In part 1 of this series I did my best to sell the beauty of urban life in an attempt to debunk the myth that cities are grimy, noisy, polluted places to live. Most of us with negative perceptions about city living haven’t actually lived in a good city.
A great city isn’t one that has spectacular monuments or exciting tourist attractions. A great city is one that is a great place to live. Which leads to the question, what makes a city liveable?
One of the most important aspects of a liveable city is its walkability. But before we look at what that even means, let me tell you a story about my time in Thailand’s capital, Bangkok.
Bouncing about Bangkok
I’ve just finished up a writing session in a cafe inside one of Bangkok’s super-malls and need some food. After forcefully meandering my way to the exit I spill out onto the guard-railed sidewalk that divides hundreds of shopper from the would-be speeding cars and tuk-tuks. It’s 12 o’clock so they aren’t actually speeding right now, rather stuck in hundreds of meters of stand-still traffic, but that’s a story for another day.
I’m heading to an adjacent neighbourhood for what I’ve heard is Bangkok’s best Pad Thai. My transport options are between joining the traffic in a taxi (sucky), jumping on the elevated “sky-train” which only takes me halfway (less sucky), or just walking the whole distance (which Google expects to take 35 minutes).
The weather is nice, enough, so I head out on foot leaving the two super-malls behind me. I walk along the main road for a while, but the 8 lanes of traffic is repulsive to my lungs so I escape into some side streets for fresher air. At first this works well, passing by a sports field and some upper-class apartment buildings.
However, eventually I reach the end of this super block and meet another main-road with even more lanes (this one was a 12 lane road smack in the middle of the city). Bangkok has clearly been planned for the automobile, because these roads rarely have ground level crossing, replaced instead with intermittent bridge crossings.
The next bridge is a hundred meters back up the road. I reach it, climb the three flights of stairs, cross, descend and retrace back up to the street I needed; fun. Back on track I continue through the small streets, finding a nice park to walk through (one that ironically ends in a dead-end causing me to again retrace my steps and go around). Past the park I walk through a nice old neighbourhood sectioned off for destruction.
Continuing down this route I seem to be the only person who chooses to walk since the neighbourhoods are full of traffic but free of people. Continuing down, my sidewalk seems to be getting thinner and thinner, to the point where it actually disappears into a gutter, leaving me walking on the road alongside four lanes of now actually-speeding traffic. I cross the road (no there wasn’t a crossing) where the footpath is several meters wide, but it too slowly disappears over time.
After dancing my way through the neighbourhood, I eventually arrive at my destination!
It’s closed for vacation. It opens the day after I leave. (╯°□°）╯︵ ┻━┻
I’m a foodie but not a snob, so I look for something else nearby. Despite the neighbourhood being dead empty Google ensures that hope lies just a short 15 minute walk away…
You get it, car-first cities suck
Cities that plan around cars are terrible places to walk (and coincidently become terrible places to drive thanks a little concept called induced demand that we’ll go into detail later.)
Before I get into why it matters if a city is a good place to walk, let me introduce to you the concept of walkability.
Walkability, as the name suggests, is the ability to which a geographical location can be conveniently traversed by foot. This means that an average human can access the average human needs within an average walk.
This definition is overly puristic, since if everything is in walking distance for everyone, then it has to be a really small city with very few people and very limited needs. Walkability is really about non-automobile transport. It means that you can complete a whole journey conveniently without a car.
Why I care about walkability
Think about any city that you have ever loved. What was it that made it beautiful? What was it that created the feeling of that city?
While there are many things that influence this, such as architecture, street layout, grid shape, etc, these things are not the critical ingredient. You could take away all of these things and still get a highly loveable city.
The one thing you can’t take away from a city and keep its feeling is street life. Street life is what create the culture of a city, it’s the main factor that forms our perception of it. Even Paris with its romantic architecture would be nothing without the street-side cafes and eateries.
A city without street-life is not a city, it’s just an amalgamation of independent houses and offices.
Street life is what brings connection (and ironically convenience) to a city.
The bees knees
If all you want in life is to be shuttled back and forth between your bedroom and your workroom with minimal human interactions or stimulus, then let’s face it, you’re probably a psychopath.
However, if you’re looking for a city that is healthy, safe, and convenient, then walkability is what you want. Here’s why walkable cities are better than automobile-first cities:
- They have richer culture: Cars are isolating-devices that shuttle us from door-to-door.
- They support secondary-use economies: When you drive from A to B, you miss out on everything in-between. You miss picking up the snack from the bakery, the fruit from the local grocer. What then happens is that these small business then disappear.
- They are safer: streets with high street-life are safer from violent crime as there are more “eyes on the street”. Nobody has every been raped at Shibuya crossing.
- They are safer: streets that designed for walkers instead of cars actually reduce automobile accidents. When you design a street for cars, you optimise for speed, when you design for walkability, you optimise for people.
- They are healthier: You’re using your body to get around rather than sitting in a car eating chips, enough said 🤷♂️
- They support diversity: The factors that create a highly walkable city (we’ll look at shortly) also promote more diverse populations (ethnic and class).
- They create wealth: Highly walkable neighbourhoods are correlated with higher property values. People like living in connected, diverse, and interesting neighbourhoods.
General theory of Walkability
Making a truely walkable city isn’t easy. It is more complex than just ensuring short walks.
Its not enough to create a place where people can walk, you have to make a place where people want to walk.
In his book Walkable City, Jeff speck outlines his general theory of walkability, which states that for a person to choose to walk, it must be:
- Useful – The places you need to go, have to be within reasonable walking distance.
- Safe – Safe from both violent crimes as well as automobile accidents. Just as important as actual safety is how safe they feel.
- Comfortable – This means walks that are short enough (under 20 minutes is negligible), well-designed and maintained sidewalks, and trees! Lots of them.
- Interesting – A 10-minute walk through a sparse neighbourhood will feel like hours. The contrary is also true; in an interesting neighbourhood it will feel like seconds.
How to make a walkable city
The one thing I want to emphasis here is that walkable cities still have cars. Walkability enthusiasts aren’t some sort of romantic nostalgists who want to #BringBackTheWagon 🤦♂️
Rather walkability is about putting cars in their place. Cars are not capable of being a primary mode of transport for a city, they ultimately result in congested streets, increase pollution, and cripple city culture. In a future post, we’ll cover how to create cities where cars help rather than hurt.
Alright, let’s do it; here are the critical factors for creating a good walkable-city. This is coming from months of reading and research on urban planning that you don’t have to do 👌
Small city blocks
I never really thought much about the “size” of a city block before (maybe because I grew up in Sydney, a city without blocks, and coincidently street life). However, it’s actually one of the biggest factors to determining how walkable and lively a city is.
To give you an range for block sized, Portland Oregon, which is renown for being extremely walkable has 60 meter blocks, while Chicago and other American cities have block sizes well over 200 meters.
- Large blocks are inconvenient. Large city blocks act as impassable barriers for people often make a route more cumbersome and even longer.
- Large blocks encourage larger buildings. Large city blocks, usually beget large skyscrapers and malls, which usually beget poor street life due to their lack of street level shopfronts.
- Small blocks give choice. Small city blocks increase walker choice of route (you could go left 1 block then up 2, or up 2 then left 1, or up 1, left 1, up 1). This makes walking more interesting and diverse.
- Large blocks mean larger streets. The larger your block size, the fewer streets you have. This means that your streets need to be wider to support a constant level of traffic. Nobody likes crossing an 8 lane road, it feels dangerous and sparse.
- Narrow streets are safer. Following the above, smaller blocks means more frequent and narrower streets. People drive slower on narrow streets, making them safer for both drivers and people on the streets.
- Small blocks are forgiving. When walking through a city of small blocks and you realise you have gone the wrong way, it’s easier to get back on track since the next opportunity to change direction is just ahead of you.
Much of what gives a city its feel is the shops, restaurants, cafes, and other small business that line its streets. It’s the French bakery or the Italian fashion store.
As opposed to primary-use activities such as work, movies, stadiums, etc, much of what makes up our economies, and more importantly streets, is secondary-use businesses; the places that we visit on the way to our destination.
- Secondary-use economies are what make our streets interesting.
- They are largely what gives a city its feel, look, and taste.
- Secondary-use economies only survive with high foot traffic. When travelling by car to a primary-use destination (work, friends, etc) we are less likely to stop by and pick up a bagel from the french bakery, or a coffee from the hole-in-the wall barista.
- Safer streets. Having more shopfronts on a street means more foot traffic from customers, as well as constant eyes one the road (shop owners) which results in less opportunity for violent crime (a major detractor of city culture).
Outdoor living rooms
Urban planners theorise that due to our ancestral past have an inbuilt need for “prospect and cover” – we want to see our environment ahead of us while still feeling like our flanks are covered.
The figural space or “shape” that buildings create dramatically alters the feel of the street. Compare two extremes here, one in Florence and the other Chicago.
- A good figural space is neither too wide nor too narrow.
- When too wide, it feels like a barren plane where we can be attacked from any angle.
- When to skinny it feels claustrophobic and cramped.
- Loosely speaking, the ideal figural space is corridors of around 3-8 story buildings around a 1-2 lane street. This creates a cozy protected feel.
- Skyscrapers often create poor figural space. It’s not their height, but rather, how they are most often designed by fancy architects who more often than not put skinny bases surrounded by lots of empty space away from the street to give a feeling of grandeur. Or their lower levels are grand high ceiling lobbies without any shopfronts, doing nothing for street life.
Sidewalks and pedestrian lights
For it to be enjoyable walking from one place to the next, the walk itself has to be comfortable.
In Bangkok they have countdowns on the lights telling you how long until they go green. This is great, except that it wasn’t uncommon for me to see the timer starting from 3 minutes…
Waiting three minutes at a noisy, loud, and polluted intersection with a giant countdown slowly ticking… is extremely painful.
- Good sidewalks. Sidewalks need to be wide enough to support comfortable two-way traffic.
- Cross often. Irregular street crossing turn streets into impassible rivers. Street crossings should be as often as possible.
- Short enough waits. Pedestrian lights should be short enough (ideally around 1 minute) so that people don’t feel bothered by the wait.
- Keep people moving. Since people feel better when they are moving towards their destination, coordinating pedestrian lights so that people always have a green (either straight or turn) makes the walk feel shorter.
The humble tree can do wonders to a city. And not just in parks, but throughout the entire city.
- Shade. Trees provide shade for walkers, making walking in hot weather more enticing.
- Beauty. Trees stop a city from feeling like a dull grey monstrosity. In the end of the day, we are animals and we have evolved to find nature pleasurable.
- Happiness. Being around trees makes us happier and healthier.
- Safety. People drive slower on streets with trees, reducing fatalities. Also trees serve as a needed barrier protecting vulnerable pedestrians from a stray vehicle.2
Walking around a city with interesting buildings is far more enjoyable than walking around a monotonous landscape of similarity.
- History. Buildings of different ages tells the story of time, connecting people with their past.
- Interesting. Building of different purposes results in vastly different architecture to suit those needs, which in turn means a more varied and interesting facades.
- Diversity. Older buildings are cheaper to rent. Having a mix of old and new buildings in a neighbourhood means a higher mix of social classes, which in turn creates a higher mix of secondary-use economies, further improve street culture.
Keep reading this series – Part 3: Like Mud Cake, But Not