III. Walkable urban places — Environmental benefits

Concern for the environment may be one of the earliest and most straightforward drivers for increased walking and active mobility.

From climate change to air pollution, loss of biodiversity to green infrastructure, walking provides an active means for people to mitigate and address local and global environmental concerns.1

“The recovery of sprawl to vibrant places is literally our generation’s greatest challenge.”

Steve Mouzon, Architect and New Urbanist

Robert Steuteville, editor of Public Square (a CNU Journal), has been publishing a series of articles based on the 2016 Cities Alive: Towards a walking world report, which shows the benefits of walkable cities – social, economic, environmental and political – and sets out measures for improving walkability.

This post itemizes the list from Steuteville’s article (link embedded in heading below), and includes additional details from the report.

Ten environmental benefits of walkable places

  1. Reduces greenhouse gas emissions
    Fewer cars, fewer emissions.
  2. Improves urban microclimates
    The Urban Heat Island (UHI) effect, where denser urban areas are significantly warmer than surrounding rural areas, is a major issue facing cities today. Increased urban vegetation and mature tree canopies contribute to the mitigation of the urban heat island effect by reducing the air temperature and provide pleasant strolling temperatures.
  3. Optimises land use
    Soil is not a renewable resource and is essential to nurture plants and animals. In addition, it is vulnerable to impacts from vehicular traffic, industry and construction. Walkability improvements can help reduce the amount of land required for transport facilities (roads and parking), encouraging denser land use patterns.
  4. Reduces air pollution
    When walkable environments incorporate more trees and vegetation, they will inherently clean the air: 17 trees can absorb enough CO2 annually to offest nearly 42,000 km of driving.
  5. Improves water management
    Reallocating investment from motor vehicle infrastructure into parks and pedestrian environments improves the overall health of city ecosystems and help divert millions of litres of stormwater runoff.
  6. Promotes alternative transportation
    Public transit users are pedestrians or a combination of pedestrian/cyclist. Purposeful investment in walking and active transportation networks encourages increased pedestrian and cycling activity.
  7. Makes cities more beautiful
    Streets that offer a robust, attractive experience can accommodate a variety of diverse uses such as outdoor dining, seating and gathering areas. Additionally, beautification through landscaping, public art, and wayfinding becomes an important feature.
  8. Increases active use of space
    Pedestrian improvements can provide people with more pleasant spaces to stay, and lead to an increase in the active use of public space and the facilities it contains, such as benches, playgrounds, water bubblers, public gyms and skate areas.
  9. Cuts ambient noise
    Plant leaves have been shown to tone down noise by reflecting, diverting and absorbing acoustic energy. Trees with abundant foliage are especially effective at minimizing noise levels.
  10. It makes better use of space
    Street designs that restructure the street network better serve pedestrians and cyclists, often repurposing space reclaimed from vehicle travel lanes and on-street parking to accommodate cycle and pedestrian infrastructure.

“The pedestrian is an extremely fragile species, the canary in the coal mine of urban livability.”

Smart Growth America, nationwide coalition promoting a better way to growth

1 Excerpts from Cities Alive: Towards a walking world, a report published by Arup in 2016.


More on this topic:

II. Walkable urban places — Economic benefits

Walkable environments are not just healthier, but also wealthier. Research has shown positive correlations between improved walkability, raised local retail spend, enhanced value of local services and goods, and the creation of more job opportunities.1

“The economic value of walking has been described as the walking economy. There is a direct link between the city’s economic prosperity and the safety and convenience of the pedestrian experience.”

City of Melbourne, 2012

Robert Steuteville, editor of Public Square (a CNU Journal), has been publishing a series of articles based on the 2016 Cities Alive: Towards a walking world report, which shows the benefits of walkable cities – social, economic, environmental and political – and sets out measures for improving walkability.

This post itemizes the list from Steuteville’s article (link embedded in heading below), and includes additional details from the report.

Ten economic benefits of walkable places

  1. Boosts prosperity
    Investing in better streets and spaces for walking can provide a competitive return compared to other transport projects. Cycling and walking are estimated to provide up to $11.80 return of investment per $1 invested.
  2. Supports local business
    Clustering and proximity are critical to the success of commercial districts. While car dependency determined the rise of suburban malls, with associated issues such as ‘food deserts’, a dense and walkable urban network may facilitate the spread of small local shops and street markets, able to increase variety of goods and services, independent retailing, local employment and start-up opportunities.
  3. Enhances creative thinking and productivity
    According to studies, exercise improves the ability to make decisions and organise thoughts. And walking boosts creative inspiration.
  4. Enhances a city’s identity
    Investing in walking may contribute to a city’s efforts to transform its profile and create opportunities to shape the liveability, amenities and culture in the city.
  5. Promotes tourism
    For tourists, walking is the best way to experience a city since it increases the ‘imageability’ of a place – the quality that makes it recognisable and memorable.
  6. Encourages investments in cities and towns
    As cities continue to compete with each other to attract capital, walking may be a successful tool for the promotion of a city’s prosperity, making it attractive to private investments and providing economic benefits to the community.
  7. Attracts the “creative class”
  8. Increases land and property values
    Since young generations prefer living in walkable urban cores, a city’s walkability is predicted to be one of the main factors driving real estate values for many years to come.
  9. Activates street façades
    Promoting walking contributes to the vibrancy of the streetscape. The creation of a walkable environment, therefore, is a fundamental incentive to reduce vacancies and to promote the creation of thriving active street frontages.
  10. Reduces motor vehicle and road costs
    Walking is a free mode of transport. Creating more walkable environments — together with investment in public transport — can reduce congestion and maintenance costs and provide long-term transport solutions.

In a quality city, a person should be able to live their entire life without a car, and not feel deprived.

Paul Bedford, former City of Toronto Planning Director

1 Excerpts from Cities Alive: Towards a walking world, a report published by Arup in 2016.


Read more:

Walking is economic growth (by Tristan Cleveland) — You know walking is good for your physical health, and even your emotional wellbeing. But did you know it’s critical for the fiscal health of your city too?

The Economics of Walking (by Melissa Bruntlett) — This simple mode of travel could be the easy solution cities need to maintain and even bolster their economy.

Car Blindness (by Alex Dyer)— Ignoring the true cost of cars (and vision for the future)

I. Walkable urban places — Social benefits

Walking is our first mean of transport: every trip begins and ends with walking. Consequently, walkability is an extremely fascinating, evocative and inclusive concept. It goes beyond the good design of sidewalks and street-crossings which guarantee the ‘ability to walk’ for citizens. It expresses a multifaceted measure of how friendly an area is to walking, taking into consideration a complex and diversified set of features in its evaluation.

Robert Steuteville, editor of Public Square: A CNU Journal, has been publishing a series of articles based on the 2016 Cities Alive: Towards a walking world report [166 pages], which shows the benefits of walkable cities – economic, social, environmental and political – and sets out measures for improving walkability.

This post lists the benefits from Steuteville’s article (link embedded in heading below), but includes additional details from the report.

Ten social benefits of walking

  1. Promotes active living, for longer and better lives
    Walkability increases the accessibility of public space for people with different mobility levels and backgrounds, providing the chance to diversify and enrich street life and to create an attractive environment for people of all ages.
  2. Improves happiness and mental health
    Walking improves our mood. It reduces the risk of stress, anxiety and depression, positively affecting people’s mental health and happiness.
  3. Reduces obesity and chronic disease
  4. Fosters social interaction
    Redesigning the urban environment to encourage walking ability brings back people in the streets and increases activities in public space, dramatically improving the perception of safety and individual confidence.
  5. Saves lives on the street
    The increasing demands for safer streets in cities raise the urgency to prioritise pedestrian safety measures and to increase walkability levels.
  6. Tends to reduce crime
  7. Enhances “sense of place” and community identity
    Walking provides a great opportunity for people to experience cities at the human scale.
  8. Broadens universal accessibility and encourages inclusiveness
    Everyone is a pedestrian. Even those who usually drive, ride a bike, or commute by public transport, at some point of the day will change his or her mode and cross a street. Improving walkability and focusing the street design to less mobile citizens’ needs can unlock the city to everyone, increasing the street attractiveness and accessibility.
  9. Supports cultural initiatives
    Art that can best be enjoyed while on foot brings a local feel to an area, increasing the cultural vibrancy of the street life and the attractiveness for pedestrians.
  10. Promotes a vibrant urban experience
    Walkable streets shape the environment for a more active – and consquently most attractive – use of public realm.

“Restore human legs as a means of travel.
Pedestrians rely on food for fuel and need no special parking facilities.”

Lewis Mumford (1895–1990), American sociologist

Excerpts from Cities Alive: Towards a walking world, a report published by Arup in 2016.


Read more:

Canada Walks – a leader in Canada’s walking movement – has a Municipal Action page.

Pedestrians First is an organization that promotes walkability and all its benefits (under Why measure walkability?)

Creating complete streets

Urban highways are tied to low-occupancy vehicles, high-stress travel, reduced walkability, erased communities, segregation, and climate change. Building complete streets instead of urban highways leads to healthier, more economically productive, and more sociable cities.  Learn more.

BRT: Bus Rapid Transit
Source: Institute for Transportation and Development Policy (ITDP)