Seven habits of highly walkable communities

A seven step approach to creating more walkable communities.

Creating places with good walkability and pedestrian friendliness is difficult but not complicated. If a community is looking to focus on improved walkability in their community there are seven main areas or steps to focus on to create a better walking environment.

The first step is creating a fine-grained pedestrian network or circulation pattern. Dense and interconnected pedestrian routes are the foundation of a walkable community. This is most often done with short block lengths or mid-block crossings and cut through alleys. Ideally, a comfortable walkable environment has an intersection or route choice every 200 to 300 feet. This provides pedestrians with efficient access but also creates visual interest or walk appeal as new buildings and intersections come into view. This visual stimulation serves to draw pedestrians along an interesting route.

The second step is to orient buildings to the street. A building should front and frame the street. If a building turns its back to the street it creates a void that pedestrians tend to avoid. The same can be said with a residential garage facing the street. It removes the visual interaction between the public space of the sidewalk and the semi-private space of the building front. These edges created by buildings help to create the public room for pedestrians and reinforce circulation routes. Driveways, loading docks, and service access should be at the rear of buildings or limited in size to minimize the impacts on pedestrian space. 

The third step is to organize land uses to support activity. Uses need to be geared toward pedestrian interaction. In commercial areas, retail appropriate uses need to be on the first floor with office or residential above. Land uses with a lot of people coming and going tend to attract additional pedestrian activity and when properly designed and sited can help anchor a retail street. Larger uses such as theatres or parking decks can be located behind a façade of liner buildings with the access point being a point of high pedestrian activity.

The fourth step is to place parking behind or below buildings. Nothing disrupts pedestrian flow like a parking lot. But parking is essential for successful commercial places. Accommodating parking is a key driver in site planning and financing of new development. The concept is to place surface parking in the center of the block behind structures in low to medium demand areas and to site well-designed parking structures in high demand areas. Well-designed structures can serve multiple buildings and draw people onto the street. Remember once a driver has parked that person becomes a pedestrian, so parking needs to be designed to enliven and support surrounding spaces.

Create a human-scale with design details is the fifth step. Large blank walls provide little interest to pedestrians. Human scale is created through two concepts - narrow lots allowing for numerous ever-changing storefronts and the detailing of the storefronts through unique façade design. By placing a new storefront every 18-24 feet, pedestrians are drawn through the environment by the new destinations. Human scale details for each individual storefront includes such things as awnings and signage, lighting and the design of windows. These small-scale details cause pedestrians to interact visually with their environment. Even large buildings can be designed with these types of details to create visual interest and human scale detail.

The sixth step is to provide continuous access. Sidewalks should provide a comfortable welcoming environment that provides access to the structures adjacent. Street crossings should be frequent and well-marked. Sidewalks should connect commercial areas to surrounding neighborhoods and transit stops. The continuity of pedestrian access to destinations such as recreational amenities and major employers or commercial uses is essential for walkability.

Step seven is to complete the street. Streets need to be designed for more than just private and commercial vehicles. Streets need to include all modes of transportation including pedestrians, bicyclists, wheelchair users, and transit. It also needs to accommodate users of all ages and ability. To accomplish this, design principles that manage traffic such as bike lanes, narrow travel lanes and on street parking should be used to create a complete street and make it a safe and welcoming place for all users.

These seven concepts are the basic building blocks of creating a walkable community. Not every concept applies everywhere in a community, but application of these concepts in the correct context will result in a more walkable environment.

For more information on walkability in your community, contact a Michigan State University Extension Land Use educator.

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