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How urban design can promote walking

How urban design can promote walking

Health experts have long touted the benefits of walking and how even 30 minutes of walking a day can drastically improve cognition, general well-being, and productivity. With this realization in hand people are increasingly looking to walk to the food store, their places of work, and other local areas of interest. That is why it’s of little surprise that “walkable cities have a per capita Gross Domestic Product (GDP) 38% higher than those which are not.” With the growing health trend, greater density in our city centers, and greater willingness to walk more, the “design of urban environments [becomes a significant contributing factor] to physical activity and encouraging people to walk.”

A parking deck in Princeton, New Jersey.  Photo by S. Hekemian Group.

A plaza in front of a parking deck in Princeton, New Jersey. Photo by S. Hekemian Group.

Kaid Benfield, director of the Sustainable Communities and Smart Growth program at the Natural Resources Defense Council, citing Jeff Speck’s book Walkable City, discusses steps of walkability that many cities take in order to promote high levels of pedestrian activity. Among the steps Speck discusses are parking improvements, shared streets, a mixture of uses in downtown areas, well-designed public transit, pedestrian protections, and policy changes.

Lining parking decks with active and attractive uses offers a welcome improvement over having to traverse the blank face of a brutalist parking garage façade. Lined parking decks utilize greenery, architectural features, and mixed-use bases to engage the pedestrian and provide the means for encouraging an active lifestyle involving walking.

New Jersey residents might recognize such an example in the Princeton Downtown Parking Deck constructed in 2004 through a redevelopment process specifically targeted at smart, pedestrian oriented growth. The parking deck provides ground level retail to enhance the pedestrian experience and features a street facing residential façade overlooking a plaza.

Parking deck in Miami. Photo by NYTimes.

Parking deck in Miami Beach. Photo by NYTimes.

Perhaps a more radical example of such urban design techniques is the Lincoln Road Parking Deck in Miami Beach, Florida. The $70 million parking deck is an architectural feat and visually stunning. It sits directly adjacent to a pedestrian mall and actually draws pedestrians down the mall as they move toward the visually striking landmark.

A primary inhibitor of pedestrian movement through downtown areas is conflicts with cars and a recent school of thought points towards removing use designations and road signs rather than increasing their visibility as a way for allowing cars and pedestrians to “move in relation to each other”. The idea of “negotiat[ing] space through eye-contact” suggests that on a shared street where uses are mixed and pedestrians and vehicles are both at-grade vehicles will traverse the space at slower speeds because they are both unsure and looking for visual cues from other elements (pedestrians) of the space. Chicago currently is trying out this model on a pilot project that “will feature a design with no curbs or lanes, and minimal signage”. The mayor hopes that these changes will spur economic development in the area, allow for greater pedestrian interaction with store-fronts, and create the opportunity for pop-up shows, sidewalk cafes, and local events.

Division Street Pedestrian Mall in Somerville, NJ.

Division Street Pedestrian Mall in Somerville, NJ.

Looking more locally, similar improvements were made in Somerville, New Jersey in an effort to encourage and increase pedestrian traffic through the downtown. While not a shared street, Division Street in downtown Somerville does represent a prioritized pedestrian design with its transformation into a pedestrian mall. With the removal of vehicles from the street, Somerville hopes that the storefronts will become more engaging for pedestrians and that the pedestrian mall will be used for a multitude of outdoor events. Such a space reserved solely for pedestrians will offer a welcome reprieve from the more dangerous road conditions passing close by on State Highway 28.

One of the most significant urban design elements necessary for encouraging pedestrian activity is a mix of uses in the downtown areas. In his article, Benfield stresses that people need both something to walk to and somewhere to walk from in the downtown and thus it is important to provide both housing and commercial uses for pedestrians to utilize. An industry leader in this and also local to New Jersey is the redevelopment in Robbinsville appropriately titled “Washington Town Center”. The development, which was complete in the early 2000s features nearly 1,200 residential units and a commercial core of restaurants and shops, thus providing both the residential density and commercial resources for high levels of pedestrian activity. In the years since construction finished, the development has been incredibly successful, so much so, that an additional development dubbed “Town Center South” has been proposed on adjacent land. This type of development, mixed use and pedestrian oriented, plays a vital role in promoting walkability and helping people feel like they can walk to their destinations.

Public Transit in Portland, Oregon. Photo by Wired.

Public Transit in Portland, Oregon. Photo by Wired.

Public transit also plays a vital role in promoting pedestrian activity because it acts as a tool with which people can alter their trip modes to incorporate walking into various legs of their trips. New York City is known for having some of the most accessible public transit in the world and Portland, Oregon is known for the high quality of its transit. New York City (particularly Manhattan) takes advantage of its incredible density by providing a comprehensive subway system throughout the borough that is supplemented with buses and a bike network. Portland utilizes a combination of street cars, subways, buses, and a light rail to seamlessly move people throughout the city efficiently and the entire process is streamlined with a useful phone app and helpful customer service representatives. Closer to home, Jersey City, NJ is a prime example of a city well-served by public transportation with its array of buses, ferries, subways, a commuter rail, and a light-rail. Public transit is so vital for encouraging pedestrian movement and walkability throughout a downtown because it allows people to leave their car at home and supplement longer walking trips with segments of public transportation. Transit systems like the ones mentioned above are essential in encouraging future walkability and in areas well-served by transit people should seek out these resources and experiment with increased walking trips.

The final recommendation that Kaid Benfield offers in his article cites the need for proper pedestrian infrastructure, particularly the kind that provides increased safety to pedestrians. Such infrastructure could take the form of bollards, planters, and the locating of parallel parked cars as physical barriers between pedestrians and vehicular traffic. Other options include bulb outs, speed bumps, raised and textured sidewalks, and narrower lanes as methods of traffic calming and making motorists more aware of pedestrians.

A scramble crosswalk in Chicago. Photo by Time Out.

A scramble crosswalk in Chicago. Photo by Time Out.

Chicago has tried something particularly innovative with the colloquially known Chicago Scramble, a street intersection with diagonal crosswalks in addition to the traditional perpendicular cross walks. “The scramble gives pedestrians a head start on cars and allows foot traffic in all directions rather than just four”. Every fourth light cycle, pedestrians get a 35 second head start from all vehicles including bicycles, to safely cross the intersection, then during other light cycles pedestrians simply cross in the traditional manner. City officials hope that this method will help increase pedestrian visibility and allow for safer crossing of the busy intersection. An alternative method of providing safe crossing for pedestrians can be found in the raised and textured crosswalks and bollards at the entrance to Pier Village in Long Branch, NJ. The texture change paired with an absence of lane demarcation through the intersection both makes pedestrians more aware and slows traffic as they look for visual cues from anyone crossing on foot.

NJTPA Street Smart campaign.

NJTPA Street Smart campaign.

Policies should inform the urban design improvements and policies that educate both pedestrian and motorist about the right-of-way and how each should interact with the other are vital for encouraging walking. Recently, Somerville and Lambertville, NJ have taken part in a similar campaign to educate both driver and pedestrian. The street smart safety campaign in Somerville, developed by NJTPA and run with the help of the Somerville Police Department and RideWise Transportation Management Association, targets the downtown area of Somerville with flyers and additional outreach telling motorists and pedestrians to “check your vital signs” and avoid distractions. Somerset County Freeholder Director and chairman of the NJTPA Peter Palmer says “It’s also good for the local economy in downtowns like Somerville”. When people feel safe, they are more likely to walk or bike in our business districts, visiting our local shops and restaurants”.

Lambertville’s campaign was very similar to Somerville with their targeted outreach. “Lambertville is a walking town. Our children walk to school, residents walk to local destinations, and visitors are drawn to the walkability we offer,” said Mayor Del Vecchio. “Keeping residents and visitors to Lambertville safe while on foot is a high priority for the City”.

As similar campaigns spread throughout New Jersey and the rest of the country, and as downtowns experience somewhat of a renaissance, the viability of walking rather than utilizing a car will increase. The upward trajectory should continue in the years to come as people walk more and in turn cities orient themselves towards a pedestrian lifestyle. Lace up your sneakers and stay tuned!