Walking Is Urban Epoxy

Poster showing foot traffic in an urban setting


The IPCC concluded last year that we have to cut our CO2 emissions almost in half in the next dozen years if we are going to have any hope of limiting the damages from climate change. Given the enormity of this task, I assigned each of my 60 students studying sustainable design at Ryerson School of Interior Design a different facet of the problem of greenhouse gas emissions. Each student had to look at the history of the issue and how we got here, why it is a problem now, and what we have to do to fix it. I am publishing some of the best here on TreeHugger, like this one by Bryant Serre. These were prepared as slideshows for the class, and I have included all the slides here, so I apologize in advance for all the clicks. Walkability is a fairly robust topic, hence, why to build upon many of the other presentations thus far, I am going to tackle walking from a strictly utilitarian urban perspective; mostly because cities and walkable centers and communities are at the center of urban design and research. But also, because pedestrianism can arguably be viewed as the last hope for cities. I will also touch on the ownership of the street, as it leads to many of the problems with pedestrianism. I also want to talk about what pedestrianism and complete streets offer to the cityscape, as it may be the best solution for efficiency in city layout and design. And finally, I want to talk about my personal theory about the walkability of cities. What I call the community adhesive.

credit: Sidewalk Labs

To define walkability, it is important to make the connection between streets and walking. When we think about walking in the modern context, we think about walking through the street: it’s by definition anthropogenic and urban. This leads walking to be not only the far-most active, equitable, and sustainable modal-form, but also the most-healthy for relationships and for the individual(s); it uses the kinetic energy of humans to drive movement, utilitarian or leisure, from one area to another. By nature of being a human activity, it is purposeful: within the modern context, it is keystone to the survival of urban cores, and lively/cohesive neighbourhoods. What I mean to show is to walking is so systematically linked to every economic, social, and environmental process that happens in cities. Without it, and without the opportunities it provides, we would cease to function as a species.

credit: Bryant Serre

Historically, walking goes back to caveman times, or even pushing the lineage further, goes back to the moment predecessors of Homo Sapiens had even developed any form of foot, hand, or limb. From a Utilitarian perspective, streets and walking goes back to 753 B.C.E in Rome, where they were made for the informal, and impromptu walkabout, with the overall purpose of making the city increasingly navigable. More recently, as of mid 20th century, Henri Lefebvre argues in Le droit a la ville, that the socio-economic segregation and the phenomenon of estrangement comes from lacking density and pushing people far from the city center.

credit: Bryant Serre

More specifically to Urban Theorem and Design, it is beneficial to look at the North American context, probably the most influential period on streets was in the early 1920’s. Cities like Boston and New York were once littered with boulevards for pedestrians, streetcars, and the occasional driver. Although these streets were filthy with dust and soot of late industrialization, they offered an instrumental portion of integration among social groups. Take a look at these two pictures of New York City and Boston. They have no Crosswalks, no order, but individuals and pedestrians are allowed an element of freedom of movement equivalent to the queen in chess: they can move all directions. In terms of the street, all modal forms were equitable; no prioritization whatsoever. Almost a sense of order within a very disordered environment. To the motor companies, and to be entirely honest, these streets were dirty, and ready to be exploited by Car Companies and industry, which rode the freedom of America visions. The streets were so quickly engulfed, and people were pushed off the street by the mass purchasing of streetcar lines, and the de-pedestrianizing of streets which is now coined by Urban Philosophers as Motordom. Here, is where we find the sidewalk. Where ironically, the freedom which was once posed to city dwellers now is even more restricted, similar to the movement of pawn in chess.

credit: Shebuya intersection/ Wikipedia

Now at the turn of the century, People, in big cities especially are now constrained to such a small space of a sidewalk which takes equivalent traffic, if not more, than the roads themselves which make up a majority share of the roadway. Look at this picture of an intersection in Tokyo, taken at the least busy time of day for foot traffic, yet, sidewalks are crowded. How could we find ourselves as a city so out of balance? The answer? Privatization of Urban areas, and residual and built up investments and interests in the car industry which has lead to an issue of proportions within the Urban Fabric. This is the idea that urban areas and the built form itself poses resilience to change.

credit: Lloyd Alter/ St. Clair Ave

In terms of the current problem, the pressures of Rural to Urban migration are on, now north of 50% of our population. Due to the wake of population rises, there is an apparent rise of, and the need of New Urbanist culture and cohesive neighbourhood structures across the design and planning board beg for walkable cities. Author’s like Jane Jacobs as early on as 1961 pleaded in books like the classic, The Death and Life of Great American Cities, to preserve the walkable, compartmentalized neighborhoods which flank modern Toronto and New York, rather than tearing down sidewalks to make space for boulevards and expressways. She argued the city and the use of the sidewalk were for safety and assimilated cultures, but importantly in terms of walkability, contact. Jeff Speck argues that cities need to be walkable, but to do so, walkers must have a purpose, be safe, be comfortable, and be in a relatively interesting environment. Interesting how in the span of almost 3000 years, society has gone from interacting with one another on the streets of Rome, to be estranged and car-dependent and density lacking, to now being back on the street amidst the autonomous cars.

credit: Wikipedia/ Highway 401 Toronto

It seems for anyone to give a damn about Walkable and accessible cores, there needs to be industry on their side. This is one of the overarching themes of sustainable development; that social and economic development will always be favored, regardless of the expense or environmental degradation. A quintessential problem in ways of thinking amidst a global crisis. The residual investment in highways, roadways, and auto industry alone is enough to resist change.

credit: Wikpedia/ walking in Florida

The low Carbon solution is simple: walk. Whereas the only Carbon emission is your exhale. The idea of radical decarbonization and radical simplicity comes into play. But, for this method to even be feasible, we require complete neighbourhoods with proximate amenities, adequate public transit, and so that everyone can walk to their grocery, instead of needing to drive or transit, we also need walking areas that facilitate social interactions among all age cohorts, and lively cultures.

credit: Lloyd Alter/ Kensington Market

This is why I truly believe walkability and walking in urban cities can act as a glue to link realms of social, economic, and environmental together. It provides more shopping opportunity whilst taking a stroll, it supports decentralized businesses, it builds strong community through the conversations and accidental run-ins with neighbours, and most importantly it makes individuals more conscious of the city around them. The simple idea of taking the city at 5 or so kilometres per hour instead of 30 or 40 allows persons to actually perceive their surrounding environment. It allows them to understand what the city has to offer, it allows them to argue to protect what it has, or fight for what it needs.