An extract from a new book, Soft City: Building Density for Everyday Life.
Jan Gehl frequently reminds us that human beings are biologically designed to walk. Walkability is about accommodating walking, making it easy, efficient, and enjoyable.
Walking will always be a vital component of urban life. It is the most essential and basic form of mobility. Every journey, regardless of the mode of transport, begins and ends with walking. You walk to the carpark or the bicycle shed; you walk to the bus stop; you walk to the metro platform. Walking is what makes all of the connections to the city possible, what connects us to the places in closest proximity, and what has the potential to get us beyond our immediate surroundings.
The pace of walking allows for a rich, sensory experience, promoting social interaction as well as connections to the surrounding environment. Urban spaces can be designed to enhance these experiences, improving overall walkability. This means creating comfortable, attractive, and continuous walking surfaces, and spaces that make it safe, easy, and intuitive for diverse groups of pedestrians to move among the other forms of traffic sharing the same spaces.
Unlike other forms of transport, people can have total control when walking— spontaneously stopping and going at will. Walking is the form of transport that is most responsive to what is going on around us and offers the most opportunities for connection. The short walks to connect to other modes of transport are particularly important.
If you drive straight into an underground garage from the street and then take a lift up to your home or office, you are denied the opportunity to connect with place, people, and planet. Simply separating the place for storing cars from the home or workplace with a small walk, apart from having some obvious health benefits, opens up the possibility of connecting. It offers a chance to see what is happening on your street, to see other people, and to feel the weather on your skin.
Different kinds of people walk in different ways, with different stuff. Designing for walkability must take into account the diversity of people walking and their circumstances. Some are in a rush to get their bus, where every second counts.
Others are strolling and looking for excuses to stop. Some people are actively engaging in exercise while others, like the postal carrier, are at work. Some will be wearing sensible walking shoes, while others will be in high heels or rubber boots. These different people with their different needs and different paces share the same sidewalk.
In the same way, there is also a range of urban equipment that people may have with them, allowing them to do more and be more comfortable as they move about the urban environment. The prams and strollers, shopping trolleys, walking frames, wheeled suitcases, tote bags and shopping baskets, rucksacks, folding bicycles, headphones, mobile devices, water bottles, coffee cups, umbrellas and parasols all influence the way pedestrians move and use space. When we plan for walkability, we need to factor in this equipment and the accompanying behavior, and understand how it might help or hinder how people move and the space that they need.
In the hierarchy of urban streets, it makes sense to let the vehicle traffic flow uninterrupted along more-important streets, and have traffic stop and yield on more-minor or side streets. The same should be true for pedestrian traffic. Why should pedestrians on a main thoroughfare have to stop and wait at every single side street when the vehicles travelling in the same direction don’t have to? Pedestrian crossings sometimes force those walking to make detours, throwing them off their natural direction or desire line, to allow for a road geometry based on the turning circle of large vehicles. Pedestrians often far outnumber vehicles in an urban setting. Who should be prioritised when designing the street?
In Copenhagen and other cities, walking is prioritized by designing the sidewalk as a continuous surface, to stretch over side streets. This effectively transforms several smaller blocks of sidewalk into a single, long block. Turning cars have to carefully negotiate their way across the sidewalk, observing and respecting the pedestrians, and always yielding to them.
Redesigned side-street crossings that prioritise the pedestrian alter the balance of who has the right-of-way in traffic. People on foot are favored because motorists come as guests in the pedestrian realm. The crossings are a simple change, but make a huge difference for pedestrians in terms of level of access, comfort, and safety on the sidewalk.
The continuous sidewalk can eliminate frequent and annoying changes in level, which makes things easier for people using wheelchairs, prams, and strollers, wheeled luggage and shopping trolleys, scooters, and kick bikes. Overall, the continuous sidewalk creates a more comfortable, safe, and pleasurable experience for people walking. It is also faster since there is no time wasted waiting for traffic at side streets. The continuous sidewalk means that children can be more independent, exponentially expanding their everyday networks – walking to school, visiting friends, and performing errands are possible without adult supervision. Having this safer mobility option can open up a whole new world of freedom, learning, and experience for a child, and can give free time back to their parents.
Architect David Sim is partner and creative director at Gehl. Soft City is out now from Island Press.