Walking is the best exercise for most people, so it makes sense for town planners to build walkable communities. Also called ‘mixed-use communities’, these are where you can work from home. Then pop to the shop or office, without having to get in a car. This is not a theory promoted by government, as big car companies often donate to political parties or are lobbied by big office companies (remember during COVID, with all the MPs telling us to ‘go back to work’, when many were happy to stay working from home?) Boris Johnson was almost having palpitations at the thought of everyone wanting a simpler and peaceful life, rather than go back into the rat-race of commuting and buying sandwiches from Pret a Manger.
If we had mixed-use communities, we would not have out-of-town stores or supermarkets or retail parks. You’d get bread from the baker, your bike repaired at the local indie shop, eat lunch in the park and walk to the doctor. You could walk your dogs without having to get in a car to find a park or beach. Walkable communities have a big knock-on effect: people who spend time walking (instead of driving) are healthier and less stressed, and often more financially stable (they are not seeing all their money poured into a vehicle they don’t need to use).
the world’s most walkable places
The world’s most walkable city is Copenhagen, Denmark. But it wasn’t always that way. It was gridlock, before architect Jan Gehl transformed it. His tips include:
- Stop basing cities around cars. Build at the speed of walking, and ban cars where you can (he did that first on the main street, then added more walking spaces and bike hire stops).
- Make the city centre a pleasure for being in: parks and beautiful buildings. He put heated street lamps and benches (it’s cold in Copenhagen!) to bring more people into the centre, so it feels safe. But retain night skies (light pollution harms birds and wildlife).
- Make it faster to go by foot or bike, than car. This is what planners have done in Belgium’s second city of Ghent. It made the city centre car-free, and now it’s easier to walk or cycle, rather than drive the ring road.
- Walkable City Rules: 101 Steps to Making Better Space is a super book by Jeff Speck, known as the ‘rock star of town planning’. He is not a fan of adding extra lanes to motorways. If using his tips to plant trees to make streets more pleasant, know toxic trees to avoid near dogs/horses etc. He says a walkable community is ‘useful, safe, comfortable and interesting’.
So which cities in the world live mostly without cars?
- The tiny Channel Island of Sark is car-free.
- Louvain-la-Neuve (near Brussels, Belgium) is car-free, built to house a Catholic university.
- Venice has no cars at all. But its rivers are polluted from water-taxis.
- Tripoli (Lebanon) is full of winding streets and stairways. So it has no cars, as they would get stuck!
- Orvelte (Netherlands) is a museum village.
- Many islands worldwide are car-free.
- The most car-free cities in the UK are York, Leeds and Cardiff.
Urban Advantage is a fantastic website, where a digital imager takes photos of present communities, then envisages what they could look like simply by adding in wider pavements, greenery and seating. Take a look at this before/after image:
books to build walkable communities
- Curbing Traffic is a book by two mobility experts who left Canada for a new adventure in The Netherlands. On their return, they took the knowledge of how the Dutch do traffic differently, and now are the world’s experts in making cities more walking and bicycle friendly. This book looks at their experience, and how the ideas can be translated to other cities.
- Movement: How To Take Back Our Streets looks at how we approach the biggest urban problem of too many cars on the streets, and looks at how people in The Netherlands do things differently. Make our communities safer, cleaner and greener, by first asking: ‘Who do our streets belong to?’ Just decreasing traffic in cities and making more bikes available is not the answer.
- Handbook for an Urban Revolution is the story of NYC’s Transport Commissioner Janet Sadik-Khan who managed the seemingly impossible task of transforming one of the world’s toughest cities into dynamic spaces, safe for pedestrians and bikers. Her approach was dramatic yet effective. This book shows how to do the same, where you live.
- Urban Playground looks at how to replace car-dominated, noisy and polluted cities devoid of nature, with walkable, welcoming and green alternatives. Good for humans, animals and the planet, this book shows how seeing cities through the eyes of children, is key to good urban design. Healthier children means happier families, stronger communities, greener neighbourhoods and an economy focused on the long-term.