Ferndale named Michigan’s No. 2 walkable city

By: Andy Kozlowski, Jeremy Selweski | Woodward Talk | Published August 31, 2011


FERNDALE — The resurgence of Ferndale’s downtown district over the past decade has helped to create a pedestrian-friendly environment where most amenities are within walking distance, and now the city is being recognized for it on a national level.

On a recently released list assessing Michigan’s 65 largest cities, Ferndale was identified as the second-most walkable city in 2011. The list was compiled by Walk Score, a Seattle, Wash.-based data firm that evaluates the walkability of cities and neighborhoods across the nation.

“We measure the distance from your house or apartment to all the things nearby that a consumer might want to walk to,” explained Matt Lerner, co-founder of Walk Score. “How close is the grocery store, the schools and parks, the restaurants and coffee shops? We do a walk score for every block in the city and then turn that into a walk score for the entire city.”

The score, which operates on a scale of 0 to 100, serves as a national walkability metric, allowing for quick and easy comparisons between cities. According to Lerner, Walk Score’s numbers are data-driven and objective, not a survey of people’s opinions. The company uses a variety of listings of local amenities, feeding them into a special algorithm that yields the score for each community.

According to this year’s results, Ferndale has a walk score of 64, a mark that was eclipsed among Michigan cities only by Hamtramck, which has a score of 69. About 39 percent of Ferndale residents — mostly those who live near the intersection of Nine Mile Road and Woodward Avenue — have a walk score of 70 or above. Meanwhile, 93 percent have a walk score of at least 50, while only 7 percent live in car-dependent neighborhoods with a score of below 50.

The 2,500 largest cities in the U.S. have an average walk score of 43, with the nation’s most walkable community, New York City, carrying a score of 85. Michigan’s 65 largest cities earned an average score of 46 in 2011.

Ferndale Mayor Dave Coulter was proud to see his city near the top of the Walk Score list. “We, as a city, are always looking for ways to make our community more walkable for residents and visitors,” he said. “We want people to have equal access to all different modes of transportation.”

Coulter, who has lived in Ferndale for more than 20 years, has seen the city’s walkability improve by leaps and bounds since the turn of this century. About eight years ago, he even built a new house for himself closer to the downtown area so that he could walk more easily to all the new stores and restaurants that were opening.

“Once the downtown saw this amazing rebirth, suddenly there were all sorts of great places for me to walk to,” the mayor explained. “There are still some things that we can do to keep improving our city and make it more walkable, of course, but we have really come a long way.”

City Councilwoman Melanie Piana said that she often uses Walk Score in her urban planning work with the Michigan Suburbs Alliance. Although she is skeptical of the accuracy of the company’s numbers and feels that its methods are somewhat flawed and incomplete, she also believes that Walk Score is “a good conversation starter” for city officials and residents alike.

“From a planner’s perspective, this tool is a good indicator of how easy it is for people to do their daily activities without using a car,” she said. “Walk Score can be especially helpful for people who are trying to make specific lifestyle choices. It’s mostly a tool to help you choose a community to live in or to make improvements to the community that you already live in.”

A recent survey by the National Association of Realtors indicated that two-thirds of U.S. homebuyers want to have walkable neighborhoods, while three-quarters would like a commute to work of less than 30 minutes. The demand is so high, in fact, that according to a 2009 study by the group CEOs for Cities, a one-point increase in walk score is worth about $3,000 in the average home value.

There are also benefits to people’s health and to the environment. As Lerner noted, the average resident in a walkable neighborhood weighs seven or eight pounds less than one in an un-walkable neighborhood. In addition, people who choose to walk instead of drive end up reducing their carbon footprint on the environment.

“I think more and more people in the U.S. are enjoying the lifestyle of walkability,” Lerner said. “There are a lot of people who want to be able to walk to the coffee shop and be active in their community. … Millennials want to work in a walkable neighborhood (because) they think the suburbs are boring, and then aging baby boomers are downsizing and want to be able to walk to the things they want to do.”

Lerner pointed out that the most walkable communities tend to be those that were built prior to World War II, before automobiles became ubiquitous and changed the paradigm of urban planning, for better or worse. As a municipality that was established as a village in 1918 and as a city in 1927, Ferndale certainly fits the mold of a walkable community.

For Piana and her husband, the city’s small-town feel was one of the primary reasons why they chose to buy a home there several years ago.

“I grew up in a township where there was nothing near me,” she said, “so you had to have a car just to go out and buy milk. I literally drove everywhere. … When my husband and I settled in Ferndale, one of the main reasons was because of how accessible everything is. We can easily walk or ride our bikes to Western Market and many other places downtown to do our shopping.”

As a longtime Ferndale resident, Coulter believes that the city planted the seed of improved walkability in the late ‘90s with a decision that at the time was considered somewhat controversial, but paid off in just a few short years.

“One of the smartest things that we did to revitalize our downtown was to narrow (West) Nine Mile down to two lanes and lower the speed limit,” he said. “In the ‘60s, we were taught that people want to get from Point A to Point B as quickly as possible, but those views have evolved. People now want to have a true sense of place and a greater feeling of community — they want to feel safe and connected. It just goes to show that even in an older community like Ferndale, you still have to be open to changing your mindset.”

For more information on Walk Score, go to www.walkscore.com.

For a related story, click on Woodward action group receives Complete Streets grant.