What Makes for Good Walkable Places? 3

Thursday, November 26th, 2015
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The walkability of many cities in the “developed” world has long been underwhelming, but that’s changing rapidly now. Thanks to a resurgence in the popularity of urban living, changing demographics, and scorecards such as Walk Score, walkability is now a must-have attribute.

That’s not enough, however, says architect and writer Steve Mouzon, who says “walkable” is hardly some great goal to which people should aspire. If anything, he says, walkability represents a minimum standard.

“Do you want food that is merely edible?” he asks. “Will you pay for a book that is only readable? How about a cup of coffee that is just drinkable?”

What our places need is “walk appeal,” which Mouzon defines as having a higher standard than merely “walkable.” He has identified a few metrics to gauge the “walk appeal” of a place:

View changes

This idea represents a more dynamic quality of the neighbourhood or landscape that people look at, and emphasizes that variety is better.

“The more frequently you change someone’s view as they walk, the better you entertain them,” Mouzon says.

Window of view

Along streetscapes, building frontages use glass in varied ways, and there is an optimal proportion of glass.

“There are two prime measurements of Window of View as well: horizontally along the sidewalk, and height. The ideal percentage of glass at eye level along the sidewalk is around 70 per cent,” Mouzon said.

More than 70 per cent glass, Mouzon feels, becomes less interesting, as “there are few things more boring if you’re walking than passing along a blank building wall.”


Pedestrians need shelter from rain, sun, and snow.

“The best building fronts shelter people who are walking from the elements, at least at the front door,” according to Mouzon. Awnings, umbrellas, arcades, and the like also give walkers the feeling of safety and enclosure.

People on the street

As highly social beasts, humans have a natural attraction to other humans.

“Few things make a walk more interesting than seeing lots of other people along the way,” Mouzon noted, “while a walk down deserted streets might even be spooky.”

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Grafton Street, Dublin, Ireland

Loveable things along the way

A favorite building, rose bush, front door, or friendly dog along a walking route can make or break the feeling for a pedestrian.

“Buildings and site elements along the way that are lovable clearly enhance Walk Appeal,” Mouzon noted.

Magic of the city

Sterile, predictable suburbs hold no mysteries to be discovered, but cities with “magic” may tempt the walker with discovery. Mouzon asserts that “Great cities hold promises of secret delights waiting to be discovered just around the next corner.”

Another group that advocates for walkable cities, the Better Block Project, also has guidelines for walkable neighbourhood design. The group follows author David Sucher’s ideas:

Build to the sidewalk (i.e., property line), which has the effect of bringing the building out to the people and drawing them in.
Make the building front “permeable” (i.e., no blank walls). As Mouzon noted, windows provide an attracting view into the building, so walkers can see the people and activities within.
Prohibit parking lots in front of the building. Cars have their place, and it’s not at the front of the building, which must be focused on reaching out to pedestrians.

Susan Henderson, in an article in Better Cities and Towns, argued that walkability is “about the experience.” Henderson, director of design at Placemakers, a planning, coding, marketing, and implementation firm, noted three qualities of walkable neighbourhoods.

First, a walkable neighbourhood is entertaining. Entertaining neighbourhoods provide varied attractions, but one of the strongest attractors is other people.

“We can admire beautiful streetscapes or stunning buildings,” Henderson noted, “but there’s nothing that keeps us moving down the street more effectively than sidewalk cafes, pubs, and shoppers.”

A walkable neighborhood also provides meaningful destinations. This idea is multifaceted, but highlights the many tasks that people can accomplish on foot. Eating, drinking, window shopping, and lounging in the park come to mind, of course, but yoga studios, music studios, and movie theatres might also be perfect neighbourhood businesses.

Finally, a walkable neighborhood feels safe. A safe neighbourhood is self-reinforcing, with more people attracting people. Infrastructure such as street lights is obvious, but designing streets and intersections to protect pedestrians and bicyclists is crucial, as well. As Henderson wrote, “It’s about designing an environment that slows down cars instead of policing drivers.”

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  1. Brian L.

    Nice run down – variety and engaging landmarks are really the keys to enhancing urban walkability, as attested by the more lively parts of Melbourne's inner-north.

  2. Jane Bringolf

    It would be good if you could include wheelability on this topic. While many of the aspects discussed are relevant to less ambulant people, or people with low vision, it is good to remind the urban planners and designers that accessibility as a statutory requirement are only focused on minimal standards. Universally designed environments, however, focus on the whole population bell curve including people with strollers, walkers, trolleys and luggage.

    • Steve

      Jane, thanks for the comment. Lack of access for wheelchairs and strollers is a bit too easy for us healthy people to overlook. Do you have a favorite resource for universal design?