Thu, Sep 14, 2017 - Page 14 News List

These streets are made for walkin’

From New York’s cafe squares to Melbourne’s laneways to the walled Fes el Bali, urban planners are seeking to hand back cities to pedestrians

By Laura Laker  /  Guardian

Pedestrians cross a street outside Gyeongbokgung palace in central Seoul this month.

Photo: AFP

For decades the simple act of walking was largely overlooked by city planners but, no matter how you choose to get around your city, chances are that you are a pedestrian at some point during the day.

Recently, some cities have made great strides: from the ambitious public squares programs of New York and Paris to the pedestrianization of major streets (realized in the case of Stroget in Copenhagen; proposed in the case of London’s Oxford Street and Madrid’s Gran Via.)

Jeff Speck’s grandly titled General Theory of Walkability states that a journey on foot should satisfy four main conditions: be useful, safe, comfortable and interesting.

In his book Walkable City: How Downtown Can Save America, One Step at a Time, he argues that the “fabric” of the city — the variety of buildings, frontages and open spaces — is key.

US, Canadian and Australian cities, which were built for cars, have the challenge of retrofitting walking infrastructure.

Older European cities, which were built with walking in mind, have good fabric. This can make them walkable even if they lack pavements, crossings and other infrastructure for pedestrians — as is the case in Rome, says Speck.

“Rome, at first glance, seems horribly inhospitable to pedestrians,” he says. “Half the streets are missing sidewalks, most intersections lack crossings, pavements are uneven and rutted, disabled ramps are largely absent.”

Yet despite all this, as well as its hills and famously aggressive driving, this “anarchic obstacle course is somehow a magnet for walkers.” Why? Because Rome’s fabric is superb.

A NEW CITY RANKING

Walk Score, which lets prospective renters and buyers choose homes based on walkability, ranks cities in the US, Canada and Australia. New York tops the US list for this year at an overall 89 out of 100, with Little Italy and Union Square scoring full marks. San Francisco ranked second, followed by Boston. Vancouver, Toronto and Montreal rank from first to third respectively in Canada; while Australia’s most walkable cities are Sydney, Melbourne and Adelaide.

New York famously began its urban transformation program in 2007, its flagship scheme the part-pedestrianization of Times Square two years later. The former transportation commissioner for New York City, Janette Sadik-Khan, said: “We changed the city from places people wanted to park to places people wanted to be — street space to seat space.”

“On 23rd St, where three streets meet, we created 6,000 square meters of public space. People choose to sit on the street rather than the park,” she said.

Like most transportation experts, Sadik-Khan believes walkability is about more than safety — it is about economic competitiveness, too.

According to the UN, well-planned cities should have 30 percent to 35 percent of their land dedicated to streets to get the benefits of high connectivity.

Manhattan scores 36 percent.

New York City is far from perfect, scoring third worst in an Inrix analysis of congestion from 1,064 cities in 38 countries, with commuters spending on average 89.4 hours a year stuck in traffic. But what was achieved in the city — first in showcase projects built quickly and with cheap materials like paint, benches and planters — opened people’s eyes to what was possible.

Sadik-Khan now works with city mayors around the world via NACTO (the US National Association of City Transportation Officials), recently publishing a tactical urbanism manual, Street Fight: Handbook for an Urban Revolution, to help other planners learn from her experience.

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