15 November 2016
Towards a Walking World
Author: Andrew Ross, LGiU associate
Cities Alive: Towards a Walking World, published by Arup, shows why making places easier to walk around can be popular with communities and good for local economies. It provides evidence and examples to help elected members and senior offices demonstrate positive leadership on what can be a controversial topic locally.
Briefing in Full
A recent global development trends report prepared by the consultancy Brickfields declared that creating places people can walk around conveniently, safely and enjoyably is becoming a priority worldwide, and will be ‘a competitive advantage for cities that aim to create a good quality of life and long-term value.’
Much of the technical expertise to achieve this exists already, for example, designing people-friendly streets where walking takes priority over travelling by car. The real challenge is convincing communities and their leaders about the value of making the transition from the car dominated built environments many of us live in to ones where walking is a realistic and pleasant option for all.
Cities Alive: Towards a Walking World aims to show why making places more walkable can be popular with communities and be a way for elected members and senior offices to demonstrate positive leadership locally. It is published by the global consultancy Arup. A set of workshop cards to help stimulate discussion and support decision-making about improving environments for walking is also available.
About the report
Unlike most publications reviewed for an LGiU briefing, this one is difficult to summarise given the number of recommendations, case studies and tips on offer.
Source: Cities Alive: Towards a Walking World
Instead, this briefing will distil the key message for local authorities. While the publication is called Cities Alive, much of the document will be relevant for British towns and even villages given the pre-automobile street pattern that is by and large retained in most settlements of any size, even if this layout has been adjusted to accommodate more traffic.
Any member or officer with so much as a passing interest in the pressures facing urban populations and environments will recognise most of the drivers for change, which are divided by category, and informed by a kind of brainstorming of current and emerging themes:
- Social: car ownership, demographic patterns, digital lifestyles, emotional cityness (interaction between otherwise isolated citizens), fortress cities, public health, sustainable behaviours, urban inequality, urban spontaneity, urban stress
- Technological: autonomous vehicles, availability of sensors, big data, communication and sharing, constant connectivity, digital information, free public Wi-Fi, gamified incentives, interactive street furniture, quantified-self (individuals using technology to monitor aspects of their physical selves)
- Economic: congestion costs, digital economy, genius hub, glocalism (the adaptation of a global economy in local settings), health costs, recession, sharing economy, tourism, unemployment, urban regeneration
- Environmental: active transportation, air pollution, climate change, decarbonisation, energy consumption, green infrastructure, heat island, land use patterns, loss of biodiversity, transport safety
- Political: city competitiveness, collective consciousness, green politics, leadership, micro-solutions, policy integration, privatisation, public space, stakeholder engagement, urban resilience.
From a local authority perspective, the guide argues that:
‘People around the world are becoming more active in engaging with their cities and local decision-making, striving for more inclusive planning processes.’
It identifies active travel, liveability and public space as the issues that ‘top the list of priorities’. Walking cuts across all three. Local authorities that embrace these trends will:
‘support urban policies and regeneration that aim to increase active mobility solutions, while discouraging car-use, as tools to foster local economy and create job opportunities.’
Resistance to reducing car use is well documented, and elected members are understandably reluctant to be burnt at the ballot box (Andrew Gilligan, the former London Mayor’s Cycling Commissioner, once said that ‘parking is the third rail of local politics – touch it and you die’). However, the guide points to a shift underway in society’s relationship to the car:
‘Studies indicate that in North America, Japan, Australia and European countries we may have reached ‘peak car’ – the apex at which car ownership, licence ownership and the distance driven per vehicle level off, and then turn down. We are facing a long-term cultural shift: among the millennial generation, a car does not define one’s social status.’
These are interesting headline trends, but in practice local authority staff and members who support walking strategies that involve some element of curtailing car use will need to show leadership in the face of opposition from some powerful industry voices and media commentators. A range of interconnected and coordinated approaches will be necessary. Cities Alive recommends a mix of:
- adopting visions and strategies
- implementing safe and efficient transportation systems
- creating liveable environments
- facilitating a sense of place and community
- developing smart and responsive cities.
Much more vivid is the section that fleshes out these ambitions with suggestions of the diverse actions that can help to implement them. These are sketched out briefly below.
Vision and strategy
Car free initiatives
- Reveal the potential opportunities created by having more – and safer – spaces for people
‘Vision Zero’ policies
- Aim to eliminate road-traffic fatalities through speed-reduction and safety measures
Pedestrian and health campaigns
- Use celebrities, local heroes and champions to advocate for healthy living and pedestrians’ rights
Pop-up and temporary initiatives
- Focus on encouraging uses that are best experienced on foot, such as seating and tables that promote active streets and support local businesses
- Use a mix of subsidies and taxes (where feasible) to encourage behaviour change
- Use technological innovation to raise awareness of walking and to exploit potential for energy generated by walking to power street lights and signs
Density and mixed functions
- Plan neighbourhoods on the principle that the compactness of an urban area is the most decisive factor structurally that gets people walking
Safe and efficient transport
- Maintain the fastest, most understandable walking route, while still maintaining a safe connection
- Remove private vehicles from streets to create pedestrian friendly city centres
- Use the uncertainty of shared spaces to encourage a pedestrian-oriented environment where people are aware of fellow road users
Integration with public transport
- Make walking easier by creating easy-to-understand routes to places such as public transport stations and stops
- Reallocate road space to new uses such as walking, cycling or growing plants.
Traffic calming measures
- Increase and improve pedestrian information street signs to help pedestrians understand the network
- Revitalise unused infrastructure to facilitate safe and attractive pedestrian routes and activity spaces
Innovative public spaces
- Invent new public spaces in previously inaccessible areas, such as underground or on water, to get people exploring by walking
Street design and furniture
- Use thoughtful street design to improve how individuals experience walking and to stimulate them to walk more
- Redevelop small lots as pocket parks – even temporarily – to create attractive destinations and resting points for people walking
- Reallocate car parking spaces to temporary or permanent alternative public uses
Greenways and blueways
- Create an environment that protects pedestrians and cyclists from heat, rain, wind and bright sunlight
- Make real-life shopping attractive by opening shops close together, holding events and creating attractive and protected environments with awnings, on-street cafes and resting places
Sense of place and communities
Open street events
- Temporarily close streets to allow local residents and organisations to enjoy a larger pedestrian space and to remind them of the opportunities for using public space
- Encourage locally developed ideas to help build a sense of ownership of public space and to focus on creating a more locally-oriented public realm
Street fairs & markets
- Nurture cultural heritage, local history and identity to encourage people to explore it on foot
Redundant spaces reallocation
- Create walking routes and experiences relatively easily and cheaply by converting redundant or underused space
Improved urban nightscape
- Use light to welcome people walking into dark public spaces, including streets
- Overcome physical barriers for people who find it more difficult to walk, such as by installing public elevators
Smart and responsive city
Playful interactive environment
- Use sound, light and augmented reality to invite pedestrians to engage with their surroundings and have fun along their route
New modes of city exploration
- Provide entertaining ways for people to discover familiar and unfamiliar places, such as hyper-local storytelling and superimposed layers of digital communication
- Use technology-based wayfinding systems that provide access to real-time data and that make walking more engaging, efficient and informed
Accessibility and inclusivity
- Harness digital technology to make places more inclusive and accessible
Sensing of people and the environment
- Use sensors to provide real-time environmental data for people to help improve their walking experience, such as by suggesting routes
- Map crowdsourced or public data to identify where to improve lighting and use data to provide real time urban design, maintenance and policing
- Utilise digital platforms that make it easier for people to access the public realm, such as smarter booking systems
Digital evaluation tools
- Use smart data as background to plan and design routes that suit the needs of pedestrians
When writing about planning and places I avoid using the term ‘walkability’ because it turns something that is inherently easy to understand – walking – into something vaguely technical and in need of new jargon. So I was amused to read this quote in Cities Alive by Dan Burden, Director of Innovation and Inspiration at Blue Zones:
‘Walkability is a word that did not exist just 20 years ago. We made walking so unnatural that we had to invent a word to describe what we were missing.’
Cities Alive is full of other thought provoking views and ideas, and enthusiastically captures the evidence, energy and creativity that is driving a renewed focus on how to create places that are ‘walkable’ (to coin the jargon).
For some local authorities this is not new territory. Scattered trailblazing councils have embraced the need to plan for human scale urban areas well before it became fashionable to do so, which the report acknowledges:
‘Planning efforts to reduce traffic in favour of active modes of transport have finally started showing positive results. The strive for ‘liveable’, ‘healthy’ or ‘complete’ streets ‘for all’ is dramatically increasing the centrality of walking in the urban discourse.’
Nonetheless, at the local level, tensions between engineered solutions to traffic congestion and the range of approaches sketched out in Cities Alive remain. The council where I live is currently consulting on amendments to the local plan. Mutually conflicting aspirations are contained on the same page of the draft document:
‘Investigate opportunities to make it more comfortable and attractive to walk…’
‘Investigate opportunities to increase the efficiency… of traffic movement…’
One of the primary causes of uncomfortable and unattractive conditions for walking is the emphasis on moving traffic efficiently (‘smoothing the traffic flow’ as transport engineers call it). This so often translates as junction upgrades, signal changes or road widenings, all of which make walking more difficult.
In contrast, the mix of case studies and evidence in Cities Alive is clear that civic leaders can’t significantly improve conditions for walking without also making travelling by car less attractive, at least for some journeys. That won’t be easy, but the evidence is accumulating that failing to take some difficult choices now risks being left behind as people gravitate towards walking-friendly places to live.