Why cities are bringing walking into focus

Plan Melbourne aims to bring back walkable suburbs as city planners in Australia and globally see the value of making places less car dependent.

May 16, 2019

“Organising our cities around people, not just cars, is commercially and economically constructive,”

The ability to stroll through cities became less of a focus for urban planners during the last century, when needs of the automobile typically came first.

While cities often still reflect that preference for machine over foot, there are movements around the world aiming to change it back.

Consider the project Plan Melbourne, which centres on the notion of “20-minute neighbourhoods” – suburbs where residents of the Australian city can meet most of their daily needs within a 20-minute walk, bike ride or public transport journey from home.

“Organising our cities around people, not just cars, is commercially and economically constructive,” says Stephen Conry, Chief Executive Officer of JLL Australia and New Zealand. “Along with the benefits to our health, communities and environment, there is a solid case for orienting our cities more around walking.”

Walkability as a concept is a global phenomenon. Barcelona is turning automobile-oriented streets into walkable, mixed-use public spaces. Hamburg plans to turn 40 percent of its land area over to connected, car-free green spaces. New York City turned “street space to seat space” in an urban transformation program that included part-pedestrianising Times Square.

Cities that prioritise getting about by foot, bicycle or public transport “encourage people to interact and help communities thrive,” says Conry. “More outdoors time improves peoples’ wellbeing, and less cars on the street means fresher air to breathe.”

American urbanist Christopher B. Leinberger, a major proponent of ‘walkable urbanism’ in the U.S, supports the economic case. His studies of metropolitan markets in the U.S have shown that as well as office, retail and housing rents being significantly higher overall in walkable postcodes, and growing faster than car-dependent suburbs, moderate income households in those places have lower transport costs and better job access than those in less walkable areas.

Commercial benefits

As part of Plan Melbourne, research and advocacy group Victoria Walks collaborated with local councils to assess the walkability of several Melbourne suburbs.

Ben Rossiter, the organisation’s founding executive officer, says the neighbourhood communities were strongly in favour of improving walkability.

“There was a very positive response. People want to live in more walkable neighbourhoods where they are not dependent on cars,” he says. “The real estate industry is increasingly advertising properties by walk score because they know a higher walk score sells.”

A walk score is a number between one and 100 given to a building or area to determine it walkability. For a building, an algorithm awards points based upon its distance to the closest amenities. For an area, the score reflects the number of places people can walk to. The more places, the higher the score.

Research shows that an office or retail building with a score of 80 is worth 54 per cent more per square metre than one scoring 20.

It is often the case that inner-city neighbourhoods have a walk score higher than outlying suburbs.

Rossiter blames post-World War II urban planning, when the sudden prevalence of motor vehicles meant “we built our cities around cars instead of people”.

“It’s really complex, but I think governments for decades haven’t really planned around what the future would be. They’ve been caught off guard by the volume of population growth and the sprawl,” he says.

“We’ve kept going out further and further rather than having a more European approach of compact cities, if you like,” he says.

Tim Williams, Australasia Cities Leader at engineering and design firm Arup, agrees: “Up until the last five years we’ve been building walkability out of Australian cities. We’ve effectively been carrying on the kind of car-based, low density development sprawl of the ‘50s through to the ‘90s. There’s an emerging consensus among planners that we can’t carry on doing that.”

Health and wellbeing

There is a huge upside to walkable cities for general health and the environment. Research by Arup and Victoria Walks shows that if half of all short, private-vehicle trips of under 1 kilometre in Melbourne and Geelong were converted to walking, there would be 2.4 million fewer vehicle trips each week.

City design, therefore, is key, Rossiter says. Streets need crosswalks and pedestrian lights; neighbourhoods should be packed with amenities such as shops, schools and entertainment; public parks must compensate for smaller residential blocks.

“They’re the three big things: connectivity, density and destinations, underpinned by a really good walking environment which is safe and appealing,” Rossiter says.

Older European cities built long before cars are inherently walk-friendly, but aspiring to that high standard is difficult. Instead, Williams and Rossiter both suggest Australia looks to North American models for inspiration. Cities there often need their un-walkability reversed.

“The American cities are beginning to roll back from their suburban sprawl model, so you’ll see there’s a lot more mass transit projects now in California; in Los Angeles, San Diego,” Williams says.

New York’s speed limit, for instance, has been reduced to 20 miles per hour (32 kmh).

“Cities that we used to think of as quite similar to Australian cities because they were car-based are now beginning to look more towards the mass transit-based, walkable model,” he says.