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The Walkable City

“We are realising that if you have people walk and cycle more, you have a more lively, more liveable, more attractive, more safe, more sustainable and more healthy city. And what are you waiting for?” – Jan Gehl


Walkability is at the centre of the current discourse on city and neighbourhood design, brought into mainstream consciousness with the release of Jeff Speck’s, ‘The Walkable City’ and the development of “Walk Score” [1].  In simple terms, ‘walkability’ is the effectiveness of community design in promoting walking and cycling as real alternatives to driving cars in reaching shopping, schools, and other common destinations.

How we design our neighbourhoods and cities plays a major role in our personal health and wellbeing. Urban planning, design and redevelopment offers an opportunity to encourage physical activity, increase social interaction and improve productivity. So, how can we reduce car dependency and increase the use of more sustainable modes of transport?

Density. Diversity. Design.

A number of organisations such as the Heart Foundation pick up on the concern that traditional low-density, suburban-sprawl can have a negative impact on the health of both residents and the environment. The residential population density of an area relates to the dwelling type (i.e. Single or multi-family homes) as well as the number of dwellings per hectare. Whilst density is a hotly debated topic, optimised density underpins the success of a walkable neighbourhood.

Diversity of land use recognises amenities within walking or cycling distances. Walk Score's algorithm awards maximum points to amenities within 5 minutes' walk. The points of interest identified by Walk Score have been contextualised and modified by others across the world, such as for Port Au Prince in Haiti where water access, informal markets and mechanic shops replace the North-American centric amenities of grocery stores, restaurants and shopping.

Design encompasses a wide range of considerations, with slight variations depending on the context.  These include a fine grained dense interconnected street network, pedestrian comfort (sun and wind), street frontage design (orienting buildings to streets and open spaces), an urban form of human scale (around 6 storeys), the presence of green infrastructure and most importantly, putting cars in their place!

As principal authors of the Manual for Streets (2007 and 2010) and Designing Streets (2010), the walkability of cities and neighbourhoods has always been embedded within our work at WSP.

Moving forwards using GIS technology, we are able to make a realistic determination and visualisation of “walkability” across large cities and examine an area’s density, diversity and design.

At the neighbourhood scale, a fully customised modelling approach based on the project context is embedded within our masterplan work, which looks at:

     - The amenities of interest (e.g. Do we now need amazon lockers?);

     - The relative importance of each amenity (e.g. Grocery store versus retail shopping?); and

     - The number of destinations required (e.g. How many cafes and restaurants are in demand?)

The cumulative walkability score (illustrated below) interlaced with other variables such as the consideration of outdoor comfort, daylight ingress, operational and embodied carbon considerations, allows us to inform the planning of neighbourhoods at the earliest stages for any geographic and climatic context.

We need to respond to the momentum gathered through the discourse on walkability and embed this integrated approach to create truly sustainable places for people to live and thrive! 

This blog was written by Snigdha Jain, Principal Consultant within the Sustainable Places team at WSP. Snigdha can be contacted on snigdha.jain@wsp.com or on LinkedIn for exchange of ideas, collaboration and enquiries for sustainable city and neighbourhood design.

[1] Walk Score is a private company whose flagship product is a large scale, public access index that assigns a numerical walkability score and is available in the US, Canada, Australia and New Zealand.