Humans are strange beings.

Put us in a car, and roads and car parks become important: “I must find a convenient car park.”

Put our walking shoes on, and we want an easy path to walk on: “It would be nice not to have to stop for these cars all the time.”

The common thing is us; what changes our mindset is our mode of movement.

Oddly, our current approach to planning our cities is focused on efficient vehicle movement. Think about it – our current predominance for road planning and the dearth of public transport integration is at odds with many things happening in our society. This includes peak oil (we’re using more oil for petrol than we are finding), peak car ownership (in decline in western economies), higher costs of car ownership (currently around $12,000 per annum according to the motoring clubs of Australia including the NRMA and the RAA, and depending on car size), and the impacts of climate change.

Perhaps what is most concerning is the time it takes to bring about a change in policy and ultimately deliver alternative modes of transport. Take walking for example.

Our current focus is on anything with motorised rubber or steel wheels, and people come a distant second. Moving vehicles around our cities efficiently seems to remain the primary objective of transport planning in Australia, and it continues to impact our cities. Walking is not a primary objective in many places.

When we walk, complex processes ensure we are able to progress, whether by foot or wheelchair or other conveyance, to our destination. We are programmed to maximise efficiency of movement, unless we are exercising (where we create artificial hurdles such as running around an oval) toward a healthy outcome.

We abhor walking backward to go forward. Walking the straightest line to our destination is called a desire line. You’ll see these most evident in our parks and gardens, usually where the path isn’t. These desire lines turn into what are termed ‘goat tracks’ and are usually the result of poor design and planning. They are where more people walk, naturally and instinctively.

Landscape architects’ skills in identifying and setting problems then rationalising a solution is the profession’s greatest strength. Most people probably don’t appreciate the difficulties in designing spaces, the complex elements and things that must be considered go largely unnoticed. This is the work undertaken in the contested spaces that are our streets.

What is noticed is when things don’t work. Narrow footpaths, closed streets, one way streets, lack of natural wayfinding, confusing layouts, congestion, accessibility and unattractiveness all compete for negative impressions of our cities.

Sure, many cities identify their good bits (you know the ones: the visually appealing, natural features, built heritage and desirable things) and many are preserved often just for their postcard views, for protection or “enhancement.”

However, the fine grain of daily city life competes with the overall ‘love’ for a place, with interconnected and often poorly planned streets and public spaces rarely recognised as having humanistic importance. I’m talking about widths of footpaths, priority and timing of traffic signals to cross the street, other pedestrian crossings, slowing of traffic, bike shares and parking, street trees for shade, equal and inclusive access for all, quality paving, nice and welcoming lighting, seating, bins and other essential elements of a well designed domain for the public.

As Jan Gehl said, “we have a department for roads, why not a department for pedestrians?”

He has a point. Human factors play a large role in balancing the technical needs of a city – its roads, streets, drainage, transport, power, communications and water usually have priority over everything else, yet the very element our cities depend on are people, for life and vitality. Who hasn’t experienced the frustration of wanting to walk to the other side of the street, yet being deterred  by by-laws, linemarking, barriers, police issuing jaywalking fines, traffic and other people-unfriendly devices in our way, preventing the very route we want to travel?

Strategies for our cities that put people first and encourage behaviour change – fostering walking farther than from the car park to the office – are a good start. We cite accident statistics to ‘improve’ our roads to reduce the road toll, and sometimes pedestrian ‘improvements’ are aimed genuinely to improve safety for people.

Most often what isn’t addressed, however, are the other factors – the consuming factors – to make our places desirable, accessible and happy. One of the greatest challenges is recognising and then making the decision to make our cities places for walking first, driving second. Communities are largely built on good walkability with social, economic, and environmental interactions creating the spaces we desire and protect, and are successful.

We need to think about how people use our streets and spaces and focus on better modelling, scenarios, observations and calculations to design a better and more flexible outcome. Setting the problem wider is a far better approach than solving one that is narrow and assumptive and limited in view. Asking the community how they use their city is one thing, proving and analysing the evidence is another, and then coming up with more informed solutions is the outcome.

Creating well-designed spaces, walking strategies, wayfinding signage and other initiatives are critical components of shaping our cities. Making them functional, easy to use and simple to navigate is part design, part science, part art, part guesswork, part listening and a lot of watching.

So the next time you are here and want to go there, consider the opportunities as well as the realities and help the city broaden the conversation around creating better places for people.