Urban Studies 600 Capstone


Walkable Communities: Understanding the Discourse of Walkability in American Cities


Rachel Oelsner

Document Type

Capstone Project

Publication Date



As the inherent drawbacks to car-centered urban design have been increasingly pushed to the forefront of community development discussions, walkability has become a buzzword in the fields of urban studies and planning. As far back as the 1960s, walkability was associated with urban activist Jane Jacob’s vision of active streets. Over time, the meaning behind the word has shifted, and it now frequently evokes images of chic downtowns and gentrified neighborhoods. Now more than ever, walkable communities are promoted by public officials as a means of attracting potential residents and visitors to specific neighborhoods. The goal of my research is to examine the evolution of the concept of walkability over time by analyzing the usage of the term in planning, media sources, and city and developer promotional material in the last few decades. As part of this historical approach, an in depth analysis of the development of Milwaukee’s Walker’s Point neighborhood is provided as a case study to explore the meanings attached to walkability in recent developments. This study’s findings will demonstrate the capacity of urban design features to carry different meanings at different points in time and in different settings. This study will also conclude that designers, elected officials, and other urban actors should be cautious about the ways in which they promote their cities, as public sentiments toward certain approaches to better the city are fluid, likely to change with time, and can have unintended consequences for urban residents.

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