By Dom Nozzi
How does a community create “walkable” streets? Streets that feels safe for all— particularly for seniors and children? Streets that are sociable due to large numbers of pedestrian users? Streets that are richly interesting? Streets that provide comfort? Streets that breed a strong sense of civic pride?
There are a number of essential ingredients that a community can (and sometimes must) use to craft and sustain a walkable street.
Convivial Concentration of Pedestrians. First and foremost, a walkable street must contain relatively large numbers of (preferably friendly) pedestrians. This obvious ingredient would go without saying, except for the fact that there are many who believe that various physical street design features are sufficient to create walkability. Actually, even the best-designed streets are not truly walkable if few walk them. On the other hand, even a poorly-designed street (in the physical sense) can be memorably walkable if it contains large numbers of pedestrians. Very little is more attractive and enjoyable to most humans—an inherently sociable species—than a vibrant, festive place filled with happy, friendly people.
This partly explains the overwhelming popularity of street festivals and public markets that are well known in their ability to create and sustain such gatherings.
Residential Densities. In order for a street to draw large numbers of pedestrians, large concentrations of people must either live within walking distance of the street, or the street needs to be a connecting conduit between two (or more) highly attractive destinations—destinations that are no more than, say, 3 to 5 blocks from each other. For example, a major university campus linked by a Main Street to a healthy downtown.
Human-Scaled Dimensions. People tend to feel most comfortable and safe when they are in “human-scaled” spaces. That is, spaces that do not dwarf them, make them feel insignificant, or over-exposed. Crucially, this means that horizontal and vertical dimensions of the surrounding physical elements of a street are relatively modest in size. In general, this means that streets are no more than two or three lanes wide. In the more urban areas of a town, buildings are pulled up to and abutting street-side sidewalks, and front porches are within “conversational distance” of sidewalks. Surface parking lots are tucked behind buildings and walls. Street lights are no more than about 20 feet tall (modest street light structures effectively establish a romantic ambience). The urban fabric is un-interrupted by gap-tooth parking lots. Instead, a continuous street wall is maintained. Buildings tend to be no greater than five stories, such as is found in Paris. Note, however, that buildings along a walkable street should generally be at least two stories in height in order to more effectively create the pleasing sense of enclosure. And to increase opportunities along the street for vertical mixed use buildings in which a first floor is occupied by an office or store, and above stories are occupied by a residence.
Human-scaled streets create the overwhelmingly pleasant feeling of being within an “outdoor room.” And, as a result, creating that all-important “sense of place.”
Active and Diverse Retail. An essential ingredient for a street to be walkable in the more urban area of a town is for the street to be lined with a rich collection of healthy, diverse, local retail establishments. Such an assemblage of enterprises ensures people that strolling down such a street will nearly always reward one with a fascinating cornucopia of sights, smells, sounds and potentially satisfying purchases—no matter how often the street is walked.
Traffic-Calming. For retail establishments and residences along a street to be healthy, and for pedestrians to feel comfortable, a walkable street nearly always must contain relatively low-speed motor vehicle travel. The most important way to provide such modest, comfortable speeds is to provide ample on-street parking, which not only slows cars but creates an extremely healthy, safe buffer between the pedestrian and moving motor vehicles. To calm motor vehicle speeds, it is also important that the street be no more than two or three lanes (ideally two travel lanes with “turn pockets”). Travel lanes should be no more than 10 or 11 feet wide. A prominent canopy of street trees and buildings pulled up to the sidewalk also create a moderating influence on motor vehicle speeds. A common mistake is to assume that the ideal form of traffic calming or creation of a walkable street is to create a “pedestrian mall,” a pedestrian-only street where motor vehicles are prohibited. However, such malls have nearly always failed in America. The lack of sufficient, nearby residential densities and the cultural dis-inclination to walk or bicycle means that the well-intentioned effort to establish such car-free areas typically (but not always) creates a “ghost-town” atmosphere in which there is so little pedestrian activity that the mall seems abandoned and vacant. Often, such malls end up being so little used that retail along the mall quickly dies from lack of patrons, and many cities that established car-free areas have converted them back to once again allow car travel.
The key is not to ban car travel on a street intended to be walkable, but to design the street in such a way as to obligate motorists to drive slowly and attentively.
24-Hour Activity. A walkable street must be alive day and night, instead of closing down at 5 pm. 24-hour streets tend to be not only more interesting and fun, but also much safer due to the benefits of “citizen surveillance” and “eyes on the street.” Again, 24-hour activity is promoted by the development of relatively high residential densities within the walkable catchment area of the street. Residences provide after-hours pedestrian activity as residents will walk to stores, services, culture, parks, and the homes of friends and family throughout the day and night. Studies by the nation’s leading investment indicator firms have shown over and over again that “24-hour” cities harbor the most healthy, profitable investment opportunities. Businesses and residences tend to thrive in such cities, which are seen as hip, cutting edge, exciting (yet safe) places to be for what Richard Florida calls the “Creative Class.” Some cities find it useful to control and restrict the percentage of buildings along a street intended to be walkable by limiting the number of offices along the street, since offices tend to be closed (and therefore deadening) after 5 pm.
Narrow Lots. An important way to create a lively, exciting and interesting street life is to establish relatively narrow property widths along the sidewalk. Doing so increases the frequency of doors that enliven the street, as well as windows and other elements essential to an enjoyable pedestrian experience.
Weather Protection. For comfort in hot climates or rainy climates, it is important on more urban sidewalks to provide awnings or colonnades on the front facades of buildings along the sidewalk. Another extremely important element is a canopy of tall, formally-aligned, same-species street trees overhanging the street and sidewalk (and limbed up so as not to obscure the view of retail building facades).
Wide Sidewalks. It goes without saying that a walkable street should provide sufficiently wide sidewalks. In general, such sidewalks should range from 8 to 20 feet in width, depending on the pedestrian volumes expected. Note that there is too much of a good thing when it comes to sidewalks. Overly wide sidewalks can be just as undesirable as sidewalks that are too narrow, because wide sidewalks that carry only a handful of pedestrians creates the undesirable sense that the area is not very active or alive, whereas a narrower sidewalk with the same modest number of pedestrians can seem “bustling with life.” Therefore, it is important that sidewalks use a width that corresponds to expected pedestrian use along the street-striking a balance between pedestrian comfort and the need to create a lively ambience even when there are not enormous numbers of pedestrians.
Unobtrusive Equipment. Trash dumpsters near (or on) sidewalks tend to create an unsightly and often smelly character for the sidewalk, and send the message that the sidewalks and public realm are disregarded—and that pedestrians are therefore not respected. For these reasons, a walkable street keeps dumpsters remote from public, streetside sidewalks, or has dumpsters use compatible, attractive screening. Similarly, outdoor mechanical equipment (such as heating and air conditioning equipment) can create an unattractive, noisy ambience for a public sidewalk. Walkable streets keep this equipment on building roofs or on the side or rear of buildings so that they are remote from public sidewalks.
A powerful mechanism for keeping unsightly, obtrusive equipment away from the public sidewalk is the alley behind buildings, where garbage and utilities can be inconspicuously placed. Walkable streets therefore tend to feature alleys.
Active Building Fronts. Increasingly, streets are neglected and degraded by buildings that turn their back to the street. On a walkable street, the fronts of buildings face the streetside sidewalk. Having doors and ample windows facing the street creates visual interest for the pedestrian, and energizes the street by providing a view of the inside of the building and having pedestrians enter and exit the building onto the sidewalk. Doors facing the street substantially reduce pedestrian walking distances.
Likewise, walkable streets feature residences with front porches, where porch occupants can interact with those on the sidewalk, and where pedestrians can enjoy seeing a home that sends a walkable, friendly character to the public realm, even when the porch is unoccupied. To be an active, interesting street, buildings along a walkable street have very little in the way of blank walls (which creates monotony and reduces security). Garages on walkable streets are recessed to avoid conveying the unpleasant message that a car, not people, lives here.
Modest Turn Radii and Crossing Distances. An important way to create safety and human-scaled dimensions is to create a street which has modest turn radii at street and driveway intersections. Small “corner curves” slow down the speed of turning motor vehicles, and can substantially reduce pedestrian crossing distances. In addition to the value of small turn radii, features such as landscape islands, “bulb-outs” and landscaped (or hardscaped) street medians can provide a street with attractive features and significant safety increases for the pedestrian crossing a street. Not only does such street landscaping improve the visual appeal of a street, but they also tend to slow down motor vehicles and provide a refuge area for the crossing pedestrian.
Proximity. For a street to be truly walkable, destinations from residences to places of work, school, parks, and shopping need to be in close proximity (no more than approximately one-quarter mile from homes). Note that a useful way to reduce walking distances is, when possible and appropriate, to align sidewalks diagonally. Proximity strongly promotes walking trips, which tends to increase pedestrian volumes on sidewalks, thereby creating a safer, friendlier, more enjoyable sidewalk ambience.
Walkable streets also tend to contain what Ray Oldenberg calls “Third Places.” Third places are typically corner pubs, groceries, post offices or other facilities where neighborhood residents frequently run into each other and interactively chat or wave hello. They build neighborhood bonds and friendships, and their ability to act as “social condensers” promotes sociability, familiarity and trust.
Short Block Lengths. Block lengths on a street must be short to create modest walking distances. Generally, a block should be no more than 500 feet in length-preferably 200 to 300 feet in length. Short block lengths are an effective way to reduce motor vehicle speeds. It is no coincidence that the most walkable cities have the shortest block lengths.
Vista Termination. A powerful means of creating a memorable, picturesque street is to locate important civic buildings such as churches, city halls and libraries at the termination of a street vista. Such termination emphasizes the importance and visibility of buildings that are located in such places, which is precisely what should be done with the most important civic buildings in a community. By doing so, civic pride is cultivated, and those within the community are sent a strong message about what the community believes are the most significant institutions in the community. Vista termination also creates the impression that the walk does not seem onerously “endless,” as a goal is in sight in front of the pedestrian. As Andres Duany has said, nothing is more satisfying than a prominent civic building grandly terminating a street vista.
Appropriate Businesses. Walkable streets tend to heavily regulate or prohibit the establishment of car-oriented businesses. Such businesses—because they depend on attracting large volumes of motor vehicles—are typically create visual blight, and excessively scaled for large vehicles instead of pedestrians (for example, by incorporating large parking lots between the street and building, or having an enormous building footprint that is difficult to negotiate on foot). Often, such businesses deploy glaring, flashing lighting, and can be the source of substantial levels of noise pollution. Walkable streets therefore commonly prohibit “Big Box” retail, drive-through’s, auto sales and service, stand-alone parking lots, car washes, and gas stations. By discouraging pedestrian activity, such businesses drain vitality from public sidewalks.
Visit my urban design website read more about what I have to say on those topics. You can also schedule me to give a speech in your community about transportation and congestion, land use development and sprawl, and improving quality of life.
Or email me at: dom[AT]walkablestreets.com
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