Hitting the ground walking: how planners can create more walkable cities, one step at a time

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In recent times, walking has been enlisted as one of the key weapons in the war on inactivity. Planners and policymakers have taken note of evidence highlighting the benefits of walking for health and wellbeing. Meanwhile, local and national governments have taken up the challenge of embedding walking into policy, strategy and guidance. There are now national walking strategies for England, Wales and Scotland, and from Belfast to Bristol local councils have published their own plans to get more people walking.

Travel trends and their costs

During the twentieth century, there was a shift from work involving physical labour to jobs of a more sedentary nature. In addition, the growth of suburbs and rising car ownership has contributed to a decline in people travelling on foot. At the same time, the attractions of television and home computers mean fewer people are spending their leisure time playing sports or taking part in outdoor activities.

The World Health Organisation (WHO) has put the consequences of these trends into stark perspective:

“Sedentary lifestyles increase all causes of mortality, double the risk of cardiovascular diseases, diabetes, and obesity, and increase the risks of colon cancer, high blood pressure, osteoporosis, lipid disorders, depression and anxiety.”

  • Worldwide, around two million deaths a year are attributed to physical inactivity.
  • In the UK, physical activity contributes to one in six deaths, and costs £7.4 billion a year to business and wider society. It is the fourth largest cause of disease and disability in the UK.
  • In Scotland, inactivity contributes to over 2,500 deaths each year, costing the NHS £94.1m annually.

The benefits of walking

Efforts encouraging people to become more active have had mixed results, and there is now a recognition that turning the tide of physical activity may take decades to achieve. But there’s also a growing understanding that physical activity that can be built in to everyday life can be as effective as supervised exercise programmes. And, as we reported last week, the health benefits of walking can be demonstrated in unexpected ways, such as the emergence of the Pokémon Go game as an incentive to exercise.

A recent report from the Arup design and engineering firm highlights that walking is good for cities as well as for people. It details more than 50 ways in which the world can benefit from walkable cities, including:

  • Social benefits – health and wellbeing, safety, placemaking, social cohesion and equality.
  • Economic benefits – city attractiveness, urban regeneration, cost savings.
  • Environmental benefits – addressing air and noise pollution, improving liveability and transport efficiency.
  • Political benefits – leadership, urban governance, sustainable development and planning opportunities.

Making walkable places

Another key theme of the Arup report was the importance of planning for pedestrians:

“If we want cities to be more walkable, the way we design cities has to change. Walkable places are more compact, dense with mixed uses. Streets have to be well connected with more shade from sun and rain, green spaces, trees and public spaces. And, we must pay more attention to the quality of public spaces, not just providing quantity of walkable space.” Joanna Rowelle, Director at Arup

The report lists 40 actions that city leaders can consider to inform walking policy, strategy and design. Among the ideas:

  • Temporarily removing cars from a city can transform roads into public spaces, raise awareness around car dependency, reduce air pollution, and reveal the potential opportunities created by having more – and safer – spaces for people.
  • Financial incentives and disincentives, including subsidies and taxes like congestion charges, can be used to encourage behaviour change.
  • Use of shared spaces to create a pedestrian-oriented environment where people are aware of fellow road users.
  • Unused infrastructure – such as New York City’s High Line – offers major opportunities for facilitating safe and attractive pedestrian routes and activity spaces.
  • Urban regeneration creates the opportunity to redevelop small pieces of land into pocket parks or public spaces with a green character.
  • Rivers and waterways can be transformed from barriers into walking and cycling routes by creating green and accommodating waterfronts.

Best foot forward?

Many of the suggestions in the Arup report are not hard to implement, and needn’t be costly. But even when schemes have been enacted, they may face opposition.

Each weekend, for the past seven years, a busy thoroughfare in Bucharest has been cleared to create Via Sport – a safe space for leisure and sport. This summer, the city’s new mayor claimed Via Sport has been causing traffic problems. The scheme has now been closed for the foreseeable future.

Old instincts die hard. Those rethinking patterns and processes of urban design to stimulate walking (and cycling) will face a few bumps in the road. But the potential rewards will be great. As David Sim of Gehl Architects observes:

“The key strategy is about getting people to actually spend time out on the street. They become a part of the space, familiar with their neighbours, and are in tune with city life.”


Our previous blog posts on urban planning for pedestrians and cyclists include:

 

The civic use of heritage assets

Today, we’re pleased to welcome our guest blogger, Cliff Hague, former Chair of Built Environment Forum Scotland, who reflects on the civic use of heritage assets and the challenges facing Scotland’s historic built environment.

The sorry saga of the hotel proposals* for the Royal High School in Edinburgh illustrates the wider problems that Scotland’s historic built environment faces. While insensitivity from local councils in the face of commercial pressure is by no means new, the hollowing out of local government that began in the 1980s is so profound that the very notion of “civic” has reached a vanishing point. We are left with organisations whose existence is reduced to least cost “service delivery” to customers and clients. The idea that a place belongs to its citizens is imperilled.

Viewed through this prism, the historic environment is stripped of all meaning and memories. It becomes only an item on a balance sheet, where it shows up as negative rather than as an asset, unless it can be monetarised in some way. Faced with the presumption that all investment is good investment, but investment to draw and cater to the whims of a global elite is best of all, it becomes very difficult to conduct a truly rational debate about how historic places should be planned and managed. Decisions are framed in a space where on the one side there is practical economic realism promising “jobs”, and on the other a “heritage lobby”, self-interested, marginal and unaccountable.

Similar unequal contests are taking place globally, not least in the developing world where the institutions defending places are less resourced and established, the growth rates higher, and transparency in governments less than here in Scotland.

Reinfusion of the civic ideal

While, ultimately, each site is unique and a case needs to be made on specific grounds, some general framework for addressing  the challenges can be advanced.  A starting point needs to be a reinfusion of the civic ideal. Villages, towns and cities intrinsically have a civic dimension; they are shared spaces, common experiences, a legacy passed on through time, embodying values and relationships in their built and natural environment. Just by being there each of us shares and has a legitimate stake in the place. The idea that citizens are no more than “third parties”, necessarily subservient to owners and even anonymous investors from far away, has become a means of degrading these connections.  It complements the surge of corporate investment into urban property that Saskia Sassen has recently pointed to as altering “the historic meaning of the city”.

Civic responsibility is not a new idea: what is new is the extent to which it has been squeezed as governments, international (e.g. EU), national and local, have become aligned with footloose finance, which in turn scours the globe for opportunities to achieve higher returns. Concomitant with this process has been the leeching of public service, draining away proactive civic leadership, and leaving only the application of routine procedures as its dilute lifeblood.

The last generation has seen a proliferation of exclusive spaces in urban areas. The obvious ones are gated communities, private streets and security-guarded shopping malls, but increasingly the impoverishment of the civic ideal points to the erection of paywalls to access public buildings and spaces. Within increasingly unequal societies exclusive spaces have become a prerequisite for the privileged, complementing their avoidance of transfer payments to the less well off.

A new civic ideal both requires and can drive enlightenment. We need new eyes to see possibilities beyond the idea that secure and high returns on property investment constitute the unchallengeable logic to drive urban development. Enlightenment also means mobilising civic society to lead and share new thinking, to rise above the apathy of powerlessness and create an active citizenship.

Failings but also possibilities

The situation at the Royal High School site embodies all the failings, but also all the possibilities sketched above. An iconic building on an outstanding site has been underused for years, with a void of civic vision for its use. Then comes the whiff of multi-million pound investment and the promise of an additional facility for the exclusive use of the very rich. The heritage lobby is left to react, wringing its hands at the pre-requisites for a commercially (confidential) viable design.

But what if? What if this jewel in Edinburgh’s World Heritage Site could be combined with the Collective’s City Observatory Redevelopment Project for Calton Hill, to become the catalyst for doing things differently, a hub for civic enlightenment symbolically looking over the civil servants in St Andrews House and the politicians in Holyrood?

Just what might a hub for civic enlightenment be? An ideas and design competition to find out would be a good start, telling the people of the city, its children, professionals and civic groups that they can have a leading voice. It could be a place where regular, high profile “Edinburgh Debates” are staged on topical issues, and live streamed as part of the branding of the city as a global node of ideas and openness. It could be a venue in the Book Festival and the Science Festival, and of course the Edinburgh Lectures. It could incorporate aspects of the School of Music counter-proposal for the Royal High School building.

There could be spaces for multi-disciplinary and international innovation teams, young graduates selected on merit and given space and a time-limited brief to come up with new ideas – social as well as technological innovations to address a practical brief such as the delivery of affordable, carbon-neutral  housing, or narrowing the gaps in educational attainment. There could be some serviced apartments to accommodate visiting “enlighteners in residence”, as well as some commercial lets, and, of course, an interpretation facility explaining civic enlightenment, and pointing to how every individual and community has a part to play.

The whole would be a swirl of ideas and creativity, a place open to all, locally rooted but globally renowned. In other words, we would use the meaning of the building to explain and inspire Edinburgh’s greatest asset – the dynamic fusion of learning, thinking and environment as a catalyst for a high quality civic life. Or we could always have a luxury hotel, with as much new development crammed on to the idle ground as is required to ensure satisfactory returns to investors.


*The Royal High School hotel plans mentioned in this article were rejected by councillors on 17 December 2015, and the search for an appropriate new use for the site will continue.

Cliff Hague is a freelance consultant, researcher, author and trainer. He is Professor Emeritus of Planning and Spatial Development at Heriot-Watt University in Edinburgh, past President of the Royal Town Planning Institute, and of the Commonwealth Association of Planners, and a past Chair of Built Environment Forum Scotland. You can read more about Cliff’s current work on his website: http://www.cliffhague.com/

This article was originally published on the Built Environment Forum Scotland blog. BEFS is the strategic intermediary body for Scotland’s built environment sector, bringing together voluntary and professional non-governmental organisations that operate at the national level.

If you enjoyed this article, we discussed the issue of planning in Edinburgh and the impact of its World Heritage Site status in another recent blog: Is there any value in preserving our built heritage?