A Walking Delight

By BEN BROESAMLE

The reading this week about delight gave me a new way of thinking about a large focus in my life. I’ve thought a lot about how transit infrastructure doesn’t actually change Walk Scores alone, but I hadn’t put together the feeling of delight and how it is expressed by Walk Scores. Walk Scores tell us about the variety and density of uses within a short distance. Variety and density are two factors that make up the human experience in an “interesting” built environment. But they don’t translate directly to the delight from design. You can still have concrete masonry units and Hardiepanel in high Walk Score areas, neither are the most appealing.

In my spare time I do a lot of work on the Board of Seattle Subway, an organization that collectively envisions a city and region fully connected by fast, reliable high-capacity transit. My personal vision has been to use infrastructure investment to create a new American lifestyle option. After building transit with travel times competitive with driving, even much faster than driving in some cases, we can stop reacting as if cars must have access to everything. Once the new infrastructure itself is in place, we should be able to focus on changing the locations within close proximity to transit to increase the priority given to people and decrease the priority for cars.

We’ve started this by reducing parking requirements near transit stations and by using Walk Score to quantify variety and density of activity, but we haven’t yet learned how to incentivize various architectural styles to create interesting places.

We discuss reducing barriers to monetary issues like affordability, but we have so far neglected the design element. We could incentivize “pedestrian overlay” and “station area overlay” zones to have interesting pedestrian-oriented design, including sidewalk cafes, more expensive facades with more intricate designs, parklets, and other qualitative features that make the human experience more interesting at the street level. These additional elements would create a greater sense of delight through their variability and design intricacies.

How would we achieve that? We could create an alternative design guidance process for projects focusing on these that reduce the need to engage in design review and allow a faster process, we could allow trade-offs for façade design and materials with other elements of the project that also increase costs, we could create a monetary incentive to offset the cost of more intricately designed facades, and we could go straight to a form based code system that requires materials and façade design that exclude hardy panel.

The end goal is to create spaces that increase the delight felt in living a lower vehicle-miles-traveled lifestyle by creating more interesting pedestrian experiences near transit facilities. Rapid transit will be faster than driving, but we must now consider the user experience after we reach the destination.

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