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.

Growing up in Grand Rapids, Michigan we went to my grandmother’s house for trick-or-treating. The blocks in her neighborhood had about twenty houses per block – or ten on each face. Each block measured about 625 to 675 feet on its long side. 

When a neighborhood is set up in a way that allows young children to efficiently gather candy from dozens of homes in a few hours, it can accommodate walking as a primary mode of transportation for people of all ages. 

By contrast, my neighborhood in Ann Arbor received a modest number of trick-or-treaters. Pittsfield Village is  composed of attached 2 & 4 unit buildings. The neighborhood has an organic, curvilinear street pattern and ample green space.

Pittsfield Village, Ann Arbor, Michigan

Explaining the absence of trick-or-treaters in Pittsfield Village is more difficult since the area has a suitable density of doors to knock on and many low traffic streets. One possibly is that there are fewer options for spontaneously changing your candy gathering route. Neighborhoods built on a grid allow parents and kids a huge range of potential routes – from the very short to mile-long treks. This means they can scale the length of their Halloween activity to suit their needs.

Pittsfield Village, with its curvilinear streets, simply doesn’t allow that degree of flexibility. While it may work well enough for some kids, it doesn’t appeal to a wide audience that has diverse needs.

In spite of accommodating geometry, our neighborhood in Savannah, Georgia barely attracted any trick-or-treaters on Halloween. Blocks in Thomas Square have between six and twelve houses a piece. (Many of these houses are duplexes, or small apartment buildings.) Blocks rarely measure over 300 feet to a side. 

While a motivated kid could easily knock on a lot of doors quickly in this neighborhood, her parents may not let her. For better or worse, the neighborhood (and the whole city) had a reputation as being unsafe. In addition to the fear of crime, costumed kids would need to use extreme caution crossing a few high-speed streets (such as Whitaker, Drayton, and 37th). An embarrassing amount of litter on sidewalks and streets may also have contributed to the neighborhood’s lack of Halloween traffic.

All of this is to say that geometry alone does not define walkability. I recall hearing Andres Duany saying at CNU 25 that his definition of safety was being able to walk out his front door at night without a second thought. (The quote is not verbatim, but the sentiment has stuck with me.)

The trick-or-treat test won’t tell you if there is anything worth walking to on the other 364 days of the year. It seems rather pointless to live in a “walkable” neighborhood if you can only walk to other people’s homes. The presence of useful destinations and transit within walking distance is essential to making a neighborhood truly walkable.