Five things a perfect city needs: 4. Walkability

This is the fourth of a short series on ‘Five things a perfect city needs‘, prompted by a twitter exchange on the subject a few weeks ago.

Rickmansworth, 2008
Bury Lane, Rickmansworth, 2008


Walkability has (happily) become one of those taken-for-granted aspects of modern urbanism that no urban planner or designer can ignore. The problem is, like with connectivity, it is easy to have as an aim, but harder to achieve in reality. One of the reasons for this is that first, what makes for a walkable area is not fully understood and second, the way in which walkability translates into actual benefits to individuals and society is quite hard to measure (and if it’s not measurable, it’s undervalued).

Scholars of ancient Rome point out how central walking was to people in the city. Professor Ray Lawrence has pointed out how Martial’s epigrams (published 86-103 CE) are full of spatial signifiers that place him at particular viewpoints towards the city, describing the city in relation to time that is measured by the length of a walk. His analysis shows that walks were planned for given times of day since particular public places were known to be where, at certain points in time, you’d be likely to meet certain people. In the absence of means of communication, if you wanted to see someone, you’d have to plan your walk to find them where they were most likely to be along your route, such as in the baths at sundown. Interestingly, Professor Mary Beard maintains that walking in Roman times was a signifier of status; one’s gait would differ accordingly. The importance of movement is not only to reinforce one’s social status, but it is an essentially social action, not just because it allows for planned encounters, like in this example, but because it allows for unplanned encounters between the world of strangers, the ‘virtual community’ as Hillier would have it [1], that takes form, grows or shrinks as a result of the way in which the pattern of streets brings people to be co-present with each other. Walking is an essential ingredient for urbanity, yet it is soon lost when people become co-absent, transported from one planned activity to another, without the opportunity to build up connections with wider society. Such connections are built up over time, so whilst the Hillierian theory would suggest that co-presence is sufficient to constitute society (at the least, society-in-potential), the opportunities to deepen connections through shared encounters are there all the time as you walk through public space.

For me sociability is at the heart of walkability. All the other benefits flow naturally from it, whether it is economic vitality (or footfall, as the shopping experts term it) or active travel (the health experts’ term for, yes, walking – and cycling), or social inclusion. Design Council CABE has started a campaign on this recently, highlighting the importance of “shaping buildings, streets, public spaces and neighbourhoods so that healthy activities are integral to people’s everyday lives” and my own research with UCL colleagues Dr Jenny Mindell, Dr Ashley Dhanani and others on the Street Mobility and Network Accessibility project use as our starting point in studying community severance the fact that people are more likely to incorporate walking into their daily activities where local streets and footpaths are well connected to the wider street network.

In policy terms it is essential that we build walkability into the decisions we take about the layout of new and old schemes alike. The battle to prevent developers from closing Manchester’s Library Walk at night-time exemplifies how people value the permeability of the public realm, seeing it as an essential public good.

[1] B. Hillier, “The Architecture of the Urban Object” (1989) 334 & 335 Ekistics 5-21.

© Museum of London
© Museum of London

Author: (sub)urbanite

Professor of Urban Form and Society and Director of the Space Syntax Lab, Bartlett School of Architecture, UCL. Online in a personal capacity.

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