice

Our article makes more than a methodological contribution, it advances social justice goals in urban planning. Our analysis shows that more refined analytic tools that are sensitive to neighbourhood characteristics relevant to historically disenfranchised groups are essential to equity planning. Unlike Walk Score, the AWI incorporates two critical features that impact walkability. First, it considers aesthetic barriers to walkability like abandoned property. In essence, the AWI highlights that walkability is not just about the density of amenities, but it is also about the barriers that blight can impose on residents’ physical mobility. Second, the AWI considers the socio-economic relevance of potential destinations that pedestrians seek to access. Walkability isn’t just about walking aimlessly in a neighbourhood, it is about access to institutional resources that promote social mobility. Both considerations are at the core of equity planning.


Read the accompanying article on Urban Studies OnlineFirst here.