Walkability: A Prerequisite for Livable Cities

By Dietrich Garbrecht

What is livability? When we talk about livability we are concerned with individual and social development, with safety and comfort, and we are concerned with piazzas, with special quality, architectural quality, and with transportation systems.

Livability for whom? Livability for all groups! What does that mean? The population of my hometown of Zurich is made up of these groups: children up to 15 years old – this is roughly 20% of the population. Then there are the youngsters between 16 and 21 years old – another 10%. Then there are the adults below 60 who make up 50% of the population. And then there are the elderly, another roughly 20%.

I suggest that cities and metropolitan areas are much more livable for the motorized middle and upper class male professionals than for any other group of the population. Involved, then, in these questions are issues of power, of equity of accessibility, of equity of freedom of movement, and the issue of the equity of a balanced approach to the conflicting needs of different groups of people.

In my mind, the concept of livability does include the car. It does not exclude it. But we have to think about how to use the car in a reasonable way. We need a balanced approach to accessibility, and a balanced approach to spatial movement.

To come back to public space, to the campo, to the piazza. If we have pedestrian zones, areas friendly to the pedestrian, does that mean that we have livability with respect to public space? I think not. Because what we then have are pedestrian islands. Even a pedestrian zone five kilometers in length, such as Munich’s pedestrian zone, is still an island within the total street network of the city – which in Munich is 3,000 – 4,000 kilometers in length. So when we talk abut a campo, or piazza, or pedestrianized zone we are really talking about islands in an otherwise hostile environment.

In Venice, not only the campo, but the streets are relevant. Here we have a whole hierarchy of public spaces – very narrow alleyways, broader ways, then we have the canals, and the Canal Grande, the Canal del Guidecca which is much wider still; and part of this system of public spaces are the campi.

In other words, what we have in Venice is a continuous path system for the pedestrian, with a separation of non-motorized from motorized transportation.

I suggest that when we talk about public space we need to talk about piazzas and streets forming a continuous network of pedestrian movement.

How much pedestrian transport is there today? We all walk! There are different types of pedestrian journeys. We have walks between origin and destination. We leave our car and then walk to the store or our apartment. We have walks to the public transport stops. But then there are the so-called “Pure” walks – in other words you leave your house and you walk to work without using your car, or bike, or public transport.

Surveys in Europe have shown that 30% - 40% of urban traffic is pure walking. Of course the percentage is even higher in developing countries.

In all the surveys of outdoor leisure time activities that I know of in Europe, all of them show that going for a walk is the main outdoor leisure time activity. This is especially true for the elderly because they have difficulty participating in sports such as tennis or soccer. For many elders, going for a walk is the only leisure time activity.

In 1962 there was a survey that showed 70% of the elderly said going for a walk was their main leisure time activity. Six years later, in 1968, the percentage had dropped to 40%.

I think there are quite a number of people in the population who depend more on walking than most of us in this room, because most of us are car drivers. I once tried to estimate the number of people who do not have access to a car, that is, who are not able to drive their own car. These include children and the elderly. (I started at 70 to make a conservative estimate. Then there are the seriously disabled, such as blind people, and people in wheelchairs. Then we have poor people: in Germany for instance, there is much discussion of the “new poverty” caused by unemployment; there are people who can no longer afford to have a car. And then, as Rolf Monheim has suggested, we shouldn’t forget the housewives, because in Europe there are still a large number of households who still have only one car, and this is used by the husband to go to work. When you add these groups together you have 50% of the population. In other words, 50% of the population is very much dependent on walking, on bike riding, and on public transportation.

Two remarks about children and the elderly. Developmental psychology studies show that children need to stroll, that children need to explore the environment in an autonomous way. These studies were done not only in Europe, but in the U.S. as well. For instance, Roger Hart who teaches in New York has done a very interesting study in New England, and there have been studies done in Baltimore – all of them showing that when children have the opportunity to move freely they will use a continuous pedestrian network as it exists in Venice.

The other extreme: the elderly, the older we become, the more dependent we become on walking. At the same time, our life span shrinks naturally. But this life space is even more limited by motorized traffic. We have all heard about elderly people who do not dare to cross main traffic arteries for instance. So there is a paradox: the more time we have to take advantage of our immediate environment, and do so on foot, the less safely we can do that.

Why focus on pedestrian transport? I have mentioned a couple of points already. Here are a few more.

I think a change – not a revolution but a shift in the modal split is a prerequisite for a change of the street environment. I think that a street and piazza environment that is pleasant to walk in is an environment that makes many other individual and social activities possible. Also, walking is a “soft” mode of transportation, a “soft” technology. Walking is transport, and it is also strolling around.

The conclusions from what I have just said so far are three:

  • In the first place, we have to adapt planning policy to reflect how important walking is as a means of transportation, because out planning policy today doesn’t even face up to the existing modal split which shows 30-40% of all journeys on foot.
  • Second, we must adopt a policy to encourage walking rather than other modes because of the advantages pedestrian movement has.
  • Third, we have to strive to achieve a transportation system whose main components are pedestrian movement and public transport supplementing each other, but which also would include in the system as a whole, biking and the private car.

The first step would be to take walking seriously; and that means to give pedestrian transportation the same weight in law, in planning, in transportation policy, in research and in budgeting.

The built environment must be adapted to the needs of the pedestrian.  Walking has characteristics that no other transportation mode has. When you walk you can do it in a spontaneous way, you can stop, you can change speed, you can run into somebody, and start a conversation. This spontaneity has been more and more restricted in the past decades, as we have restructured our cities for the benefit of vehicular traffic.

Pedestrian networks must be created. This has already been mentioned. We need networks that span not only the core area but the whole city. Why networks? Because subjective environments, this part of the city that everyone uses on foot, overlap each other. That is why we need continuous networks.

How can we realize continuous networks for pedestrian transportation? By interrupting streets, by carrying sidewalks across carriageways, by incorporating pedestrian malls and mixed streets where we have several modes of transportation in the same space; by incorporating open spaces, piazzas, campi and historic renovation.

We also need to connect public transportation with the footpath network by, for instance, making each public transportation stop a small node in the pedestrian network.

Presented at the 1st International Making Cities Livable Conference, Venice, 1985.