Mapping walkability on the Wasatch Front

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The City Creek block on Main Street scores high in walkability. Image courtesy the Wasatch Front Regional Council.

Walkability can be an elusive concept for Utah residents. Utah’s uniquely large square blocks and urban growth built around the car have produced few pedestrian-oriented areas for residents to use as a reference.

In the past “we’ve had a hard time measuring walkability,” said Jon Larsen, the forecasting and information services manager for the Wasatch Front Regional Council (WFRC).  “People know when they see it but when people talk about walkability all the time, it is kind of been a mysterious thing.”

University of Utah professor, Reid Ewing attempted to quantify walkability in his book, “Measuring Urban Design: Metrics for Livable Places” co-written with transportation planner, Otto Clemente.  In his book, Ewing created a numerical score based on first-hand assessments of corridors in and around Salt Lake.  While Ewing’s book is written for an academic audience, a team at the WFRC, a collaborative body that brings together local officials from across the Wasatch Front to plan for the region’s growth, has created a story map based on Ewing’s methodology to document the walkability of over 1,200 blocks along most of the Wasatch Front.

“We don’t have the luxury to not plan for our future,” said Muriel Xochimitl, the director of intergovernmental affairs and communications for WFRC.

According to Xochimitl, the story map tool is part of the implementation phase of the WFRC’s Wasatch Choice vision which builds off of the Wasatch 2040 plan.  Xochimitl sees the tool as putting the WFRC’s vision into work, making it a reality.

Larsen saw the story map as the best avenue to get the word out on gaps in walkability while raising awareness of the benefits of active pedestrian nodes.

Larsen sees the story map as key to helping “people see where the walkable areas are and quantify why they are walkable.”  

It took over a year to collect the data for the story map, with interns and staff physically going to the area’s that the WFRC had previously designated as key nodes for higher density development in Salt Lake, Davis and Weber Counties.  WFRC staff used the five areas important to walkability defined by Ewing, to assess each node:

  • Imageability: is the visual impact based on the personal experience of the pedestrian, including trees, landscape, landmarks and signage.
  • Enclosure: buildings, trees and walls create a room-like ambience along a street.
  • Human Scale:  is the spatial relationship between structures and human proportions.
  • Transparency: is the visibility or perception of human activity between public and private space.
  • Complexity: includes structural and aesthetic details that create rhythm along a corridor.
The overall walkability scores of downtown Salt Lake as determined by the WFRC. Image courtesy the WFRC.
The overall walkability scores of downtown Salt Lake as determined by the WFRC. Image courtesy the WFRC.

The story map uses a color scale to show how the selected nodes score block by block in each of the five categories.

The findings reaffirm that downtown Salt Lake and the Sugar House central business district are the regions’ most walkable nodes.  But the data also supports the findings of Dr. Emil Malizia, a professor of city and regional planning at the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill, that found significant vibrancy gaps in downtown.  According to the story map, large sections of 200 West and North Temple have low walkability scores.

“We hear from communities that we want to be more walkable,” said Larsen.  But, ““We have some work to do.”

The WFRC team hopes that the story map tool helps communities plan ways that improve air quality by reducing traffic congestion and prioritizing funding that promotes walking while helping steer cities away from investments that encourage car dependency.

“We want it to be highly visual and engaging,” said Larsen. “It is the little things that make you feel like a place is built for human beings.”

About Isaac Riddle 630 Articles

Isaac Riddle grew up just outside of Salt Lake City, Utah. He has a BA in English literature from the University of Utah and a Masters of Journalism from Temple University. Isaac has written for
Next City, The Philadelphia Public School Notebook and Salt Lake City Weekly. Before embarking on a career in journalism, Isaac taught High School English in the Kensington neighborhood of Philadelphia. Isaac is the founder of Building Salt Lake and can be reached at isaac@buildingsaltlake.com.