As we interviewed local businesses for our ongoing Love Letter to Oakland series, one theme came up over and over: walkability. Walkability is a hot topic these days, as evidenced by the popularity of Walk Score. OL asked four Oaklanders to help us define walkability.

Community

Walkability is important to the social fabric of Oakland because it “build[s] social capital,” said Jason Patton, Bicycle & Pedestrian Program Manager for the City of Oakland, noting that people of all different classes, races and backgrounds mix it up when they are on foot. “The pedestrian realm is … this kind of great equalizer that keeps us in touch with each other.”

“People talk about community a lot and it’s important to step back and recognize what that means. Community is having places to connect with different people,” said Joshua Simon, Executive Director of East Bay Asian Local Development Corporation (EBADLC). “People are always looking for each other. Part of having walkable spaces is having places people can connect with each other on a regular basis.”

“We spend a lot of time closing ourselves off in our own houses and our personal vehicles,” said Chris Hwang, President of WOBO’s Board Of Directors and Chair of Oakland’s Bicycle Pedestrian Advisory Committee.

When we walk, she said, we are “getting back to something that we’ve missed for a while.”

Proximity

It can’t be too far and I have to have something to walk to,” said Hwang. Connectivity is vital. “If there is any physical barrier at any point of where I want to go,” she said, “it’s going to significantly discourage me from walking in the first place.”

Patton likes the word “propinquity.” “It’s that localness of it,” he said.

“It’s more what creates a neighborhood as a neighborhood,” said Councilmember Dan Kalb. “Something that is designed with the pedestrian in mind.” He added, “Sometimes it’s also how wide the streets are and how many lanes of car traffic. If you have too much hustle and bustle with cars … that’s less inviting.”

Simon defines a walkable neighborhood as a place rich with destinations and safe routes between those destinations, citing his own walk to work through Downtown Oakland. “I enjoy the public art. I enjoy that every time I go to and from work, I run into other places that I want to check out,” he said.

Twitter users who weighed in on the subject mentioned abundance of nearby destinations in their favorite walkable Oakland neighborhoods as well as transit options. Hwang noted that the Grand/Lakeshore area is walkable, in part, because “it’s a great transit hub.” You can walk to the neighborhood to connect to other places further afield, she said.

Activity

“I think a lot of people really are enamored of Art Murmur,” Hwang said. “But that’s because they intentionally programmed it.” She also gave a shout out to the Jingletown neighborhood’s beautiful mosaics, noting, “The neighbors have put in a special effort to invite people to the space.”

“Having youth activities in a walkable area makes a big difference because that makes it a friendly place,” said Simon. “All those walkable neighborhoods took really concentrated local efforts,” Hwang noted. “It takes a lot of momentum that is locally driven.”

Destinations

“Oakland has the basic bones because it developed at the right time,” Patton said, noting that maintenance of those good bones — largely by local business owners — was one of the biggest factors enhancing walkability.

“When I think of a walkable neighborhood, I think of the business portion of it,” said Kalb, noting that businesses play a big part in creating inviting destinations for walking. The city helps merchants beautify the streetscape through its façade improvement program.

City support

Civic willingness to bend some of the rules and try something different, like the scuttled plan for a pedestrian-only plaza in Latham Square, is an important factor, according to Simon. “It sends a signal to people” that it’s okay to hang out downtown, he said.

While Kalb thinks City Hall and staffers are “generally committed” to creating infrastructure that fosters walkability, he said, “We still have some work to do in our city to get to that vision without being sidetracked by people’s fear of change.” He called the rejection of the Latham Square plan “a missed opportunity” because “the City Council got cold feet.”

Density

Hwang highlighted the need for a critical mass of pedestrians: “Walkability depends on me seeing other people doing the same thing.”

“I think Jerry Brown’s initiative to put 10,000 people downtown was brilliant,” Simon said. “Because of the new density, more businesses are there.” He added, “Now our task is to shape our cities to hold that new sense of community that is growing out to the historic communities that have been there all along.”

“I’m very mindful of gentrification,” said Kalb. “I want to create a design for what the people who live in the neighborhood want to see.” He sees the city as playing a role in working with developers to move their goals into alignment with those of the current residents. “We have to say, ‘This is what we want in this neighborhood,’” he said.

Which neighborhoods in Oakland are the most walkable? See the results of our informal poll and add your own comments here.

10 Responses

  1. r2d2ii

    Kalb is right. Change from the status quo can be difficult. There was a different status quo when I was growing up in a Bay Area city some time ago.

    There were always people out on the block at various times of day. By people I mean children and stay-at-home moms and grandparents and older folks no longer going to work. There were only a few cars parked along our block at any one time. A city bus came by occasionally. Dogs roamed freely and often chased the bus. We played ball in the street and broke many windows.

    Our street hadn’t become an arterial with cars moving at speed most of the day. Car traffic moving through a neighborhood is a powerful negative force for street life.

    In my East Oakland neighborhood consisting of a few blocks mostly cut off from through traffic with only one major arterial moving through it has more street life than some other parts of town. Because there is limited through traffic.

    When Berkeley tried to rebuild its neighborhood community life in the 1970s by modifiying streets to limit through traffic, there was a huge political uproar. I think there was even a recall election. There are remnants of this project north of Ashby and west of College Avenue. Take a look.

    My neighborhood’s current street life is not about people out shopping or looking for other kinds of ways to spend money. There are maybe 10 young couples along our three or four blocks with children in strollers. They are out and about simply to take the air. At least half my neighbors have dogs and they are out walking dogs at all times of the day and night. The kids in the strollers and the dogs have relationships; the dogs have relationships; the adults and the dogs have relationships. An elder Holocaust survivor always says the same things about my dogs “how adorable.” This happens just about every day.

    The elements of street life aren’t really about consumerism and cars. The elements are living things out to greet one another and see the sky.

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  2. Len Raphael

    Does the Oakland General Plan contain any goals for open space of any kind including recreational areas such as playing fields, playgrounds, dog parks etc.?

    Unlike older cities most of our open space recreational areas are in the distant hills or East Oakland.

    Can’t say I’ve read the entire Plan, but seems like the General Plan focuses on encouraging density, bike and pedestrian flow, and transit oriented development while trying to preserve existing neighborhood features but nada about encouraging open space.

    In residential real estate zoning discussions, understandably there’s a higher social value placed on affordability than open space, but couldn’t we create incentives for developers to add postage stamp sized parks open to the public?

    Judging from the intense battles over Lake Merrit Dog Park and the Latham Square concrete postage stamp, seems there’s a tremendous need for a modification to the General Plan or how it’s implemented.

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  3. Melanie

    While we’re at it, can we transform Oakland Chinatown into the pedestrian paradise it could be? Restore the two-way traffic pattern on the streets, add diagonal crossing to every intersection from Laney west, add speed bumps to slow the drivers coming from the tube or the freeway, and, good God, repave. The long-suffering residents deserve much better.

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  4. OaklandNative

    I think it is also important to ask who has input on the General Plan.

    Will it just be the new residents of Uptown or will the old residents of West and East Oakland be included?

    Sometimes, African Americans, especially older women, have been taught that others know better what they need than they themselves know. They believe their opinions are unimportant. They are intimidated from making comments. Sometimes, organizers will get an angry backlash.

    That cultural issue should be addressed as well.

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  5. OaklandNative

    Also, these people are less like to have access to social media like Twitter.

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  6. Tino

    It’s interesting to me to hear what other people (like Melanie above) find walkable. I walk a lot and I avoid the diagonal crossings in Chinatown because the cycles are long. I also like one-way streets if the configuration is well-designed. To me, one-way traffic means safe crossing as it’s easy to tell where cars will come from. (Emphasis on “if the configuration is well-designed”. For an example of a bad configuration, just look to Harrison St/Oakland Ave near 580, where there are blind spots galore and little to slow drivers down.)

    I bet we can all agree that repaving is good, though.

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  7. Art

    The General Plan has an Open Space, Conservation, and Recreation element that looks specifically at where parks exist and where they’re needed. The strategies are organized by each area of the city. You can find it here: http://www2.oaklandnet.com/Government/o/PBN/OurServices/GeneralPlan/DOWD009017

    The Land Use and Transportation Element is separate, so that’s probably what you’re looking at if it seems overly focused on density, transit, traffic, and bike/ped activity. Those things all live in that element.

    Given that the General Plan was last updated in the mid-1990s, I’ll wager that there was probably not a whole lot of input from Uptown residents and very little use of social media in its development. 🙂 (But yes, assuming there is an update planned in the next 5-10 years, hopefully the outreach will consider the unique needs of residents old and new.)

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  8. OaklandNative

    Art,
    I’m sure you’re right. But we didn’t seem to be included in the article. Just making sure we’re not forgotten or “overlooked.”

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  9. Len Raphael

    Art, thank you for that link and info.

    Other than the big developments, much of the new residential construction will be “in-fill.” Hard to impose open space requirements on that without killing it. So maybe it will have to one more developer fee on top of all the others, to go into a fund for the City to purchase/convert small lots to mini parks.

    Re: repaving. Unless something has changed recently, I thought City budget policy was never repave side streets unless forced to by threat of ADA lawsuits? Pothole patching dosn’t do it on streets with 90 years of asphalt buildup and leaky sewers/water mains.

    On 49th in Temescal between Bway and Manilla you can where asphalt patching done a year ago is already dangerous to bike riders, again.

    Less than one year patch in front of where I live is sinking.

    One of the council members was advocating for a new bond issue that dedicated an unspecified amount to repaving Oakland streets. After the broken promises of Measure Y, I won’t believe any promise for any ballot measure unless it is spelled out in plain and enforceable language in the measure.

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  10. John Hills

    I agree with many of the comments made but one issue we must face is where we have lost walkability. Many inner city open spaces and rural areas alike have lost their open spaces to anti-social -behaviour. drug dealing, drinking, large groups of youths just using the space and facilities to `hang out`.
    All is not lost, its normally more a case of giving up space rather than it being taken over. It only takes a sufficiant number of the community to use these spaces on a regular basis and you can win it back. Lets face it the real problem is a fear of crime. How many times have you heard the elderly say ” oh I don`t walk down there or go there because gangs of youngsters gather there playing music and shouting” You visit the place and at most you find 6-10 younsters talking and larking about whilst listening to their music , paying no attention to anyone else. They wish to use open space as well, better there than in the street outside your house. Try organising a walk, get together with several friends walk these parks ,footways. Stop and talk to the kids share the space , you may find the kids will drift away because they want their own space without loads of old farts hanging around. talk with your local parks authorities to design and equip the spaces and walk with equipment, seating lighting that meets everyone needs.winning back your walkability routes is good- sharing it is better.

    Reply

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