“When we plan for walkability, we need to factor in behavior”: the case for continuous pavements

Little Green Street, Kentish Town, north London. Image: Getty.

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.

 
 
 
 

Older people need better homes – but then, so does everybody else

Colne, Lancashire. Image: Getty.

Towards the end of last year, I started as an associate director at the Centre for Ageing Better, working particularly on our goal around safe and accessible homes. Before I arrived, Ageing Better had established some ambitious goals for this work: by 2030, we want the number of homes classed as decent to increase by a million, and by the same date to ensure that at least half of all new homes are built to be fully accessible.

We’ve all heard the statistics about the huge growth in the number of households headed by someone over 65, and the exponential growth in the number of households of people over 85. Frustratingly, this is often presented as a problem to be solved rather than a major success story of post war social and health policy. Older people, like everyone else, have ambitions for the future, opportunities to make a full contribution to their communities and to continue to work in fulfilling jobs.

It is also essential that older people, again like everyone else, should live in decent and accessible homes. In the last 50 years we have made real progress in improving the quality of our homes, but we still have a lot to do. Our new research shows that over 4 million homes across England fail to meet the government’s basic standards of decency. And a higher proportion of older people live in these homes than the population more generally, with over a million people over the age of 55 living in conditions that pose a risk to their health or safety.

It shouldn’t be too difficult to ensure all our homes meet a decent standard. A small number of homes require major and expensive remedial work, but the overwhelming majority need less than £3,000 to hit the mark. We know how to do it. We now need the political will to make it a priority. Apart from the benefits to the people living in the homes, investment of this kind is great for the economy, especially when so many of our skilled tradespeople are older. Imagine if they were part of training young people to learn these skills.


At a recent staff away day, we explored where we would ideally want to live in our later lives. This was not a stretch for me, although for some of our younger colleagues it is a long way into the future.

The point at which the conversation really took off for me was when we moved away from government definitions of decency and accessibility and began to explore the principles of what great homes for older people would be like. We agreed they needed light and space (by which we meant real space – our national obsession with number of bedrooms as opposed to space has led to us building the smallest new homes in Europe).

We agreed, too, that they needed to be as flexible as possible so that the space could be used differently as our needs change. We thought access to safe outdoor space was essential and that the homes should be digitally connected and in places that maximise the potential for social connection.

Of course, it took us just a few seconds to realise that this is true for virtually everyone. As a nation we have been dismal at moving away from three-bed boxes to thinking differently about what our homes should look like. In a world of technology and factory building, and as we build the new generation of homes we desperately need, we have a real chance to be bold.

Great, flexible homes with light and space, in the places where people want to live. Surely it’s not too much to ask?

David Orr is associate director – homes at the Centre for Ageing Better.