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Healthy Neighbourhoods: Benefits of a Walkable City

Introduction:

This week’s theme for the blog is healthy neighbourhoods. I will be exploring the benefits of a walkable city.

Through the encouragement of walking via awareness campaigns and by providing direct, easily-navigable, pleasant and safe pedestrian routes, the benefits for both people and the environment are boundless.

Safe City:

Inviting walking in cities brings more activity and natural surveillance to the streets, hence creating safer spaces. The observation that busier streets are safer was brought to us by Jane Jacobs in 1961 with her idea of ‘eyes on the street’ (Jacobs, 1961) to naturally prevent crime.

As well as crime prevention, cities need to tackle traffic safety in order to be safe. Since the invasion of cars into our cities in the early twentieth century, walking has become more difficult and less attractive as pedestrians have been pushed onto narrow sidewalks and forced under bleak underground passages. Obstacles on the pavements that obstruct pedestrians, such as road signs and parking meters, are also for the benefit of the car user and make walking more difficult.

By giving priority back to pedestrians, at crossings for example, and by creating wider, more pleasant routes, more people will be encouraged to walk.

Sustainable City:

Transport is responsible for massive amounts of energy consumption and the resulting pollution and carbon emissions that cause harm to our environment. Giving priority to pedestrians would change the profile of the transport sector and be a significant part in overall sustainable policies.

Walking is a cheap, near silent and non-polluting form of transport. It also saves city space, with two 3.5m wide sidewalks able to carry 10 000 to 20 000 people per hour compared to a two lane, two way street that can take 1000 to 2000 cars per hour (Gehl, 2010).

Healthy City:

One in three Americans were obese in 2007 due to an increasingly sedentary lifestyle in modern day society (Gehl, 2010). Fitting exercise into our daily routines, such as on our commute to work, is an efficient way to fit exercise into our busy schedules. A healthier population will reduce burden on the health service, reduce personal health costs, increase quality of life and ultimately life span.

Physical infrastructure such as good walkways and pavements is needed to provide quality walk routes that will attract more people to tie walking into their daily life instead of using their cars.

Sydney, New York and Mexico City have already made good progress in promoting walking. They have upgraded pedestrian networks with wider sidewalks and better surfaces, planted trees for shading, removed unnecessary obstructions and improved crossings (Gehl, 2010). The overall goal in these cities is to make it simple, uncomplicated, safe and pleasant to walk around the city any time of day or night.

Lively City:

Finally, increased numbers of pedestrians on the street will promote a lively, interesting and sociable city. The city should be a ‘place of excitement’ (Jacobs and Appleyard, 1987); ‘it is a theatre, a stage upon which citizens can display themselves and see others’ said Jacobs and Appleyard. Slower traffic ultimately makes for a livelier city as pedestrians, or cyclists, will take longer to leave a street or square. Cars are fleeting and will leave a person’s field of view almost as soon as they’ve arrived and without interaction.

People come where people are (Gehl, 2010).

Life in the city is a self-reinforcing process, once it has gained a foothold it will increase (Gehl, 2010). On other hand, in cities planned for cars, with too much open, empty space, the streets and public spaces often feel devoid of life.

‘Nothing happens because nothing happens because nothing’ (Gehl, 2010).

To achieve a lively city where people walk when possible, short, logical pedestrian routes need to be provided along with small public spaces that can easily fill.

So long as emergency services, disabled people, residents, public transport and deliveries can all access where they need to go in a city, pedestrians should be given priority wherever possible. Whether that’s through improved sidewalks or walking routes, whole pedestrianised streets or even whole pedestrianised neighbourhoods.

Case Study: Barcelona’s Superblock (Superilla)

Barcelona’s plan to create superblocks, or superillas, has been a huge success and is now part of a global best practice. A superblock consists of nine buildings, forming a 400 x 400m block. Within these superblocks no through traffic is permitted, but access is still allowed for emergency vehicles, disabled people, residents, public transport and deliveries at a controlled speed to 10km/hr. The result is the provision of safe, open public spaces that can be used by pedestrians for varying purposes. The goal of the project was to regain space for the community, improve biodiversity through increasing green space, to move towards sustainable mobility and to encourage social cohesion. The pilot scheme increased pedestrian trips by 10% and cycle trips by 30% and has also reduced pollution, reduced noise, increased sales of local businesses and reduced the numbers of cars in surrounding neighbourhoods (Postaria, 2021).

There was initially push back on the scheme by local shop owners who feared a reduction in sales from restricted car access and from residents who feared being pushed out due to gentrification, but local businesses actually saw an increase in sales (not many customers arrived by car previously anyway) and the council had been careful to pilot the scheme in neighbourhoods with social housing so as to not increase any divide between well-off and less well-off neighbourhoods.

Conclusion:

In conclusion, there seems to be few disadvantages to returning to a more pedestrian-focused approach to urban planning. A city that provides direct, pleasant, safe pedestrian routes is likely to result in a safer, more sustainable, healthier and livelier city.

Bibliography:

Gehl, J (2010). Cities for People. Island Press

Jacobs, J (1961). The Death and Life of Great American Cities. New York: Random House

Jacobs, A and Appleyard, D (1987). Towards an Urban Design Manifesto, American Planning Association Journal, Vol.53, No.1, 112-120

Postaria, R (2021). Superblock (Superilla) Barcelona – a City Redefined. Available at: https://www.citiesforum.org/news/superblock-superilla-barcelona-a-city-redefined/ (Accessed: 09.01.24)

Steps ahead! The future of Barcelona’s superblock (2022). Available at: https://www.polisnetwork.eu/news/steps-ahead-the-future-of-barcelonas-superblock/#:~:text=We%27ve%20measured%20the%20effects,cars%20in%20the%20superblock%20area%2C(Accessed: 09.01.24)

Images:

Figure 1: Stroget (date unknown). Available at: https://travel.usnews.com/Copenhagen_Denmark/Things_To_Do/Stroget_25830/ (Accessed: 09.01.24)

Figure 2: Postaria, R (2021). Superblock (Superilla) Barcelona – a City Redefined. Available at: https://www.citiesforum.org/news/superblock-superilla-barcelona-a-city-redefined/ (Accessed: 09.01.24)

Figure 3: Postaria, R (2021). Superblock (Superilla) Barcelona – a City Redefined. Available at: https://www.citiesforum.org/news/superblock-superilla-barcelona-a-city-redefined/ (Accessed: 09.01.24)

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School of Architecture
Planning and Landscape
Newcastle upon Tyne
Tyne and Wear, NE1 7RU

Telephone: 0191 208 6509

Email: nicola.rutherford@ncl.ac.uk