Walkability and the Thriving City

Elizabeth Brown
By Canovu, CC BY 4.0,

What is walkability?

Walkability is a measure of the effectiveness of a city’s pedestrian infrastructure, proximity to desirable resources, and characteristics which may encourage or discourage pedestrian movement. Walkability is influenced by various factors such as urban form, density, social variables, and perceptions of safety. Walkability takes into account not just the ability, but the desire to travel through a space. Walkable cities have increasingly become more desirable, as they can increase property values and streetscape vibrancy. More walkable cities may encourage physical activity, stimulate local economies, and lessen environmental detriments caused by vehicular emissions.

What are the benefits of walking and why is walkability important?

Aside from improvements to cardiovascular health, walking, particularly within one’s community, provides a myriad of benefits. Walking allows us to establish a place-based connection with our community, to educate ourselves with our surroundings, and inform ourselves of the history of our place—benefits largely absent during driving. Furthermore, walking facilitates social interaction and allows citizens to establish a familiarity with fellow community members that can strengthen a sense of place and belonging to one’s community. Walking often grants us exposure to natural space, promotes physical activity and psychological health, allows for relaxation time, and boosts mood. According to a recent Stanford University study, the act of walking, regardless of environment, even had creativity boosting effects.

Walkability and the opportunity to travel as a pedestrian is extremely influential in one’s perceptions and experiences of urban life. Jeff Speck, a city planner and author of Walkable City: How Downtown Can Save America One Step at a Time, is one of the most outspoken supporters of walkable cities. Speck asserts that in the 1970s, the average American spent one tenth of their income on personal transportation. Today, a mere 40 years later, the average American is now spending one fifth of their income on transportation, revealing a harsh economic reality for modern professionals.

Speck consistently references Portland, Oregon as the quintessential model of walkability, both in infrastructure and in investment. Over a 30 year period, the city invested 60 million dollars in pedestrian and bicycle infrastructure. Since this time, young people have flocked to the city, and Portland has seen a 50% increase in millennials over the last 20 years. Portland’s success in walkability improvement has stimulated its economy and attracted a young population that contributes to the city’s unique vibrancy and bustling downtown.

According to Speck, approximately 64% of millennials decide first where they would like to live, followed by factors such as jobs and housing. As such, walkability and the need for walkable places has seen an increase in demand in recent years. The housing preferences of Americans have seen a major shift, as millennials are opting for dense, transit-oriented urban settings rather than single family suburban environments. Surprisingly, the baby boomer generation has demonstrated similar shifts in housing preference, as many are seeking to downsize their homes in search of more walkable communities. A survey conducted by the Urban Land Institute revealed that 50% of the sample population identified walkability as a top or high priority when making the decision of where to live or relocate. This demonstrates a societal shift in housing preference, as even many who live in auto-centric communities admit that they would not seek out that same type of community again.

Unfortunately, the appeal of a walkable neighborhood has created a gross imbalance between the supply of housing in such neighborhoods, and the growing demand for it. This reality is due in part to federal financing regulations that limit certain types of housing. Across multiple generations, mixed-use structures with first floor retail are consistently the most popular form of housing, but also a type that is ineligible for federal loans or financing. Although some research suggests that walkable communities are comprised of a diverse, well-educated, and socially equitable demographic, many low-income communities are increasingly being priced out. Due to demand for this housing, walkable neighborhoods have become extremely expensive. This challenge also reveals a greater issue of economic inequality, as the scarcity of walkable neighborhoods has driven up real estate prices. The excitement over walkability has made dense, walkable places accessible only to those who can afford them, often excluding minorities and people of low socio-economic status, among others.

Why is walkability important for Thriving Cities?

Thriving Cities’ holistic and human-centered approach to urbanity takes into account the whole ecology of a community. As such, its Human Ecology Framework seeks to identify the aspects of urban life that power and sustain programs, institutions, and policies across the entirety of cities. Walkability has a breadth that spans across nearly all six of a city’s endowments. It affects how and if our cities are able to thrive. Measuring and assessing the walkability of our communities—a topic of my next post—is important for understanding the communities in which we live.

Elizabeth Brown is a Master’s student in Urban and Environmental Planning in the School of Architecture at the University of Virginia. Elizabeth is concentrating her degree in urban and sustainable design. She graduated from UVA with her Bachelor of Urban and Environmental Planning in the spring of 2016 with a minor in Global Sustainability. Elizabeth is originally from Newark, Delaware, but spent her summer in Charlottesville, as an intern for Thriving Cities. Outside of class, she is an avid hiker and outdoor enthusiast.