Why does enabling safe, easy and comfortable walking as a means of personal transport matter? In western societies, we generally have ready access to faster means of personal transport – a car most likely, or at least a bicycle. And failing that, public transport can generally be accessed – though its convenience varies from place to place.
The simple fact is walkable cities are more sustainable, more competitive (and so they are richer) and more interesting. Christopher Leinberger has shown the positive effects of walkability in cities, towns, and suburbs; the architects Ellen Dunham Jones and June Williamson have detailed ways that older car-oriented suburbs can be retrofitted into more people-friendly, mixed-use, walkable communities. And walkability pays. According to research by Joe Cortright, housing prices have held up better in more walkable communities.
Richard Florida has written extensively on the positive impacts of walkable cities. “As before, we found significant associations. Walkable metros had higher levels of highly educated people and of the creative class. Perhaps more significantly, they also had higher incomes and higher housing values, more high-tech companies, and greater levels of innovation. Walkability is more than an attractive amenity--it's a magnet for attracting and retaining the highly innovative businesses and highly skilled people that drive economic growth, raising housing values and generating higher incomes.”
The New Economy
In a recent study considering the relationships between land use patterns and the economy, it was found walkable cities promote interaction – that is, ideas are exchanged, social networks enhanced and business generated, all through the creation of a high quality public realm and agglomeration of similar industries. The nature of the city as a walkable environment acts as the facilitator of economic generation in this context.
Charles Landry makes the connection between the quality of public space (which relates to walkability) and the creative city. The creative economy includes the arts, the creative economy (design, media, film etc) and the creative class (those participating in the creative economy). For Charles Landry, the creative city is notably an environment that promotes the culture of creativity and imagination.
Richard Florida also emphasizes the importance of public transit, and by extension, walking, to creative economies; “transit use is also more common in knowledge-based metros with greater shares of the scientists, engineers, techies, artists, designers, and professionals that make up the creative class” Richard Florida says.
Why is this in and of itself a good thing? Well, creativity drives interest in place, it promotes new ideas that drive the economy forward (it allows innovation). While the creative class may only make up 20 to 30% of a cities population, if a culture of creativity pervades the city, then the possibilities provided by the other 70 to 80% are almost boundless. For Charles Landry then,
“the creative city allows ordinary people to make the extra-ordinary happen, if given the chance.”
Creativity therefore enables the competitiveness of the city of be significantly enhanced on the global scale. It is particularly relevant to those places that have moved from a production to a knowledge based economy. So for Australian cities like Perth, Melbourne and Sydney, where the creative agenda and knowledge economy are becoming so much more important, creating an environment that facilitates and enhances that is central to the overall success of the city and the nation.
A city, at its essence, is an accelerator of transactions and opportunities. (Charles Landry)
Facilitating Creativity – the diversity of the street
The quality of the public realm, and its most ubiquitous part, the street, is therefore inherent to the success of a city. Too often in new city precincts, there is a focus on the private realm (and of course, making money). The point is not to discount the private realm, but to recognize its relationship to the public realm, and particularly, those elements of the public realm that make the private realm work better.
Therefore when it comes to public space design, and promoting a walkable city, there needs to be as great a focus on social equity as there is on hardware design (i.e. highways, heavy transit, infrastructure and the like). A heavy focus on hardware design has created car dominated cities, lifeless places dependent on dormitory suburbs – and many now recognize the potential of these places are significantly reduced because they diminish social interaction, discourse and innovation. Chalres Landry refers to the required approach as hard and software driven – and the approach is to start with the soft – start with understanding the needs of people, the way they interact and connect.
Beyond this as well, is the need to consider the city as a sensual and emotional experience. These intangible aspects are what make cities great and different. This provides the diversity of place to enable exchange, social discourse and ideas generation.
This is important to the use and activity of space because when people are delighted and surprised by a space or by activities going on within it, they are likely to spend more time within it. The activity of people transcend from what Jan Gehl refers to as ‘necessary’ to ‘optional’ and ‘social’ (Gehl, 1987).
Twenty years ago, 80% of people chose the company or the job first, according to Landry. Today, 64% choose the city before the company or the job (CEOs for Cities). What this means is what the cities ‘feels’ like, is a central issue.
By retaining and attracting smart, educated people, the potential of the city and economy is greatly enhanced. Again, the global competitiveness of the city is directly related to its design, qualities of the local businesses and public realm.
Public Health Benefits
The World Health Organisation has recently posted a study that showed the biggest disease currently in the world is depression. If the design of the city promotes social exchange and interaction, potentially rates of depression and other diseases can be reduced.
Healthy active by design is a re-emerging trend in the design of cities and urban places. I say re-emerging because it is a return to cities as walkable, dense, comfortable, safe and active places. Neighbourhoods are supported by extensive footpath and cycle networks, streets are tree-lined, destinations for local services are within a 5 minute walk, as is local open space, and public transit is at most, a 10 minute walk from all dwellings.
Designing public places in this way encourages more incidental exercise, and through this, public health benefits are maximized. Heart, cardiovascular, respiratory and mental diseases are subsequently reduced.
The Creative City
At its best, a creative and liveable place is:
- a place of anchorage
- a place of possibility
- a place of connection
- a place of learning
- ultimately a place of inspiration.
Making a city walkable will not necessary lead to the emergence of a creative, knowledge based economy. Florida and Landry have written extensively on other factors, some noted in this article, that are required. However, designers and planners should understand those factors that can enhance the possibility of the city as a platform for ideas and exchange. By providing walkable, interesting, engaging and diverse cities, the knowledge economy can be enhanced.
Article by Scott Davies