We are all pedestrians, most of the time, and it is time to start planning cities for us, pedestrians. As numerous studies show, pedestrian-friendly places are vital for health and well-being of the population, for cleaner environment and for a thriving local economy.
Do you know the feeling when after waiting for the green light to cross the street for a while the red light turns on again before you manage to get to the middle of the street? Or when you are forced to step off the sidewalk because there is a car parked on it? Have you ever seen a sidewalk that suddenly narrows down, so that it is no longer walkable, but the lane for cars does not narrow at all?
Do you often cross the road where there is no pedestrian crossing because it is just too far away? Do you ever feel uncomfortable when you walk alone through a poorly lit passageway in the dark or when you cross an empty parking lot, somewhere in the suburbs, where your car stands solitary? There are countless similar examples that we encounter when we walk on our everyday errands. All these problems are symptoms of a city that is poorly adapted to pedestrians.
But we are all pedestrians, most of the time. Mostly we walk in buildings where, despite elevators and escalators, walking is still the dominant mode of movement. But also in open public spaces walking is the basic mode of traffic that connects all others. We reach cars and bicycles on foot; we walk to all forms of public transport, from buses to airplanes. However, it is hard to find someone who would associate the word traffic with pedestrians.
Benefits of pedestrian-friendly cities
As numerous studies show, pedestrian-friendly places are vital for health and well-being of the population, for cleaner environment and for a thriving local economy. Over the past decades, it has become widely accepted that cities with lively street life, with diverse uses of ground floors in buildings along streets, and with a configuration of public spaces, which encourages people to do their daily errands on foot offer their residents a higher quality of life.
Good walkability, as a quality of a pedestrian-friendly urban environment is called, contributes a great deal to the physical and mental health of the population. When it comes to maintaining health, regular physical activity, such as everyday walking, is close to a magic bullet. Walking reduces the risk of cancer, cardiovascular disease, diabetes, stroke, arthritis and osteoporosis, it helps to maintain a normal weight and moreover it improves mood. For example, an overweight person reduces the possibility of developing diabetes by 58 percent if he or she walks for at least two and a half hours per week, and the possibility of developing breast cancer by women is reduced by 54 percent if they walk three to five hours per week.
Good walkability has many other positive effects on individuals and communities. Studies have found that pedestrian-friendly environments increase opportunities for social contact and the average number of friends and acquaintance. They also strengthen the sense of local identity and belonging as well as promote volunteering. Good walkability enables development of more intense and more diverse social ties, it enriches the daily lives of people and enhances social capital, which is the key source of development power of local communities. It also helps to reduce crime, as more people take part in informal system of control over community areas and public spaces.
The economic advantages of walkable cities are better access to services, increased local income, savings for individuals and the public purse, higher real estate prices and a more economical use of space. An environment that encourages walking attracts visitors and residents to perform daily errands on foot. In such environments pedestrians easily notice storefronts and it is easier for them to stop and enter several stores. Consequently, they stay longer in the area and opportunities for revenues of local services increase. In the Times Square in New York, which was partly transformed into pedestrian zone in 2008, the revenues of the surrounding businesses rose by 71 per cent in a year. Strong local identity that raises quality of life and social capital encourages local shopping, which leads to higher local incomes and employment. Areas with strong local belonging and good walkability are also attractive for the development of creative industries, which are one of the most important economic activities in developed cities from which the traditional industry has largely been moved.
All these processes that improve the quality of life in cities also raise real estate prices. In Slovenia the real estate owners and the investors are not completely aware of that yet, but in the more economically sensitive Anglo-Saxon world the awareness of the relationship between walkability and property values led to the development of various walkability indices, which attempt to evaluate the friendliness of an area for walking. In the U.S. the ranking according to the walkability index is one of the main topics of public hearings about the proposed projects. It has been calculated, for example, that a difference of ten points according to one popular index, the Walk Score, means five to eight per cent higher real estate prices.
The importance of pedestrians, the functions of sidewalks and streets, which they bring to life, and the richness and diversity of street life was first systematically highlighted by the American writer and activist Jane Jacobs, who published her fundamental work Death and Life of Great American Cities more than 50 years ago. She laid foundations for the modern understanding of cities and probably wrote one of the most influential books in the history of urban planning. The book sums up her reflexions and attacks on the then prevailing planning theory and practice and the belief that the architect knows best what is good for people, and that the rational “top-down” planning can adapt human behaviour to idealized notions of a beautiful and economically organized city. Beside lucidity a generally comprehensible way of analysis of street life and of alienated urban planning is characteristic for her. Jacobs highlighted the value of interlacing functions; she celebrated the diversity of the different parts of the city and its intrinsic and developmental power. She sharply rejected then the popular urban renewal strategies that demolished entire neighbourhoods and built monofunctional residential neighbourhoods, often adjusted to the use of cars and lacking everyday street life.
She did not only direct her knowledge and thought to the writing of books but also to civic action. She was a very passionate activist and member of various civil movements which, especially in New York, contributed to the fact that some of the most contentious renewal projects had failed. This way these movements enabled spontaneous urban regeneration and development of the most vibrant parts of Manhattan, such as SoHo, Greenwich Village and the East Village.
Conceptual and activist legacy of Jane Jacobs as an incentive to strengthen the vitality of the city, which is reflected especially in the attractiveness of walking, is the main objective of urban walks called Jane’s Walks, which are organised all around the world every year in May. They are about an hour and a half long walks through the neighbourhoods that aim to raise awareness about the importance of doing daily errands on foot and emphasize the impact that pedestrians have on the organisation of urban space. They are designed to connect people with their neighbours and the neighbourhood as well as to promote local identity. At the same time the walks offer a chance to talk about the difficulties that the residents face every day and enable the formation of initiatives on how to make the neighbourhoods more attractive and pleasant to live in.
The idea of urban walks sprung in Toronto, where first such walks were organized in 2007, a year after the death of Jane Jacobs. Since 2009 the number of cities where walks are organised is growing rapidly and since 2011 they also take place in Slovenian cities and towns.
This year “from Calgary to Calcutta record numbers of people took part in 100+ participating cities” (janeswalk.net) including 16 walks in 11 Slovenian cities, in Celje, Idrija, Izola, Kamnik, Ljubljana, Maribor, Metlika, Piran, Škofja Loka, Šmarje pri Jelšah in Velenje. In Maribor, which is a partner city of the Urbact project MyGenerationAtWork, the walk was organised by the local cyclists’ organisation. The participants were encouraged to make suggestions on possible pedestrian-friendly improvements and developed an idea how to connect the huge city park with the river through a pedestrian zone. The walk leader Vesna Rebernak said that “the city is really well designed and has a lot of unused potential, waiting for better times” (mkm.kolesarji.org).
Link to the original article (in Slovenian): http://ipop.si/2013/05/10/mesta-pescem/