Two Steps Forward, One Step Back? Ten Years of Walkability

with 2 Comments

Today is the tenth anniversary of the official launch of the Toronto Pedestrian Charter by Councillor Jane Pitfield and the formidable urban theorist Jane Jacobs. (Though, it should be noted, the Charter was adopted a few months earlier, on 21 May 2002.) The Charter was based on six principles: Accessibility, Equity, Health and Well-being, Environmental Sustainability, Personal and Community Safety and Community Cohesion and Vitality.

The Charter, while admirable, was a long time coming. In her 1961 book The Death and Life of Great American Cities Jacobs divided the world into “car people” and “foot people” and provided a strong argument for her support of the latter. As a non-driver (I never needed a car in the English city where I grew up) I am, unequivocally, a foot person. And, since moving to Australia in 2009, walkability has become an area of concern for me, and one of the things that first piqued my interest in urban planning. My personal experience has been that the walkability of the place in which I live is directly proportional to my quality of life. Janice Etter et al sum up the feelings of foot people in a paper looking at the impact of the Toronto Pedestrian Charter:

It took millions of years for humans to learn how to walk and only a hundred years to forget. The advent of the automobile a century ago, and its intrusion into the public space of cities, transformed walking into a self-conscious mode of urban travel.

The website Walk Score provides a walkability rating for any given address by calculating the walking distance to a range of amenities. It has a number of flaws (which I’ll look at in a later post) but is useful in giving a rough idea of the walkability of a place. My first Australian home, in a Central Coast beachside suburb, had a walk score of 40 (car dependent). I then moved to a leafy suburb on Sydney’s lower north shore, where my home’s walk score was 85 (very walkable). My current home, in inner-city Newcastle, has a walk score of 93 (walker’s paradise).

A number of factors affect walkability, from road safety (pavements, safe and regular crossing points), to crime or the perception of crime (poor street lighting, lack of other pedestrians); this post at sustainability blog Sustahood describes the poor pedestrian experience in Sydney. As I see it, though, the single most important factor for creating walkability is population density. A large population base is able to sustain a diverse range of facilities, such as theatres, cinemas, galleries, cafes, shops, banks, parks and schools. As a general rule, it simply isn’t profitable to run a specialist store in a suburb with an area of 4.0km2 and a population of 4,000.

So how has walkability fared in the ten years since the Toronto Pedestrian Charter launched? The City of Toronto has been exemplary in its commitment to creating a great walking city, adopting the Toronto Walking Strategy in 2009 and bringing together information on all its pedestrian-focused strategies, projects and related news on its comprehensive walking webpage.

The rest of the world is sadly lagging behind. To see the esteem in which walkability is held in the planning profession, particularly in North America, look no further than the index of the recently-published Urban Planning for Dummies, which contains one reference to pedestrians and one reference to WalkScore compared to seven references to automobiles and seven references to roadways.

Here in New South Wales, walkability, and the densification of housing that facilitates it, doesn’t seem to be considered a priority by the public or the policy makers. Compare Toronto’s comprehensive collection of walking strategies and resources to NSW Planning’s Guidlines for Walking and Cycling (a page so old it breaks down the downloadable document into smaller chunks for dial-up users) and walking maps (curiously filed under “Catchments and Waterways”).

While a brief scan of the property section of the weekend paper reveals a number of advertisements for glossy, high-end new apartment buildings in inner Sydney that no doubt have high walk scores, they are completely unaffordable for the average person. The latest figures from the Department of Planning show that in the North West, South West and Central Coast subregions (outlying areas of the Sydney region where property is generally cheaper) the proportion of new build multi-unit dwellings is in the low range – 16 per cent to 25 per cent. In these areas and across the state of New South Wales, there are a number of very popular new low-density residential developments on former greenfield sites. Many of these land release suburbs lack the population density to sustain a range of local services, and so residents must use their cars to perform basic daily activities like grocery shopping and taking the kids to school.

State and federal governments, too, create anti-urban policies that restrict the potential for walkability. The $7,000 First Home Owner Grant has now been replaced by a $15,000 grant for first time buyers who buy new homes. Even if you’re not a first home buyer, if you buy a new home you might be eligible for a $5,000 grant. I don’t disagree with the policy, which aims to stimulate much-needed building and development in the state. But I can’t help thinking that better outcomes would be achieved by providing more incentives to build and buy high-density housing.

There is, however, some cause for optimism. In the Sydney region overall, 62 per cent of new dwellings are multi-unit, with six Local Government Areas achieving figures in excess of 90 per cent. A recent report suggested that building trends in Melbourne also show a swing towards higher densities, with over half of new dwellings being multi-residential. With the example set by cities like Toronto, the mainstream appeal of urbanists like Edward Glaeser and the shift towards higher density housing in Sydney and Melbourne, I’m hopeful that we can all remember how to walk.

EDIT – 6.42pm 30/10/12 – I just came across this excellent infographic which demonstrates the benefits of good transportation. My favourite statistic: for every dollar saved by moving to more affordable housing, 77 cents is spent on a longer commute to work. These figures are from the US; I’d love to know what the equivalent numbers would be for someone who, say, commutes by car from the Central Coast to Sydney.

Are you a car person or a foot person? Does walkability matter to you? Do you live in a walkable area? Tell us by leaving a comment below.

Nicola Stainton, Junior Urban Planner

2 Responses

  1. Jeff Tyldesley

    1. Definitely a foot person, anyone who has seen me drive would agree with that!

    2.Walkability is very important, environmentally speaking, it is crucial that we get away from using the car for absolutely everything. Sadly, a portion of new development seems to try and build things on as much space as possible, far away from everything and everybody else!

    3. I live in an area where I can walk (or use public transport) to go to work, socialise and shop very easily. It’s a blessing as I know there are vast areas of the UK (and other countries, from what I read above), do not have that.

  2. admin

    Thanks for the comment, Jeff. I think we have a very similar outlook on this subject. Having experienced living in a very unwalkable area I’m now almost fanatical about walkability! If you’d like to be updated on future blog posts, please follow us on Facebook or Twitter using the links at the top of this page.