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Friday 24 May 2019
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Why we don’t walk


Last week I asserted that we need to fight for a re-invigorated capital city. But, how do we achieve this?

In the words of Jan Gehl, renowned observer of city life, “cities must urge urban planners and architects to reinforce pedestrianism (walkability) as an integrated city policy to develop lively, safe, sustainable and healthy cities… and an open and democratic society”.

Best-selling author, architect, and planner Jeff Speck defines walkability as “both an end and a means, as well as a measure”.

In other words, having a highly walkable community should be a goal, increasing pedestrian-friendliness should be a path towards sustainability, and the extent to which a community is walkable should act as a gauge of its progress.

But, why do so few of us, including myself, use our feet as a viable means of everyday transportation? Speck lays out four conditions for walkability.

Usefulness: pedestrians should be able to accomplish multiple tasks on foot. Homes are usually not located close to stores, jobs, or other vital amenities. Neighbourhoods and buildings that traditionally allowed residential and commercial spaces to co-exist were, since the late 1960s, discouraged or outright forbidden. Though the trend is slowly changing, years of this damaging policy have left us with a functionally-disconnected and automobile-dependent landscape. An abundance of free parking and a lack of efficient public transportation also incentivise driving.

Comfort: pedestrians should be protected from sun and rain. When the Spanish first settled in the Americas, their Laws of the Indies was supposed to regulate all aspects of life, including how to design communities. Among the many rules, was a stipulation that in cold places streets should be wide, but narrow in hot places. In climates like ours, this was to ensure that streets were adequately protected from sunlight by the shadows of the buildings.

Through observations, urban designers have suggested that pedestrians feel more comfortable when a street feels like an enclosed ‘outdoor room’. The façades or fronts of the buildings on a street act as the "walls" of the room and the canopies of the street trees act as the "ceiling." The level of enclosure is determined by a measure known as height to width ratio. It refers to the ratio of the height of the buildings along a street to the distance between buildings on opposite sides of the same street. Designers say that as this ratio begins to drop below 1:1, a street starts to lose its sense of enclosure, and therefore begins to feel less comfortable.

Regulations favour, or only allow, short buildings and buildings spaced far apart from each other and from the public sidewalk. This results in a loss of enclosure, which also means less shade for the sidewalk. Shading and protection from rain can also be assisted by building elements such as canopies, awnings, and arcades. But, the farther a building is situated from the sidewalk, the less effective these elements become. Vacant and surface parking lots destroy this sense of enclosure, and therefore comfort. Street trees, which are certainly vital and provide a great amount of shading and natural cooling, still require time to develop a full canopy, and can be decimated by diseases or over-zealous "tree-trimmers."

Interest: pedestrians should be in an environment that shows lots of signs of humanity. Elements that work against this include street-facing building walls with no or few doors or windows, buildings with main entrances oriented inwards and away from the street, tall perimeter walls and fences, ground floors elevated high above street level, and buildings located too far from the sidewalk.

Safety: pedestrians should feel safe from vehicular traffic. Safety can be aided by a reduction in potential points of collision, for instance, by reducing the frequency of curb cuts for driveways and laybys. Safety can be impaired by factors which lead to faster driving speeds including multiple lanes of one-way traffic, and wide lanes and streets. Furthermore, on-street parking and street trees are great for safety as they create a barrier between moving cars and the pedestrian space.

What about the width or state of a sidewalk? Paradoxically, Speck points out that some of the most walkable cities have the narrowest sidewalks (like New Orleans) or even no sidewalks in many places (like Rome). Sidewalks, although an element of walkability, may not even be the most important one.

Look at the environment around you and see if you can spot the ways in which planning and design have rendered walkability inhospitable and infeasible. Hopefully you will begin to understand why Port of Spain, although far from perfect, has the best chance of cultivating a widespread pedestrian culture and resulting public life.

Ryan Darmanie is an urban planning and design consultant (facebook.com/darmanieplanningdesign) with a master’s degree in city and regional planning from Rutgers University, New Jersey, and a keen interest in urban revitalisation.

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