[By Paul Goddin for Mobility Lab, published on January 16, 2013]
The differences between Clarendon and Tysons Corner – two communities in Northern Virginia – are readily apparent to even a casual observer. Clarendon has walkability, cohesion, and sense of place and Tysons has sprawl, confusion, and traffic gridlock.
Although these two places will soon be linked when Metro’s Silver Line opens west of Washington D.C., the similarities seem to end there. While a lay observer might quickly note these distinctions, qualifying or enumerating the differences between these areas has been elusive.
Enter some new metrics that intend to tackle this issue: namely, Walk Score and the more robust State of Place index. Both quantify and score locations in terms of walkability and proximity to amenities.
But State of Place goes further by scoring a location’s pedestrian friendliness based on 10 urban design principles such as density, connectivity, safety, aesthetics, proximity of residential to non-residential uses, and availability of transit options. In this way State of Place, developed by Urban Imprint, incorporates objective elements with subjective ones, resulting in a more comprehensive depiction of an area’s sense of place and walkability, and, in turn, more accurate scores for people looking to compare different areas.
Metropolitan Washington’s Council of Governments’ project called Region Forward is organizing an analysis of 136 designated activity centers, including Clarendon and Tysons Corner. This analysis is being performed using the State of Place index, and Mobility Lab is contributing by collecting data for multiple activity centers in Northern Virginia. As of the end of December, data collection was complete for all of the activity centers across the COG region throughout D.C., Maryland, and Virginia.
Later this month, COG is scheduled to release completed State of Place assessments for each designated activity center. These assessments will allow officials, residents, and developers to better understand where to put investment dollars in order to evolve each activity center towards being more people-friendly while retaining or enhancing each community’s unique vision.
There is a keen awareness that not every community has the same development aspirations – think of the stark difference in philosophy of Rosslyn and Old Town Alexandria, for example. But, increasingly, most communities do aspire to at least be walkable and people-oriented.
When I was out literally pounding the pavement to collect data, it quickly became clear that some of the metrics were subjective, dependent not only on the particular tastes of the data collector (“is the architecture pleasant” and “do you feel safe” are two such questions), but also on the time of year and time of day the data was collected (“how much litter was apparent” and “how many people were visible when you collected the data”).
It also became clear that the survey was clever and innovative. Some questions related to the existence of bike lanes and bikeshare systems, condition and completeness of sidewalks, the availability of places for pedestrians to sit (benches) and congregate (book stores, coffee shops, farmers markets), existence of “negative” land uses (liquor stores, payday lenders), and the pleasantness of the area (from a design standpoint, number of pedestrians, smells, and amount of litter present).
Now back to Tysons Corner. The area is currently receiving a massive overhaul. Even the name is being updated, the word “corner” being stricken in favor of the more streamlined Tysons. Spurred by the creation of the new Silver Line, which will connect it to the rest of the metro rail system, Tysons is undergoing a multi-decade redevelopment to create a “walkable, sustainable, urban center.”
By 2050, with 100,000 residents and 200,000 jobs, Fairfax County has set its sights on remaking Tysons into its new walkable urban downtown. The State of Place assessment will give county leaders insights about achieving that objective, so that future visitors to Tysons will have a very different impression than what they get today.
Tysons photo by Andrew Griffith, Clarendon photo by Adam Comerford.