For decades the simple act of walking was largely overlooked by city planners but, no matter how you choose to get around your city, the chances are that you are a pedestrian at some point during the day.
Recently, some cities have made great strides: from the ambitious public squares programmes of New York and Paris to the pedestrianisation of major streets (realised in the case of Strøget in Copenhagen; proposed in the case of London’s Oxford Street and Madrid’s Gran Vía.
Jeff Speck’s grandly titled General Theory of Walkability states that a journey on foot should satisfy four main conditions: be useful, safe, comfortable and interesting.
In his book Walkable City: How Downtown Can Save America, One Step at a Time, he argues that the “fabric” of the city – the variety of buildings, frontages and open spaces – is key.
North American, Australian and Canadian cities, which were built for cars, have the challenge of retrofitting walking infrastructure.
Older European cities, which were built with walking in mind, have good fabric. This can make them walkable even if they lack pavements, crossings and other infrastructure for pedestrians – as is the case in Rome, says Speck.
“Rome, at first glance, seems horribly inhospitable to pedestrians,” he notes. “Half the streets are missing sidewalks, most intersections lack crossings, pavements are uneven and rutted, disabled ramps are largely absent.” But despite all this, as well as its hills and famously aggressive driving, this “anarchic obstacle course is somehow a magnet for walkers”. Why? Because Rome’s fabric is superb.
Is it possible to measure a city’s walkability?
Walk Score, which lets prospective renters and buyers choose homes based on walkability, ranks cities in the US, Canada and Australia. New York tops the US list for 2017 at an overall 89 out of 100, with Little Italy and Union Square scoring full marks. San Francisco ranked second, followed by Boston. Vancouver, Toronto and Montreal rank 1-2-3 in Canada; while Australia’s most walkable cities are Sydney, Melbourne and Adelaide.
New York famously began its urban transformation programme in 2007, its flagship scheme the part-pedestrianisation of Times Square two years later. The former transportation commissioner for New York City, Janette Sadik-Khan, said: “We changed the city from places people wanted to park to places people wanted to be – street space to seat space,” she said. “On 23rd St, where three streets meet, we created 65,000 sq ft of public space. People choose to sit on the street rather than the park.”
Like most transportation experts, Sadik-Khan believes walkability is about more than safety – it is about economic competitiveness, too. According to the UN, well-planned cities should have 30-35% of their land dedicated to streets to get the benefits of high connectivity. Manhattan scores 36%.
New York City is far from perfect, scoring third worst in an Inrix analysis of congestion from 1,064 cities in 38 countries, with commuters spending on average 89.4 hours a year stuck in traffic. But what was achieved in the city – first in showcase projects built quickly and with cheap materials like paint, benches and planters – opened people’s eyes to what was possible.
Sadik-Khan now works with city mayors around the world via Nacto (the US National Association of City Transportation Officials), recently publishing a tactical urbanism manual, Street Fight: Handbook for an Urban Revolution, to help other planners learn from her experience.
Nacto and Sadik-Khan’s work on the Paris Pietons programme clearly draws a lot on New York’s example. By 2020, seven city squares will be redesigned, giving 50% more space to those on bike and on foot. The Place de la République was transformed from a roundabout back to a square in 2013. “Opponents said it would be chaos, but it is not the case,” says Paris’ deputy mayor for transport, Christophe Najdovski. “It is now a place where people can rest, where families with children and older people can come.”
Under the Paris-Plages scheme, a former road space on the Seine and La Villette canal basin is turned into a “seaside” resort each summer. Since the city first banned cars from parts of the Right Bank in 2002, the seasonal festival has expanded each year, and is now on both banks of the river.
Paris was made for walking, but cars have taken over, Najdovski says.
“You can walk from one end of Paris to the other in less than two hours,” he adds, “but historically the city had to adapt itself to cars.” The result: pollution and congestion. Now, walking is a “principal policy”.
In the words of Jan Gehl: “Life happens on foot. Man was created to walk, and all of life’s events large and small develop when we walk among other people. There is so much more to walking than walking. There is direct contact between people and the surrounding community, fresh air, time outdoors …”
Cities around the world are taking steps. Madrid introduced water fountains to help pedestrians cope with the hot summers. Medellín, in Columbia, built cable cars to link up poor neighbourhoods with employment centres, introduced library parks and widened its pavements to encourage walking. Melbourne, in Australia, transformed unloved alleyways used primarily for rubbish into its now famous “laneways” – buzzing outdoor seating for coffee shops and restaurants.
Guangzhou in China has among the highest levels of walking in the world. Redevelopment of the banks of the Pearl river to create an ecological corridor has connected six paths, resulting in 60 miles of greenways, linking tourist attractions and sporting venues serving seven million people.
In May, Seoul opened its own version of the High Line. Seoullo 7017 – a half-mile “sky garden” created from a 1970s motorway flyover – is the latest step in a bold plan to transform the city for pedestrians. A decade earlier, the city’s Cheonggyecheon freeway, another four-lane elevated road, was torn down, and the dirty creek beneath reopened to the sky, its riverbanks to walkers.
London is moving forward too, with the proposed transformation of Oxford Street, where pedestrians have been crammed on to narrow pavements between queues of buses for decades. Next year, the street will become what Val Shawcross, the deputy mayor for transport, calls a “world-class pedestrian space”, with buses and taxis banished. The idea is to route buses to the street, rather than through it, as part of a project to cut traffic and encourage walking and cycling in the area, ahead of the Crossrail opening at the end of 2018.
Some cities, like Dallas, Texas, and Beijing, are going backwards, according to Mario Alves from the International Federation of Pedestrians.
As well as cities where a conscious effort has been made to improve conditions for people on foot, some cities are walkable because of their historic centres. There’s Florence in Italy, Vientiane in Laos, Kyoto in Japan – but the most striking is perhaps Fes el Bali, a walled section of Fez, Morocco’s second largest city.
Founded in the 9th century, it is believed to be the world’s biggest car-free zone, and its medieval streets are so narrow that rubbish is still collected by donkey. The beauty of the city, in terms of walkability, is its density: 156,000 residents live in an area just 3.5km sq. As a result, almost all trips are by foot – and children can play on the streets.
So, where is the most walkable city? Walk Score makes the case for New York in the US, Vancouver in Canada and Sydney in Australia, but what about Paris? Or Fes el Bali? While it seems impossible to give a definitive answer, Alves says tackling cars in cities is key to encouraging walking.
“Noise and air pollution are the biggest problems for walking and safety,” he says. “The less traffic you have in a city, the safer it is. Speed is very connected with safety and noise and pedestrians feel much more comfortable to sit down when a street is 30kph or 20mph. When we have low traffic the quality of walking and cycling increases automatically.”
Enrique Peñalosa, the mayor of Bogotá in Colombia, which pioneered closing city streets to cars once a week, agrees. “God made us walking animals – pedestrians,” he says. “As a fish needs to swim, a bird to fly, a deer to run, we need to walk; not in order to survive, but to be happy.”