Why Our Cities Should Force Us to Walk More
Walking has been shown to have significant health, economic and social benefits. Research has revealed that an increase in a city’s ‘walkability’ is highly correlated with a stronger presence of economic livewires such as hotels and retail locations.
People who walk live longer, are less likely to develop cognitive impairments such as Alzheimer’s, and are statistically shown to be more creative. Yet the design of our cities has shunned the value of walking. Our cities are designed for cars – motorised vehicles stream through the heart of our thoroughfares, pushing pedestrians and cyclists to the sides. Pedestrians are forced to hop-scotch across streets and blocks, often dangerously jaywalking. As much the car has enhanced the capabilities of contemporary life, it has permitted the continuation of urban sprawl, hurting the environment whilst relegating walking to the status of the poor mans’ travel. But our cities are beginning to take notice. Melbourne has adopted urban planning measures to reduce sprawl and increase inner city density in an attempt to stem the environmental impacts of excessive travel. New York City, a city renowned for being particularly dense emits significantly less transport-related greenhouse gas emissions than large, sprawled cities such as Denver. On a per capita basis, large cities actually send less pollution into the atmosphere than smaller, more spread out cities.
Density also allows amenities to be within greater reach, encouraging citizens to walk instead of drive. In large cities serviced by potent public transportation systems, residents are often prepared to eschew the car entirely. On the flip side, when we build cities for cars, we allow our cities to sprawl not because we should, but because we can.
Aside from the obvious impact of degrading the environment through harmful emissions, cities designed in this way place outsize pressure on multiple facets of society.Forcing people back into cars often hurts local businesses that lose out on foot traffic. The stoic determination to get from point A to point B of driving detracts from the buzz a city gets when its residents actually engage with the streets and the environment.
Building for density is a long term solution for an issue that inevitably plagues every city: how do we construct for more people? As planning wisdom has long postulated, building more road lanes to solve congestion is like loosening your belt to solve obesity. When we push more and more people out further, rather than solving the problem, we’re simply creating a situation that accommodates it.
Unfortunately, more often than not, cities will sprawl if its residents want it to. The notion of the suburban family life is still a romantic ideal ingrained in the consciousness of many Australians and it’s an ideal that can only be truly realised in outer regions of cities that have the square footage to permit it. The construction industry has also been notoriously resistant to change; in an influential architecture essay written in 1908, iconic American architect Frank Lloyd Wright derided construction folk as preachers of habit ‘not hunting for trouble’.
But at the same time, societal attitudes are beginning to adapt. In London, there are more people cycling than ever before, and housing numbers are reflecting a greater demand for high-rise inner city dwellings. If we want to make our cities more walkable, and consequently more sustainable, liveable and vibrant, we need to brave enough to abandon the tired formula of suburban cul-de-sacs in favour of denser, more interconnected areas. The ideal of the walkable city is within reach, we just need to let it happen.