The Trick-or-Treat Test

Have you wondered if a neighborhood is walkable? Or, perhaps you have wondered what it even means to define a street, neighborhood, or city as walkable. Here is a dead simple test that will point you toward an answer.

Walkability has ascended to become a top-tier buzz word among urban planners in recent years. Yet, in spite of many efforts, there is no clear, consensus on how to measure a place’s walkability. (A google search yields methods proposed by advocacy groups, the private sector, and academics over the past decade.) 

I propose that truly walkable neighborhoods are those that attract kids on Halloween. (This definition will not work in places that do not celebrate Halloween in the American tradition.) Here’s why.

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Michigan Musings

Earlier this month I visited family and friends in Michigan. In between these visits I snapped a few pictures of familiar and unfamiliar spaces.

Grand Rapids

I grew up in Michigan and most of my family lives in the Western portion of the state around Grand Rapids. Over the last ten years, the city has hosted ArtPrize – a downtown contest for visual and performing arts where citizens vote on their favorites. On our visit to the Children’s Museum we passed by the 2nd place entry from 2009.

“Imagine That!” by Tracy Van Duinen

I love the way this bright, mosaic mural livens up the street. It feels like a natural extension of the Children’s Museum. It is a wonderful example of the lasting effects public art has on civic pride. 

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We can build better big box parking lots

A reader in Grand Rapids, Michigan shared the following:

After almost being struck to death several times at our local Meijer parking lot I noticed WHY the Meijer parking lot is like a death trap as opposed to the Celebration Cinema.

His aggravation led him to make these two diagrams:

“Death Lot” – excessive drive-thru lanes, non-existent crosswalks and haphazard placement of a bus stop make this lot dangerous for everybody.


“Good Lot” – by dividing the surface with a tree lined foot path this adjacent parking lot feels safer.

[Aside: one of my first jobs was to retrieve carts from a parking lot very similar to the one in the top diagram. In the 19 years since I held that position, the parking lot has not changed very much.]

This inspired me to reconsider the future of the suburban parking lot. In my view, there are some good reasons for questioning our long term needs for these super-sized parking lots. In my view, parking lots of this magnitude deserve to be called into question for the following reasons:

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How do we get a small hardware store?

In March, I visited my family in Grand Rapids, Michigan. My brother and I stopped at an ACE hardware store – this 30,000 square foot building had practically everything you would need for any home improvement. On my way out of the store, I wondered about the absence of small hardware stores in urban neighborhoods, including my own.

Why aren’t small-format hardware stores more common in cities? Competition from big box retailers (Lowe’s, Home Depot, et al.) offers a partial explanation.  The appearance of these retailers in suburban locations often forced an unprecedented level of competition for smaller retailers who struggle to match the product selection and pricing of these stores. Competition from online shopping has also probably reduced the demand for retail hardware stores.

But perhaps more significantly, the household markets for established small hardware stores have steadily declined. These retailers rely on relatively smaller market areas than big box stores – both in terms of the geography and the number of customers. Throughout the late 20th century urban populations declined while suburban areas grew. This meant fewer customers for small hardware stores in urban neighborhoods.

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