Jeff Speck, author of The Walkable City, spoke to the CEOs for Cities conference today about designing walkable downtowns. He outlined not just why they are important, but how cities can take action to encourage more walkable environments.
There are three primary benefits to being walkable: economic, health and environment.
Economic: The reality is that 64% of Millennials are now choosing where they want to live before finding a job, and 77% plan to live in urban areas. This data is supported by the fact that one in four teenagers are opting out of obtaining drivers licenses nowadays. There has been a major cultural shift where young people are no longer buying cars and houses. Millennials want to be close to work, entertainment, public transit and other amenities.
Portland, Oregon made a concerted effort to invest less in highways and focus more on bikes and public transit. As a result, Portlanders now walk more and drive 20% less than they did in 1996. They also spend less money on cars and gas and are able to spend this money locally. For instance, Portlanders spend more money on housing—which is as local as you get. The city also has the 3rd highest number of restaurants.
Health: It’s no secret that obesity and its associated illnesses have been on the rise. We now have a generation of kids who, for the first time, are not expected to outlive their parents. The causes are not simply diet related; lack of activity also plays a major role. Moreover, driving is now the primary cause of air pollution. Studies have shown that asthma rates drop when people live in areas with fewer vehicle miles traveled. And finally, we underestimate the impact of car crashes: 14 of every 100,000 people die each year in car accidents. In NYC, this number is 3 per 100,000 due to significantly less driving.
Environment: We’ve been sold the wrong side of greening. We actually save more energy in one week by living in cities than we do all year by living in the suburbs with energy efficient lighting. Walking helps to promote sustainability and curb climate change. City dwellers produce lower amounts of green house gases per person in cities than in suburban or rural areas due to greater energy efficiencies.
Ok. So less driving, more walking is good for our cities. But how can we alter residents’ behavior? How can cities and urban planners design more conducive walking environments? As Speck points out—there are four primary steps to making your city a “walkable” city:
1) Create a reason to walk. Cities need to rezone areas to create a balance of uses. Rather than walking to and from “work” and “home,” there should be spaces for mixed-uses, including retail, restaurants, offices, and residential. Housing is most underrepresented in downtown areas—when people start to live downtown, other uses follow.
2) Establish a safe walk (real and perceived). Studies show that as block sizes increase, safety decreases. Create smaller, walking-friendly blocks. Multi-lane, one-way streets are unsafe for pedestrians, so encourage the return of two-way streets.
3) Make walks comfortable (space and orientation). Parking lots should be designed to go in the middle of blocks and behind buildings. Maintain stores at ground level. Invest in frontage quality. Create courtyards and a sense of space. The presence of street trees also have a dual benefit: pedestrians enjoy their walks more, but studies show people also drive slower when surrounded by trees.
4) Design interesting walks. There should be signs of humanity while people are walking. Aesthetically, invest in streetscapes and artwork. Establish public places for people to convene so they don’t feel as though they are walking simply to and from one place to another. Create a sense of shared environment.
No doubt, street improvements can take time and do cost money. Cities must prioritize. Begin with downtown areas. It often takes a while to create the momentum for downtown investment, but the downtown is the one neighborhood that belongs to the entire city. The city’s reputation hinges on its ability to attract people and businesses to these downtown areas. Within downtowns, focus on improving streets that are key paths between anchors. Identify infill sites that are the highest priority and then redevelop these areas first.
The truth is, even a majority of our densest cities are not walkable. Take Boston, for instance. Back Bay is a downtown neighborhood where most of the population walks or uses public transit. However, only portions of Back Bay are conducive to walking—back alleys and other areas are primarily off-limits. However, its designated walking corridors support a vibrant walking community.
If cities are the way of the future, we must begin to think how to design them to be more economically, environmentally and health conscience. As Jeff Speck shows, one way to do this is by creating walkable downtowns.