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Programs, Proximity Give City High 'Walkability' Ranking

Survey group says planners, real estate agents, homebuyers place growing premium on pedestrian-friendliness.

Look at a color-coded map "walkability" map of Berkeley and you’ll see a dense swath of green, bordered by a thin strip of yellow that fades into pink on the east.

That swath of green is the most walkable portion of the city -- pedestrian-friendly enough to score an “88" from Walk Score, a Seattle-based organization that sizes up cities for ease of navigation on foot.

Prevention magazine recently teamed up with Walk Score to rank U.S. cities for pedestrian-friendliness, and the resulting story has gone viral.

Berkeley, with an overall score of 82, placed fifth in the rankings, trumped by Cambridge, Mass. (88.8), N.Y., N.Y. (85.3), Jersey City, N.J. (85.2) and San Francisco (84.9).

Culling from a variety of data sources, including Google, Education.com, Open Street Map, and Localeze, the Walk Score algorithm gives points based on the distance to amenities in various categories, with 0.25 miles receiving maximum points. Residents can add and remove locations from the Walk Score website. 

Berkeley's high score has much has to do with close proximity between homes and various destinations. But programs count, too, such as the monthly "Everyone Walks in Berkeley" that seeks to get everyone in town hoofing.

Walk Score releases more than 4 million scores each day. It last issued a yearly report in July, but has since eschewed regular reports in favor of continuous updates. Those that rank between 90 and 100 qualify as “a walker’s paradise" (Berkeley falls in the "very walkable" category).

“Since Walk Score first launched in 2007, we have seen interest in walkability grow significantly,” said CEO Josh Herst. “As fuel prices rise and people seek healthy, sustainable and economical living choices, demand for walkable neighborhoods is accelerating.

One factor driving awareness is its network of more than 15,000 real estate sites, including Zillow, ZipRealty and ForRent.com, that include Walk Score with all of their home and apartment listings.

Walkability is “the latest buzzword in real estate,” according to a Wall Street Journal report.

It turns out walkability is money -- to be precise, $3,000 per point in home value, according to “Walking the Walk,” a report by CEOs for Cities.

“It used to be, people were willing to pay a premium to live in the hills,” said Realtor Judith Ratcliff,  a Grubb Co. partner who, with her husband, has been selling residential property in Berkeley and the surrounding communities for 26 years. “But there’s this phenomenon now. A lot of buyers don’t want to have to get in the car to go someplace."

A house is in the hills, if not "truly spectacular" or with truly spectacular views, has lost its cachet, "and the same is true in Kensington, El Cerrito, Piedmont, Albany," she said.

The desirable communities? Rockridge, Elmwood, Solano Avenue, College Avenue.

City planners throughout the nation are also using Walk Score data as a guiding force, as a case study from Phoenix, Ariz., shows.

Berkeley, as a city that is already built out, has a different set of cards to deal with than emerging cities, although it is exercising its option to focus multi-family housing in transit corridors.

“Berkeley has always been walkable, partly because the university has always been here," said Mary Kay Clunies-Ross, public information officer for the city of Berkeley. "Public transportation was part of how we grew up."

But advocates say walkability as a planning force must move beyond communities and small business to large-scale development, both commerical and residential.

USA Today reported that most homes picked for awards by the U.S. Green Building Council flunked a basic walkability test.

And Apple, Inc. came under fire recently for designing its new quarters, with parking for 10,000 cars, and sealing off possible walking routes.

"Perimeter protections” will require “anyone who might want to ride a bike or walk from point A to point B … to go around the enormous site,” Kaid Benfield writes in Greenbiz. "This will be locked in place for 30, 40, 50 years down the road."

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