Data-driven walkability & placemaking for the masses

This week’s expert: Maria Alfonzo

Mariela Alfonzo has over 20 years of expertise in the field of urban design and behaviour research. In 2014, Mariela was recognised as one of Urban Land Institute’s 40 under 40 best young land use professionals around the globe. In 2013, Dr. Alfonzo was awarded a Fulbright to examine walkability in China. Mariela is the Founder and CEO of State of Place.

When I was a teenager growing up in the car-dominated suburbs of Miami, I had never heard of the terms walkability, placemaking, or heck, even car-dominated! All I knew was that it sucked not having a car. It meant I had to rely on my friends’ parents to get me home from high school (my mom worked well way past 7 every day) and then once I got home, I was kinda stuck. And that meant figuring out dinner too. Now, having started cooking at the age of seven (that’s a story for another day), I was mostly set. But some days, I just craved this delicious sandwich (a cross between honey mustard and chicken teriyaki…odd, I know) that I used to get on occasion across the way from a local hole in the wall called Substantial Subs (yup). 

The only problem was that getting to it meant 1) navigating a side street with multiple driveways in and out of small strip malls that drivers egressed without a care in the world (i.e., without looking for pedestrians, which were – and are – an “endangered species” in Miami) and 2) dodging cars while crossing a 6-lane highway masquerading as a city-street. I braved the journey often enough to become quite indignant about being subjected to this level of humiliation. But it wasn’t until a 15-year-old friend of mine got killed crossing a street not unlike mine, for a reason not unlike mine, that I began to understand what walkability really was…or wasn’t…

Now, perhaps you being a passionate placemaker have a similar story, hopefully sans loss, that inspired you to create awesome places people love. But what’s different about my story is that I did not choose to advocate for better places in the traditional hear-me-roar kind of way (although man, as a Latina, I can certainly roar! ). Instead, I turned to data and evidence to prove to people that places mattered – or rather that people mattered and we needed to build better places for them first…

Now, the good news is that walkability, placemaking, sustainability – all of these concepts that I started to tell my Miami friends about 20 years ago that had them looking at me like I was nuts – have decidedly hit the “mainstream.” Just ask the citymaking Twitterati! BUT, for all the talk of Smart Cities, data and evidence have yet to become quotidian parts of the placemaking movement. So many today’s planning, design, and development decisions are still made based on intuition and gut. In fact, let’s face it, we’re still working in a field led mostly by the opinions and normative assumptions of older, white males – again, go look up said Twitterati. 

Now, you might be asking, well, is that necessarily a bad thing? And I’m here to say, yes, yes it demonstrably is (literally, see evidence below). Now, don’t get me wrong, this particular top-down approach is currently moving in the right direction – toward people-first cities. There’s no question that that’s a HUGE improvement on where we were two decades ago when we were designing cities based on the needs of inanimate two-ton vehicles. But…that’s kind of just luck. The prevailing top-down, expert-led approach to citymaking is not only ineffective and inefficient, it leaves us vulnerable to the whims of the few. Here’s why:

First, if we’re making our decisions based on what we think is good for people, and most of the folks making those decisions are of one specific gender, race, ethnicity, income-level, and age-group, no matter how woke or empathetic that decision-maker is, their decisions will be biased. I mean, I have plenty of allies that fit the older white guy mold and they’re totally awesome, but relying solely on what they think makes for great places is not a recipe for creating inclusive, equitable places. And this isn’t just about what projects end up looking like, it’s which projects get focused on to begin with. Spatial inequality is another (mostly unintentional now, but mostly intentional historically) by-product of top-down approaches led mostly by one homogeneous group of people.

Second, there is a LOT of research out there, waiting to be digested, that has already tested, validated, iterated, debunked many of the hypotheses (being generous here), assumptions, ideas, whims, etc. being put forth as solutions. We already know a LOT about which work, which don’t, when, and how. And guess what, we already have a process in place to test out whether new solutions could work – it’s called the scientific method, or in today’s lingo, design thinking, systems thinking, lean startup, etc. But this body of research mostly collects dust in traditional placemaking circles – we are still just mostly intuiting, mostly relying on expertise. We’re passed the point where placemaking can alone be an art. We passed that point ages ago with the likes of William Whyte who was the first to teach me about using social science to understand the relationship between urban design and behavior. We need to obsess less about anecdotal evidence (which is a bear to compile anyway) and best practices (which are nice success stories but nowhere near the convenient copy/paste templates so many placemakers want them to be) and embrace evidence-based design and data-driven approaches, now being enhanced by tech. Look to solutions such as Numina, Neighborlytics, and humbly, State of Place for some ideas on where to get started.

And if that doesn’t convince you – remember those NIMBYs we all complain so much about? Well, perhaps the reason they’re not YIMBYs isn’t because they’re just curmudgeons or afraid of change. Maybe they’re just not quick to trust the opinions of these older-white men? Maybe they’d come to yes faster and with fewer headaches if we created data-driven narratives – data-driven stories about the power of place…About the fact that people that live closer to nature have a 12 percent lower rate of mortality…about the fact that people who live in more walkable neighborhoods are 40% less likely to be obese or overweight…about the fact that neighborhoods with higher walkability can make up to 240% more in retail revenues…about the fact that walkability can reduce annual vehicle miles traveled by 14%, helping to reduce GHGs and help save our planet…or simply about the fact that if only the street my friend had been crossing all those years ago had had two fewer vehicle lanes, more trees, a midblock crossing, a median, wider sidewalks, and more people-first urban design that she could have been here today…that her chances of being here today would have gone up by over 88%, as we demonstrated when we tied urban design to the likelihood of collisions

Ironically, I was asked to give you my opinion on where I believe the placemaking movement should be headed toward – I suppose in the next 20 years….

I firmly believe that we must transition from the pervasive ideologically-based, expert-driven approaches to placemaking, accessible only to a few, toward an evidence-based, data-driven placemaking paradigm accessible to the many. I believe this is the only way we can effectively, cost-efficiently, and expediently simultaneously create thriving, inclusive places that make us ALL healthier, happier, and safer, and gives our planet a fighting chance against the climate crisis. Placemaking MUST be front and centre as an integral practice and policy-making tool to address challenges across the triple-bottom line. But as long as we keep using dogmatic, normative approaches to preach its benefits, we’ll be in the sole company of our choir and that Twiteratti. It is the data-driven story about the power of place(making) that will bring it to the masses as a critical part of creating a sustainable world.