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The habit of building cities for cars first, and designing the rest later as an afterthought, has hurt the city. Time to make our cities more pedestrian-friendly.
A group of people walking on a sidewalk with a colorsful backdrop of closed shop shutters
© Mitchell Funk/Getty Images

I have had the opportunity to visit and to live in many different cities in my life. One was a bustling metropolis, another a small, quiet town with vast fields between neighborhoods, and yet another was a city struggling to balance its vast history with its modern developments. I have to admit, most of my experiences have been confined to Europe so far, but during my stays at each location, I picked up an appreciation for the subtly different qualities each city harbors in its identity and in its particular relationship to its inhabitants.

And out of all these places, those that have left the most joyful and pleasant marks in my mind were those who were “walkable cities”: the cities that allow its habitants to explore, to commute or to simply go about their routines as pedestrians.

Return to the City

City living is back on the rise after the trend of suburbanization in the 1950’s that stretched well into the late 20th century. More and more people are choosing to live in the urban centers, brimming with convenience and dynamic opportunities.

However, with the rise of modernism and technology, the city has forgotten how to relate to its inhabitants on a smaller scale. The habit of building cities for cars first, and designing the rest later as an afterthought, has hurt the city.

Especially in the 1950’s, cars were thought to be the future. Now, they are a nuisance. They cause pollution, traffic, and unbreachable gaps within the urban texture. Boasting about car possession has become a marker of personal wealth for developing economies, but at its core, it also shows a lack of public resources and infrastructure.

“Every city had a department for traffic engineering transport and no city in the world had a department for public life and pedestrians.” – Jan Gehl

On a positive note, there is a global rise in sustainability: we slowly see many cities shift the priority from cars to bicycles, pedestrians, and more attractive public transportation methods. However, this change is rarely reflected in the existing public spaces the cities offer us. In addition, the more recently designed public spaces usually do not have an inviting urban quality in its truest sense: either they ignore the human scale, or the space itself rings false and artificial, more similar to a shopping mall than a part of the city.

The view down the Rambla, with trees lining up the main street on both sides, people walking and sitting at cafes on the side

The Ideal City

Today, we are faced with many different approaches to the ideal, livable, and sustainable city. The answer, naturally, lies in the scale and the density of the city in question.

During the rise of modernism in the 1950s, Brasilia was commended as the ideal city, with its affordable skyscrapers and vast open spaces. Today, its abandoned streets and out-of-touch scale brand the city as a failed urbanism project.

Ariel view of Brasilia. A large green park area with a fountain in the middle, surrounded by high rise blocks
Brasilia today shows that a city out of human scale is a dead city. – image © Jennifer Sikes

Surprisingly, the solution is closer to the fabric of the old European cities: cities that are not too spread out like those in the USA, or the developing countries that experience uncontrolled, natural urban sprawl at a high rate. Cities that are just compact enough to be walkable, and not be dominated by heavy motor traffic, without sacrificing its economic or social dynamism.

In its essence, a walkable city needs to balance several factors to be successful: security, green spaces, quality infrastructure and finally, points of interest.

However, most cities today suffer from a lack of pedestrian-friendly spaces. Mikael Colville-Andersen, an urban mobility specialist, has studied the unequal distribution of spaces devoted to pedestrians and cyclists as opposed to spaces for motor vehicles in the city that he calls “Arrogance of Space.”

Spatial study of the intersection of Quai Branly coloring the space based on its functions
Spatial study of the intersection of Quai Branly dividing up the use of space in colored pixels
This study of an intersection at Quai Branly shows the priority given over to the motor vehicles, and the dead zones that can be given to the pedestrians. – image © Mikhael Colville-Andersen

The lack of pedestrian-friendly spaces or infrastructure in a city does not only create unbreachable, dead spaces within the city’s fabric, it also leads to a shift towards more economically motivated spaces, where the individual has to spend money to be a part of the community. However, in an ideal city, the inhabitants must be given variety as to the type of public activity they can partake in.

Human Scale Cities

We perceive a space, or a city, through the effects its has on the human senses. And when a city is made with cars in mind, it is a city built to be experienced at the automotive speed, not the pedestrian speed. So, what we need is to think about is how we move and occupy space on an individual level.

Jan Gehl, a Danish architect and theorist, as well as a supporter of Jane Jacobs (also known as the grandmother of urbanism and humanist planning) does just that. He is devoted to improving the quality of life in cities by focusing more on the pedestrian and cyclists. Gehl says that “humans are inherently social creatures”, and yet, today’s cities are more alienating than ever.

“The old cities were made so that homo sapiens felt comfortable. The spaces weren’t too wide or too big, that’s why people felt comfortable.” – Jan Gehl

This doesn’t mean getting rid of cars altogether. It is a matter of planning. The human scale is very discernible within the city’s fabric; it allows an environment that effortlessly encourages the individual to linger in or pass through. It does not tower over or go unnoticed among the pedestrians. It is not just a path for pedestrians: it is an opportunity to experience art, social interaction or nature.

“The smartest city is the social city. It is a city, where community can flourish, where sense of trust can flourish, where we have soft spaces, where people can interact and create a sense of security, and where quality of life is free.” – Meik Wiking

The Benefits of the Walkable City

Creating walkable cities, however, is a serious investment. But, is it worth it?

The short answer is YES. The walkable city does not just offer a more aesthetic city; it also has wider social and economic benefits.

View of Stroget Street around a fountain, bustling with activity
Strøget Street at Copenhagen has boosted the local economy and social interaction greatly since its implementation. – image © Ty Stange

On a personal scale, walkable cities provide a balance between safety and freedom, where the individual is encouraged to roam the city and interact with others. It also promotes a healthier lifestyle: a human-scale city decreases dependence on cars, and allows individuals to walk to where they need to be with great ease. In addition, there are lower transportation costs, with a greater access to all parts of the city.

Economically speaking, walkable cities are also more advantageous: they have a higher GDP, which attracts more educated people, creating more socially equitable cities. It also triggers economic and commercial development, revitalizing the downtown areas and improving the economic performance of the existing establishments.

But perhaps, the greatest advantage of a walkable city is seen in the identity of the city itself: a more human, social city with a higher quality of life. Public spaces introduce nature and civic unity to a city’s identity, building a real sense of community among its inhabitants.

“Now, we talk about livability, we talk about sustainability, we talk about health, and we’ve started to talk about good cities for the aging.” – Jan Gehl


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