Pedestrians in Mueller, a new urban neighborhood in Austin. Photo courtesy of Veronica Castro de Barrera

Ten social benefits of walkable places

We shape our cities and then they shape us.

Winston Churchill insightfully said of architecture, “we shape our buildings and thereafter they shape us.” That statement is even more true of communities and urban planning. Cities and towns are architecture writ large. Their assembly, often involving thousands of buildings, thoroughfares, and public spaces, impacts nearly every aspect of our lives.

A research report called Cities Alive by Arup, a multinational engineering and design firm, enumerated two score and ten benefits of walkable places, in four categories: Social, economic, environmental, and political. This article focuses on social benefits, those that directly impact the well-being of people, along with their neighbors and community members. Here’s a list of 10 social benefits of designing and building human-scale cities and towns.

  1. Promotes active living, for longer and better lives
    Living in a walkable place that allows for activity built into each day benefits every age group, and helps people to live longer. Walking to school promotes independence among children. Unfortunately, the number of children who walk to school has declined from about 50 percent, 50 years ago, to less than 15 percent today, partly due to changes in the built environment. Regular walking cuts early mortality risk by 22 percent, according to a study cited by Arup. Walk every day, keep the Reaper at bay. 
  2. Improves happiness and mental health
    “Great public space is like magic, it’s almost happiness itself,” said Enrique Peñalosa, former mayor of Bogota, Columbia. Not only is that a great quote, research seems to back it up. Walking raises endorphin levels, lowers stress-related cortisol, and helps people sleep better. 
    The longer we drive to and from work, the less happy we are. One study found that a person with a one-hour commute has to earn 40 percent more to be as happy as someone who walks to work. Maybe money can buy happiness, but so can living and working in a walkable town.
  3. Reduces obesity and chronic disease
    Walking burns four calories a minute, and regular strolls reduce the risk of diseases such as Type 2 diabetes, heart disease, and colon cancer. A study of California cities showed that walkable street networks correlate with lower obesity, diabetes, asthma, and heart disease. 
    Investing in walkable places can drastically improve a fit lifestyle, which increases resilience to health risks and reduces the number of people affected by chronic disease.
  4. Fosters social interaction
    Ever have a nice conversation on the street with another driver or passenger in a car next to yours? That never seems to happen. No one ever stops at a traffic light and asks to borrow a jar of Grey Poupon.
    There’s a reason why New Urbanism is known as the architecture of community. In a walkable environment, an intensified use of public spaces raises the frequency of information interactions between citizens, building ties among neighbors, Arup notes.
    The physical characteristics of streets can impact your social life. In a classic study, Donald Appleyard found that residents of streets with light and slow traffic had three times as many friends among neighbors as those living on busy roads.
  5. Saves lives on the street
    Putting walking first helps slow down traffic speeds without necessarily lowering its flow, dramatically reducing the risk of road accidents, Arup explains.
    A street network that connects walkable neighborhoods reduces fatal automobile accidents by a factor of three by slowing traffic and giving people transportation options like walking and biking. Even simple changes can make a difference: Shortening crosswalk distances by three feet can reduce pedestrian crashes by six percent.
  6. Tends to reduce crime
    Safety in numbers and “eyes on the street,” a term coined by Jane Jacobs, help to discourage crime and keep people safe. Redesigning the urban environment to encourage walkability brings people in the streets and increases activities in public space, dramatically improving the perception of safety and individual confidence, according to Arup. 
    In Rotterdam, Holland, community members identified traffic speed and street appearance as crime issues. Working with police to improve the public realm dramatically cut crime over a period of two years: drug crime dropped by 30 percent, burglary by 22 percent, and vandalism by 31 percent.
  7. Enhances “sense of place” and community identity
    Designing human-scale streets helps to boost “genius loci,” the unique character of a place. Sense of place is promoted by the feeling of an “outdoor room” created by the dimensions of a main street. That feeling is rarely, if ever, achieved in modern, single-use, commercial districts. Urbanists joke that two big box stores, placed across from one another, are so far apart that one can see the curvature of the Earth.
    “Conceiving streets as places for people—rather than functional links for cars—allows them to sense and shape those characteristics that make every place unique," Arup explains. Enhancing the sense of place can raise awareness around the local history, helping communities to build a collective memory and a cultural identity. An Irish study found that walkable neighborhoods have 80 percent more “social capital.”
  8. Broadens universal accessibility and encourages inclusiveness
    Walking is the most democratic, accessible, and oldest mode of transport, Arup notes. Everyone, at some point, is a pedestrian. Successful public transportation generally begins and ends with a walking trip. Even those who generally drive will find themselves on a crosswalk from time to time. Especially people without a car may be able to easily access their daily needs in a walkable community. Boosting walking helps to unlock the city for many of those who are most in need.
  9. Supports cultural initiatives
    Walkability is a driver for creativity. A pedestrian-friendly environment tends to support art and culture in the public realm. A good example is Porchfest, a free festival of music that has been initiated in cities and towns across the US and Canada. Porchfest began in my neighborhood, Fall Creek, in Ithaca, New York, in 2007. Two women were inspired by neighbors playing music on their porch and decided to invite musicians throughout the neighborhood to play on a single Sunday afternoon. A cultural phenomenon was born.
  10. Promotes a vibrant urban experience
    Human-scale streets tend to make street life thrive. “Street life is enabled through urban design: typical qualities of a pedestrian environment, such as density of functions, active frontages and complexity of use, deal with the creation of a vibrant experience where people have opportunities to socialize, enjoying sidewalk cafes or shopping,” Arup explains. In short, a walkable environment can radically improve the urban experience.

Designing communities for more walking, and enabling less driving, does not determine anyone’s health or well-being, or ensure that a community is equitable and strong in community identity. But it is a factor with beneficial consequences in these areas, during normal or pandemic times. To find out more, follow the links in the article or read the report, Cities Alive: Towards a Walking World. There are references to studies not linked above.

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