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Walkable Communities and Modern Urban Planning Theory

Chris has a Master's degree in engineering and uses his knowledge to write about a variety of topics from an analytical perspective.

Before cars became the focus of urban planning, city centers such as this historic location in Germany were the norm.

Before cars became the focus of urban planning, city centers such as this historic location in Germany were the norm.

What Is Walkability?

Walkability is an important concept in modern urban planning theory. Over the last century, most new communities have had an automobile-centric design. In other words, neighborhoods were designed with a focus on the automobile as the primary means of travel. Vehicular pathways are prioritized over other modes of travel. Roads are designed to be wide, and the distances between neighborhoods and services such as retail establishments, city centers, and employment areas are long.

Neighborhoods are often medium or low density, and the layout is homogeneous (i.e., a sea of rooftops), leading to a greater dependence on vehicles. Urban sprawl like this makes mass transit difficult to implement since the population density isn’t often high enough to support it.

What Is a Walkable Community?

However, in recent times there has been a renewed emphasis on creating communities that promote a higher quality of life through a holistic vision of what a modern community can be. In terms of urban planning, the focus has shifted from creating distinct “zones” separated by large distances to creating “communities within communities” that have all of the basic services that people need nearby within a 5-minute walk.

These bite-sized, pedestrian-friendly communities are known as “walkable communities.” In essence, a walkable community functions as a complete system, providing everything necessary for people to live, work, and play, all within a single area.

This map shows a traditional zoning layout of a typical American City. The roadway network serves as the connections between the different districts. Thus, vehicles are necessary to connect people to places within this community.

This map shows a traditional zoning layout of a typical American City. The roadway network serves as the connections between the different districts. Thus, vehicles are necessary to connect people to places within this community.

What Is a Ped Shed?

By focusing on walkability, society can achieve its new goals of promoting healthy lifestyles, reducing environmental impacts, and decreasing reliance on vehicles, while supporting a modern lifestyle where working from home is becoming increasingly prevalent. Urban planners use the term “ped shed” to help define areas that meet these goals.

A “ped shed,” or “pedestrian shed,” is the fundamental unit of a walkable neighborhood. Traditionally, a ped shed is an area that can be traversed within a 5-minute walk from a point of origin to a destination. A 5-minute walk translates to about 0.25 miles or approximately 400 meters. For instance, a walkable community is said to have necessary services within a 5-minute walk of residential areas. Another name for the ped shed is a “walkable catchment” (Aurbach, 2022).

Characteristics of Walkable Communities

However, walkability is more than just the area encompassed by a distance or time from a given location. For a community to truly be walkable, it must have several key characteristics. First, there have to be destinations nearby that lend themselves to pedestrians. These could be, for instance, churches, convenience stores, parks, or even general retail establishments.

Another characteristic a community must have to be considered walkable is designated and convenient routes for walkers. Sidewalks and multi-use paths are great options, especially if they meander through the community. The best routes are often as direct as possible (reducing travel time) but also provide separation from nearby traveling vehicles. Without designated pedestrian routes in a community, people must either trespass, travel unsafely, or use another mode of travel to reach destinations.

This neighborhood uses a mix of traffic calming methods (roundabout) as well as sidewalks that are both attached and detached from the street. While not perfectly walkable, this newer development has at least considered pedestrian routes.

This neighborhood uses a mix of traffic calming methods (roundabout) as well as sidewalks that are both attached and detached from the street. While not perfectly walkable, this newer development has at least considered pedestrian routes.

The Importance of Walkability

Designing, redeveloping, and living in walkable communities is important for many reasons. For instance, a walkable community is a healthier one. When people can walk to destinations in their neighborhood, maintaining a healthier lifestyle becomes much easier. In addition, with fewer vehicular miles traveled, air quality is improved, and noise pollution is reduced.

Walkable communities also have other benefits as well. Research done by the University of Delaware and the Institute for Public Administration has shown that walkable neighborhoods promote transportation equity, reduce economic costs for residents, and improve safety. Well-designed neighborhoods also promote an improved sense of community which helps to increase society’s social well-being. Isolationism and crime are also reduced in well-connected, walkable communities.

Research prepared by the National Association of Realtors showed that a community’s walkability correlates to the levels of quality of life as reported by its residents in a survey. As the survey report noted, “People with places to walk remain more satisfied with their quality of life” (Steuteville, 2021). This was especially evident during the 2020 pandemic when people were forced to do everything from home. Going outside and walking became a vital part of coping with pandemic protocols for many people.

Walking is great for your health as well as your community.

Walking is great for your health as well as your community.

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Designing and Promoting Walkable Communities

As we have learned, walking is important to maintaining a healthy, active lifestyle. Therefore, it should be obvious that governments, land planners, and designers should focus on creating infrastructure to help make walking safe, easy, and the preferred mode of travel for residents.

A well-placed pedestrian route promotes good circulation and connects people to desirable neighborhood areas. These routes should act as linkages to bring people closer to open spaces, parks, retail establishments, and key services they need to live a healthy, high-quality life. Similarly, good linkages also bring people together, enhancing a positive sense of community.

Good pedestrian infrastructure is more than just sidewalks. With proper planning and layout, a pedestrian network will consist of many trails, paths, crosswalks, areas of refuge, and even bridges. A well-thought-out system will encourage people to be more active and become less dependent on cars. This also reduces maintenance costs and the need for expensive infrastructure designed for a car-centric community.

Key Considerations for Walkable Communities

Generally speaking, the planning and design of walkable neighborhoods include an evaluation of at least the following key considerations:

  1. Continuity – The pedestrian system of routes consistent of unbroken linkages between points of origin and destinations. Connectivity is the key, and walkers should have multiple pathways to choose from if possible. Paths should loop and connect to other destinations; singular, dead-end paths should be avoided.
  2. Safety – The pedestrian paths provide ample separation from vehicular routes. Roadway crossings are kept to a minimum but provided at the most desirable locations. Pedestrian paths are well-lit, well-marked, provide areas of refuge (shady areas, bus stops, etc.), and are unobstructed.
  3. Comfort – The pedestrian routes are easily traversable by people of all ages and abilities. Paths are smooth and have gradual changes in grade where necessary. Paths should also be wide enough to allow for passing and bi-directional travel.
  4. Convenience – The pedestrian routes are planned to create the shortest practical distance between residential areas and points of interest.
  5. Visual Appeal – The pedestrian path “looks good” and provides good views and scenic interest. The use of clever design elements such as landscaping and building facades will help to encourage the use of pedestrian paths.
This walking path connects suburban and urban areas through a landscaped environment which serves as both as a destination, a linkage, and pedestrian refuge.

This walking path connects suburban and urban areas through a landscaped environment which serves as both as a destination, a linkage, and pedestrian refuge.

How to Find Out Your Neighborhood’s Walkability Score

Interested in knowing what your neighborhood or city’s walkability score is? If you are looking to relocate to a new community or just need information on the walkability of your neighborhood, there is a great website called Walk Score that has done the legwork for you. When you use Walk Score, the tool will give your community a score out of 100 for both walking and biking. The tool will also give you an idea of how easy it is to access services for residents.

When I ran a search for my city, the tool gave my community a score of 17 for walkability and stated that “almost all errands require a car.” The tool also told me that 95 restaurants and coffee shops are in my community, but only 0.1% are accessible within a 5-minute walk from residences. This is very accurate.

Another organization that evaluates the walkability of neighborhoods is the Walk Friendly Organization which is supported by the University of North Carolina’s Highway Safety Research Center. This organization gives a rating to cities in the form of a bronze, silver, gold, or platinum designation based on their commitment to improve and sustain the tenants of walkable communities. Cities must apply to the program and will be rated based on several criteria.

As you can see, this information is very useful. This is why many realtors are now including this information in their listings. For the reasons previously discussed, people generally want walkable neighborhoods. A high walkability score can help make real estate more desirable.

References and Resources

Aurbach, Laurence. Ped Shed: Walkable Urban Design & Sustainable Placemaking. May 2022. <https://pedshed.net/>

Bicycle Federation of America Campaign to Make America Walkable. “Creating Walkable Communities: A Guide for Local Governments.” December 1998. <https://safety.fhwa.dot.gov/ped_bike/docs/marc.pdf>

Steuteville, Robert. “Preference for Walkable Communities Strong, but Young Families Want a Bigger Home” Public Square: A CNU Journal. January 2021. < https://www.cnu.org/publicsquare/2021/01/28/walkable-community-stock-rises-young-families-want-bigger-home>

University of Delaware. “Complete Communities Toolbox: Walkable Communities.” May 2022. <https://www.completecommunitiesde.org/planning/complete-streets/walkable-communities/>

Walk Score. Walkability Scores for You Community. May 2022. <https://www.walkscore.com/>

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2022 Christopher Wanamaker

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