Story at a glance:
- By prioritizing pedestrians over vehicles, walkable neighborhoods give people the ability to access their daily necessities within walking distance from their home.
- Aside from the obvious environmental benefits of reduced vehicle usage, walkable neighborhoods also have a variety of economic and health benefits.
- Successful walkable neighborhoods are those that offer a variety of affordable housing options, easy access to public transportation, green spaces, and a wide range of places to walk to.
In the age of motor vehicles, having all of your necessary amenities—a grocery store, restaurants, schools, offices, and green spaces—within reasonable walking distance is a rarity, especially in the United States. Once cars started to become common in the second half of the 20th century, urban planners began to adopt a much more automobile-centric approach to development, leading to a marked reduction in walkability across the nation.
In recent years public sentiments surrounding walkability have shifted dramatically; people are frustrated with the notion of needing a car just so they can get anywhere that isn’t their home. This has led to a renewed interest in the walkable neighborhood—an age-old design strategy that prioritizes pedestrian-infrastructure and mixed-use development to create interconnected and easily-traversed communities.
What is a Walkable Neighborhood?
For the most part, a walkable neighborhood is exactly what it sounds like—a neighborhood that is walkable. But aren’t most neighborhoods walkable? In the practical sense, yes, but not all neighborhoods are designed with walkability in mind.
From a design perspective, the thing that sets walkable neighborhoods apart from other neighborhoods is that they are designed around people rather than around cars. In practice, this translates to communities whose day-to-day necessities—food, education, leisure, etc.—are all within a safe and convenient walking distance, typically between 15 and 30 minutes from one’s place of residence. Walkable communities are most commonly found in and around cities and other urban centers, but they can also succeed in suburban areas as well.
“The most sustainable cities are truly resilient and include design for walkability, allowing people to get around on two feet with easy access to key business and cultural hubs without putting their health at risk,” says Renee Schoonbeek, the senior associate vice president at CallisonRTKL, in a previous gb&d article.
To be clear, walkable neighborhoods are not meant to be entirely devoid of personal vehicles. They do, however, seek to reduce our day-to-day dependence on automobiles as our main mode of transportation by making it easier to access our daily needs on foot.
Benefits of Walkable Neighborhoods
Aside from making it easier for people to access necessary amenities, walkable neighborhoods have a variety of other benefits that make them both appealing and crucial to mitigating the effects of anthropogenic climate change.
For the most part these advantages can be separated into three main categories: environmental, economic, and health-related.
To start, let’s take a look at a few of the environmental benefits associated with walkable neighborhoods:
- Reduced carbon emissions. In the United States, transportation accounts for approximately 29% of all carbon emissions—and light-duty passenger vehicles are responsible for over half of that figure. Walkable neighborhoods reduce vehicle dependency to get around, thus reducing the amount of pollutants produced by said vehicles, which in turn helps improve air quality.
- Combats urban sprawl. By definition walkable communities take up less space than conventional, vehicle-centric neighborhoods and they make more efficient use of the space they occupy. By reducing the scale of these communities, walkable neighborhoods help combat urban sprawl, which helps conserve resources and limit construction waste.
Walkable neighborhoods also boast several economic benefits, such as:
- Lower transportation costs. On average car ownership costs account for 10 to 30% of a person’s yearly income, whereas public transit typically accounts for under 4%. Due to the fact that walkable neighborhoods reduce dependency on automobiles and promote alternative modes of transportation, they help residents save money in the long run.
- More employment opportunities. One of the hallmarks of walkable neighborhoods is that they aren’t made up of just residences; they also include businesses. This means residents have a wider range of employment opportunities that are closer to home.
- Supports local businesses. When people live within walking distance from shops and restaurants, they tend to visit them more often, which helps generate revenue and stimulate the local economy.
Finally, there are a few important health benefits associated with walkable neighborhoods, including:
- Improved physical health. Most health experts recommend walking for at least 30 minutes every day, as walking helps to strengthen bones, improve balance, and keeps the lungs and heart in good condition. In short, walkable neighborhoods help people stay active by incorporating exercise into their daily lives.
- Improved mental health. Studies show that walking helps release mood-boosting endorphins and reduce stress levels, both of which can lower the risk of developing severe anxiety and depression; walkable neighborhoods also help combat feelings of isolation and loneliness by promoting social interaction.
- Reduced risk of health problems. People who walk regularly are at a lower risk for diabetes, hypertension, and many cardiovascular and pulmonary diseases. Walkable neighborhoods also tend to have lower levels of air pollution, which further reduces the risk of developing respiratory illnesses.
Walkable neighborhoods also help foster and encourage relationship-building between residents, which ultimately makes for a healthier, more connected community.
Challenges Associated With Walkable Neighborhoods
Of course, walkable neighborhoods are not without their challenges, especially when it comes to navigating the nuances of land-use regulations and modern development practices.
Zoning & Planning Limitations
Some of the biggest challenges that come with designing walkable communities stem from the limitations imposed by local zoning regulations. Urban planning officials have historically prioritized the approval of single-use development projects that fit neatly into one of five categories—commercial, administrative, residential, industrial, and green spaces—over mixed-use development.
This type of function-based urban planning is fundamentally at odds with the holistic sensibilities of walkable neighborhoods, which seek to include all of these development types (sans industrial works) within a single integrated community.
Fortunately, this barrier can be overcome in part through the adoption of form-based zoning regulations that prioritize design standards over strict use regulations—a distinction that would make it easier to develop mixed- or multi-use projects, provided they meet the physical form requirements.
Form-based zoning would also make it easier to approve walkable neighborhoods that have been adapted from existing structures, as it would nullify the need for the lengthy change-of-use application process.
Gentrification & Housing Disparity
Historically walkability has gone hand in hand with gentrification, or the process by which poor urban areas undergo development that forcibly displaces the community’s original residents—of whom are oftentimes ethnic minorities and/or people of color. When walkable communities are established in existing urban areas, the very qualities that make them desirable often lead to increased property values, which typically ends up pricing out the surrounding area’s low-income residents.
As a result, these residents are forced to find affordable housing elsewhere, usually in areas with low walkability indexes; in short, inequitable design of walkable neighborhoods effectively excludes a large demographic from actually enjoying their benefits.
Portland, for example, is generally regarded as a highly walkable city thanks to its progressive design policies—but that’s not the case for all its citizens. Most of the city’s pedestrian-friendly areas aren’t actually accessible to marginalized communities and those living in low-income housing due to either distance or a lack of adequate transit options.
In order to avoid facilitating gentrification, walkable neighborhoods must include a variety of affordable housing options beyond the single-family home or high-rise apartment. Multi-family homes, duplexes, townhomes, and other missing-middle housing types are just a few examples of how walkable neighborhoods can be made more inclusive of low-income, multi-generational, and non-traditional families.
How to Design a Walkable Neighborhood
Now that we know the benefits and potential challenges of walkable neighborhoods, let’s talk about how to design one—or at the very least, consider what an ideal walkable community typically includes.
First and foremost, walkable neighborhoods must be designed around pedestrian infrastructure. In practice this means making sure sidewalks and pathways are wide enough to accommodate heavy foot traffic and mobility aids, establishing dedicated bike lanes to keep cyclists safe, installing wayfinding tools (e.g. maps, signposts, etc.) to facilitate easy navigation, and including well-lit, sheltered rest areas to provide protection from the elements.
Pedestrian-friendly infrastructure also means designing well-connected streets with plenty of intersections. This helps reduce travel time and ensures there are multiple ways of getting from one place to another.
If pedestrians feel as though they can walk through their neighborhood safely, comfortably, and easily, they’re more likely to actually do so.
Affordable & Diverse Housing
In order to avoid excluding low-income residents and non-traditional families from walkable neighborhoods, a variety of housing options should be made available. As it stands many urban areas suffer from a lack of missing-middle housing, a term used to describe any housing that falls between single-family homes and the standard high-rise apartment (e.g. duplexes, triplexes, courtyard clusters, and so on).
Walkable neighborhoods present a perfect opportunity to remedy this situation and should strive to include housing options for people of all economic backgrounds and family structures.
Variety of Mixed Use Amenities
In the same vein, a walkable neighborhood needs to have a wide range of places for people to walk to if it wants to succeed.
People need to have a reason to get outside and go somewhere, to walk.
“In order to encourage walkability, people need to have a reason to get outside and go somewhere, to walk. You really want to have a variety of mixed uses,” Stacy Olson, the design resilience leader at Gensler previously told gb&d. “Not everyone’s going to want to go to the same place, so having that rich diversity, whether it’s amenities or open space, you need to have safe spaces to walk and a wide enough sidewalk and protection from the elements.”
A diverse array of open spaces, restaurants, shops, and other amenities within walking distance ultimately makes a community more appealing to a wider range of people.
What’s more, a walkable community should not be wholly insular—that is, residents should be able to easily access a variety of mass transit options, such as public buses, the subway, or a monorail system that would allow them to venture outside of the neighborhood. This helps prevent feelings of isolation and can help facilitate economic growth by allowing people from outside the community to patronize its businesses and restaurants.
Something many urban areas lack is adequate access to green spaces, or those places where residents are able to interact with the natural world.
When designing a walkable community, care should be taken to include parks and community gardens, or the installation of green roofs, rooftop gardens, and living walls if existing space is limited. Studies have shown that proximity and access to green spaces helps improve mental and physical health, making for a happier and more productive community.
What’s more, green spaces also have a plethora of environmental benefits, as they help to regulate temperature, absorb carbon, and soak up rainwater.
Examples of Walkability
Having familiarized ourselves with the ins and outs of walkable neighborhoods, let’s take a look at a few examples of projects designed with walkability in mind.
Designed by Perkins Eastman, Collection 14 provides insight into how walkable communities can thrive even in bustling urban centers simply by using existing structures.
Occupying an entire city block, Collection 14 helps preserve the historic facades of several key buildings while also updating them to meet the needs of today. Today Collection 14 houses more than 230 residential units as well as retail, event, and office spaces; it’s also highly sustainable and is served by public transportation.
“The creation of a place that has places to live, places to work, and places to shop and visit takes advantage of the asset,” Tim Bertschinger, Collection 14’s associate principal and project manager, previously told gb&d. “That kind of urbanism is a big part of sustainability.”
Similar to Collection 14, Sibley Square is an inspiring example of how existing structures may be renovated to accommodate multi-use walkability. Designed by The Architectural Team (TAT), Sibley Square resides in the shell of an old department store that has since been renovated for mixed-use purposes.
“Our towns and cities face persistent challenges, but it truly is possible to use existing assets to meet many of our most pressing social needs,” Michael Albert, one of the project managers at TAT, told gb&d in a previous interview. “For us Sibley Square is a reminder to always think creatively and take the perspective that solutions are possible when people collaborate.”
Located in Rochester, New York, Sibley Square occupies 1.1 million square feet and encompasses nearly 200 mixed-rate and affordable housing units, retail shops, restaurants, a child-care facility, a grocery store, offices, and even an art gallery—making the structure a walkable, multi-story neighborhood.
Sibley Square is also served by multiple public transit options and is within walking distance of several parks.
ACC Highland Campus
Opened in 1971, the Highland Mall in Austin, Texas started to decline around the turn of the century as shoppers’ interests were diverted elsewhere. In 2012 the property was bought by Austin Community College, who began renovations to integrate the former shopping center into their existing campus network—and seeing as malls are already designed with walkability in mind, the purchase was a no-brainer.
“The mall site has many advantages—being a central hub near major roadways, having several adaptive reuse building opportunities, and being close to public transportation,” Gardner Vass, a design principal with Perkins&Will, previously told gb&d.
Today the completed ACC Highland Campus features everything from labs and classrooms to restaurants and office spaces, with a wide variety of housing options nearby. Parks and walking trails help foster a sense of connection to nature, promote exercise, and aid in maintaining students’ mental health. The campus is easily accessible by way of Austin’s public bus system and MetroRail line, allowing students and visitors the opportunity to come and go as they please.
An inspiring example of both walkability and adaptive reuse, this mall-turned-college-campus offers excellent insight on how to design walkable neighborhoods using existing structures.
Infill on the Cut
Despite still being in the planning stages, Gensler’s Infill on the Cut is helping to redefine how we think about walkability in cities. Designed to be traversed in just 20 minutes, Infill on the Cut is set to include 350 residential units, 80,000 square feet of retail space, and 18,000 square feet of public green space.
One of the things Gensler prioritized when designing the Cut was making sure people can both live and work in or near the community. “If you have, for example, all of the things you need within your community that’s great, but how many jobs does that provide for?” Stacey Olson told gb&d in a previous interview. “If you’ve got a population who lives in a 20-minute city and there’s not a job market for them, then they’ve been excluded from that city. That’s really when we start to think about transit-oriented development.”
By linking the Cut with existing transportation networks, it will allow people to work jobs located outside of the city—without the need for a personal vehicle.
At the end of the day walkable neighborhoods aren’t a particularly new idea—after all, motorized vehicles are a fairly recent invention within the span of human history—but most new urban development projects aren’t designed with walkability in mind. This is largely due to the automobile-centric urban planning and function-based zoning standards that became common during the latter half of the 20th century, which led to wider streets, less footpaths, and the increased approval of single-use development projects.
Walkable neighborhoods have, however, started to become more and more popular, and urban planners are starting to see that walkability is something people truly want. And it’s not hard to see why, as there are many environmental, economic, and health benefits associated with walkable communities. Add on to the fact that walkable neighborhoods can help revitalize city centers or reuse structures that no longer serve the function they once did and it’s easy to see that designing walkable communities can help address many of our modern societal woes.