How walkable is your community? | Issue #20
Placeful is a weekly newsletter exploring sense of place, sustainability, and the actions we can take to more deeply engage with our communities and wild spaces. Each week covers a new topic. To learn more about the “why” behind Placeful, start here.
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I found myself nodding my head as I digested this tweet the other day. Yes, it’s a bit oversimplified, but I think he’s onto something.
College, for those that choose to or have the opportunity to go, is perhaps the first time many people experience a walkable community and its many benefits. College campuses are designed to maximize student and faculty member’ opportunities to meet new people and strike up conversations with folks outside of their field of study. A cross-campus walk is also a great way enjoy campus green spaces, soak up some sun, and burn off some nervous energy you might be holding onto from a morning exam.
Walking is human, and when our communities are designed in ways that make it easier, we feel more human. We’re happier, healthier, more social, and less stressed. This is a stark contrast to the way many folks feel as they are stuck in freeway traffic for the third time in a week.
Today I’d like to talk about walkable communities: what they are, who they benefit, and why they matter. In a country that was largely designed for vehicular transport, I believe it’s time to reconsider how we can—in small and large ways—improve walkability for the benefit of our collective health and well-being. Let’s dig in.
What is a walkable community?
For people to actually want to choose walking, four things need to happen to give a space “walk appeal”: It must be useful, safe, comfortable, and interesting. Streets should be well-lit, tree-lined, safe for pedestrians, and include amenities such as shops and cafés.
I think we all know a walkable community when we experience it. They often include well-kept landscaping, wide and even sidewalks, and lower speed limits. People who live in them don’t have to walk more than a mile to a grocery store, library, or other public or private amenity. One rather ironic measure of walkability is a count of the number of people who are actually sitting, because it shows that people enjoy being there—like the below photo of the High Line in New York City.
I personally think of Fort Collins, Colorado, as a great example of a walkable city. The city’s amazing public transit and biking options, and its especially walkable downtown area and college campuses, all work together to reduce traffic and noise. It makes the entire city more accessible and promotes the active lifestyle that Coloradoans are known for.
Who and what do walkability cities benefit?
We all know that walking is (for folks who are able) a simple but healthy activity; stepping out of the house, picking up one foot after the other at a brisk pace for 30 to 45 minutes per day can help us live longer, healthier lives. So, the simplified answer is that walkability communities benefit all people, but there are two groups that stand to benefit the most from walkable cities.
Older adults (60+) benefit greatly from communities designed with walkability in mind. Beautifully designed outdoor spaces that entice folks out of the house and into the company of others—so-called third spaces, or places we gather outside of our homes and workplaces—can help communities address the growing issue of isolation and loneliness in older adulthood. Walkable communities also encourage physical activity among older adults, which helps mitigate age-related health risks.
There is also the barrier of driving. As we age, we are more likely to lose the ability to drive before we are no longer able to walk, and with public transportation options not always accessible, it is important that olders adults can access amenities like grocery stores by walking.
As Baby Boomers—the biggest generation in America beyond Millennials—begin aging, it is all the more important that we design our cities in a way that the eldest among us are healthier, happier, and more social. Many towns and cities across the U.S. need to rise to this challenge, sooner rather than later. And if we do this, each generation thereafter will benefit, too.
Local business owners
There is a reason why the USDA and other organizations are putting a lot of energy into downtown revitalization efforts. Businesses are part of a vibrant community. Specifically “grocery stores, diners, cafes, bookstores, and barbershops draw people out of their homes and into the streets and sidewalks, where they create cultural vitality and and contribute to the passive surveillance of shared public space,” ultimately making them safer and more social.
The below paragraph from the article “Why Walkable Streets are More Economically Productive” demonstrates all the reasons why walkability is good for local businesses, and ultimately, thriving local economies:
A walkable street ensures that people can safely cross from a clothing store to a coffee shop and spend money at both. It means that people who live in the neighborhood can grab groceries and other necessities easily, so they’ll probably visit nearby establishments more often. Perhaps most importantly, a walkable street is one in which many businesses occupy the bulk of the land, meaning that dozens of destinations can be accessed in a matter of minutes on foot, and that every inch of land is put to economically productive use — not squandered in empty parking lots or unnecessary landscaping.
Walkability also attracts workers of the New Economy, which is driven by knowledge, collaboration, and service. Urban planners should consider walkability if job creation is a priority for their community.
Additionally, it’s easy to see how walkability can benefit the tourism industry. Tourists love well-planned, pedestrian-friendly cities; I’m sure you can think of one you’ve seen in a movie, or through personal experience, that fits the description. Tourism is big business, and walkability is one way to encourage it—that is, if increasing tourism dollars is important to your community. Living in Moab, I have become very familiar with the delicate balance between not enough and too much tourism!
When local businesses are thriving, more people want to live in an area, which can have cascading benefits on the quality of schools, opportunities for social interaction, and investment in other areas of communal life.
Other outcomes worth noting
Walkable cities have a lot of benefits for health, aging in place, safety, and businesses, but a couple things surprised me in my research. I had assumed two of the biggest arguments for improving walkability would be large reductions in CO2 emissions, and benefits to low income individuals. Though there were positive outcomes in these areas, some of my assumptions were challenged.
When we design our cities for walkability, fewer people use their vehicles for commuting or running errands, reducing overall greenhouse gas emissions—but the impact is smaller than we might think. One longitudinal study of urban walkability and bikeability infrastructure projects found this:
Overall transport CO2 emissions decreased slightly over the study period, consistent with a secular trend in the case study regions. As found previously the new infrastructure was well used at one- and two-year follow-up, and was associated with population-level increases in walking, cycling and physical activity at two-year follow-up. However, these effects did not translate into sizeable CO2 effects as neither living near the infrastructure nor using it predicted changes in CO2 emissions from motorised travel, either overall or disaggregated by journey purpose. This lack of a discernible effect on travel CO2 emissions are consistent with an interpretation that some of those living nearer the infrastructure may simply have changed where they walked or cycled, while others may have walked or cycled more but few, if any, may have substituted active for motorised modes of travel as a result of the interventions.
Additionally, walkable neighborhoods tend to benefit advantaged groups moreso than disadvantaged groups. One literature review found that barriers to walking for low-socioeconomic status folks still exist beyond what the built environment can mitigate. The authors explain,
In supportive built environments . . . economically disadvantaged groups may not walk as much as advantaged groups because of barriers in the social environment or constraints due to individual or household characteristics. Perceptions of personal safety and both perceived and objectively measured crime rates have been clearly linked to participation in neighborhood-based walking and physical activity, particularly for disadvantaged groups.
However, incorporating green spaces into city design can reduce crime rates and reduce fear of crime, providing dual health benefits to both disadvantaged and advantaged folks. In Palaces for the People, Eric Klinenberg writes that people’s stress levels increase slightly when they walk past abandoned lots with overgrown weeds, and that these constant, short-lived spikes in stress may over time contribute to health problems. Perceived and actual unsafe spaces are a public health risk which impacts people of low socioeconomic status at higher rates.
It doesn’t necessarily matter if amenities are within walking distance if we don’t feel safe walking to them. That is why walkability projects need to be considered holistically and involve the members of the community they intend to be help in the planning and development.
A driver knows streets, a walker knows community
Ever since college, I have subconsciously gravitated towards apartments with great walkability. I’m averse to driving for a number of reasons, but overall I find that my quality of life increases when I can walk to where I need to go and feel safe. Not only that, I feel like I get to know my community more intimately through walking. On a given day, I can choose to take alternate routes, pay attention to the squirrels one day, landscaping the next, and so forth. I also have more chance encounters with neighbors and people I know, which boosts my mood and makes me feel like I belong.
In her book Wanderlust: A History of Walking, Rebecca Solnit writes, "Walkers are 'practitioners of the city,' for the city is made to be walked. A city is a language, a repository of possibilities, and walking is the act of speaking that language, of selecting from those possibilities. Just as language limits what can be said, architecture limits where one can walk, but the walker invents other ways to go."
As Solnit eloquently puts it, walking can be more than just a way to get from one place to another. It’s a creative exercise, a conversation between us and the communities we call home. Walking gives us a chance to slow down, clear our minds, talk with a neighbor, notice something new, and ultimately see our cities more clearly than we can through the windows of our vehicles.
In a period of history when many of us feel short on time, we need to give ourselves permission to slow down. We often design and contemplate our lives in such a way that any minute we are not working, or absorbing information, or being productive, is written off as a waste of time. I don’t believe this mindset is sustainable—for ourselves, our communities, and the environment. Walking is one way to resist. For those of us that have the luxury to leave our vehicles at home and take the slower route, there is so much to be gained in the steps we take between our destinations.
I believe walkable communities are a standard worth striving for. They make us healthier, keep us more connected, and serve as beautiful places for interweaving lives across demographics and situations that often keep us separate. Though walkability is overwhelmingly a design challenge—and one of many, when it comes to sustainability—we can use our voices to advocate for spaces that make us feel human, and remember to utilize the ones that already do.
Think about how you can incorporate walking into your life, or reframe the ways that you already do. Can you invite a friend for a Saturday morning walk? Choose not to drive to work one or two days a week? Try out a new route? There are many ways that walking can contribute to improving our quality of life, and its fairly simple to involve others, too.
Interested in improving your community’s walkability? AARP has some great resources, including these materials about facilitating a “walk audit” in both English and Spanish, as well as some suggestions on where to share the data you collect.
Placeful is a weekly email newsletter containing personal reflections and reporting on sense of place and sustainability. Each week I delve into a new topic, wrapping it up with an action item that will help readers foster deeper connections to the natural, cultural, built, and historic environments around them. Read more about Placeful.
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