Where is the world’s most walkable city?

From New Yorks cafe squares to Melbournes laneways to the walled Fes el Bali, these pedestrian paradises combine safety, beauty and consolation. Now urban planners are taking note as they seek to hand back cities to the walkers

For decades the simple act of walking was largely overlooked by city planners but , no matter how you are interested in get around your city, the opportunities are that you are a pedestrian at some point during the day.

Recently, some cities have constructed great strides: from the ambitious public squares programmes of New York and Paris to the pedestrianisation of major streets( realised in the case of Stroget in Copenhagen; proposed in the case of London’s Oxford Street and Madrid’s Gran Via.

Jeff Speck’s grandly titled General Theory of Walkability states that a journey on foot should satisfy four main conditions: be useful, safe, comfortable and interesting.

In his volume Walkable City: How Downtown Can Save America, One Step at a Time, he argues that the “fabric” of the town- the variety of buildings, frontages and open spaces- is key.

North American, Australian and Canadian cities, which were built for vehicles, have the challenge of retrofitting strolling infrastructure.

Older European cities, which were built with walk-to in mind, have good cloth. This can induce them walkable even if they lack pavements, intersects and other infrastructure for pedestrians- as is the case in Rome, tells Speck.

” Rome, at first glance, seems horribly inhospitable to pedestrians ,” he notes.” Half the street are missing sidewalks, most intersections lack traverses, pavements are uneven and rutted, disabled ramps are largely absent .” But despite all this, as well as its mounds and famously aggressive driving, this” anarchic obstacle course is somehow a magnet for walkers “. Why? Because Rome’s fabric is superb.

Superb
Rome may lack good pedestrian infrastructure … but its superb urban fabric attracts people to explore the city by foot. Photograph: Alamy

Is it possible to measure a city’s walkability?

Walk Score, which lets prospective renters and buyers select homes based on walkability, ranks cities in the US, Canada and Australia. New York tops the US list for 2017 at an overall 89 out of 100, with Little Italy and Union Square scoring full marks. San Francisco ranked second, followed by Boston. Vancouver, Toronto and Montreal rank 1-2-3 in Canada; while Australia’s most walkable cities are Sydney, Melbourne and Adelaide.

New York famously began its urban transformation program in 2007, its flagship scheme the part-pedestrianisation of Times Square two years later. The former transportation commissioner for New York City, Janette Sadik-Khan, said:” We changed the city from places people wanted to park to places people wanted to be- street space to seat space ,” she said.” On 23 rd St, where three streets meet, we created 65,000 sq ft of public space. People choose to sit on the street rather than the park .”

Like most transportation experts, Sadik-Khan believes walkability is about more than safety- it is about economic competitiveness, too. According to the UN, well-planned cities should have 30 -3 5% of their land dedicated to streets to get the benefits of high connectivity. Manhattan scores 36%.

New York City is far from perfect, scoring third worst in an Inrix analysis of congestion from 1,064 cities in 38 countries, with passengers spending on average 89.4 hours per year stuck in traffic. But what was achieved in the city – first in showcase projects constructed quickly and with inexpensive materials like paint, benches and planters- opened people’s eyes to what was possible.

Sadik-Khan now works with city mayors around the world via Nacto( the US National Association of City Transportation Officials ), recently publishing a tactical urbanism manual, Street Fight: Handbook for an Urban Revolution, to assist other planners learn from her experience.

Pedestrians
Pedestrians on the banks of the Seine in Paris. Photograph: John Harper/ Getty Images

Nacto and Sadik-Khan’s work on the Paris Pietons programme clearly draws a lot on New York’s instance. By 2020, seven city squares will be redesigned, devoting 50% more space to those on bike and on foot. The Place de la Republique was transformed from a roundabout back to a square in 2013.” Opponents said it would be chaos, but it is not the case ,” tells Paris’ deputy mayor for transport, Christophe Najdovski.” It is now a place where people can rest, where families with children and older people can come .”

Under the Paris-Plages strategy, a former road space on the Seine and La Villette canal basin is was transformed into a “seaside” resort each summer. Since the city first banned autoes from parts of the Right Bank in 2002, the seasonal celebration has expanded each year, and is now on both banks of the river.

Paris was made for stroll, but cars have taken over, Najdovski says.

” You can walk from one aim of Paris to the other in less than two hours ,” he adds,” but historically the city had to adapt itself to cars .” The result: pollution and congestion. Now, strolling is a” principal policy “.

In the words of Jan Gehl:” Life happens on foot. Man was created to walk, and all of life’s events large and small develop when we stroll among other people. There is so much more to strolling than strolling. There is direct contact between people and the surrounding community, fresh air, time outdoors …”

Fes
The narrow streets of Fes el Bali in Morocco are believed to make up the world’s biggest car-free zone. Photograph: Alamy

Cities around the world are taking steps. Madrid introduced water fountains to help pedestrians cope with the hot summers. Medellin, in Colombia, constructed cable cars to link up poor neighbourhoods with job centres, introduced library parks and widened its pavements to promote walking. Melbourne, in Australia, transformed unloved alleyways used primarily for rubbish into its now famous “laneways”- buzzing outdoor seating for coffee shop and restaurants.

Guangzhou in China has among the highest levels of walking in the world. Redevelopment of the banks of the Pearl river to create an ecological passageway has connected six tracks, resulting in 60 miles of greenways, connecting tourist attractions and sporting venues serving seven million people.

In May, Seoul opened its own version of the High Line. Seoullo 7017- a half-mile” sky garden” generated from a 1970 s motorway flyover– is the latest step in a bold plan to transform the city for pedestrians. A decade earlier, the city’s Cheonggyecheon freeway, another four-lane elevated road, was torn down, and the dirty creek beneath reopened to the sky, its riverbanks to walkers.

London is moving forward too, with the proposed transformation of Oxford Street, where pedestrians have been crammed on to narrow pavements between queues of buses for decades. Next year, the street will become what Val Shawcross, the deputy mayor for transport, calls a” world-class pedestrian space”, with buses and taxis banished. The idea is to route buses to the street, rather than through it, as part of a project to cut traffic and encourage walking and cycling in the field, ahead of the Crossrail opening at the end of 2018.

Some cities, like Dallas, Texas, and Beijing, are going backwards, according to Mario Alves from the International Federation of Pedestrians.

As well as cities where a conscious endeavor has been made to improve conditions for people on foot, some cities are walkable because of their historic centres. There’s Florence in Italy, Vientiane in Laos, Kyoto in Japan- but the most striking is perhaps Fes el Bali, a walled section of Fez, Morocco’s second largest city.

Founded in the 9th century, it is believed to be the world’s biggest car-free zone, and its medieval streets are so narrow that rubbish is still collected by donkey. The beauty of the town, in terms of walkability, is its density: 156,000 residents live in an area just 3.5 km sq. As a result, almost all journeys are by foot- and children can play on the streets.

So, where is the most walkable city? Walk Score builds the example for New York in the US, Vancouver in Canada and Sydney in Australia, but what about Paris? Or Fes el Bali? While it seems impossible to dedicate a definitive answer, Alves says tackling vehicles in cities is key to fostering walking.

” Noise and air pollution are the biggest problems for walking and safety ,” he says.” The less traffic you have in a city, the safer it is. Speed is very connected with safety and noise and pedestrians feel much more comfortable to sit down when a street is 30kph or 20 mph. When we have low traffic the qualifications of walking and cycling increases automatically .”

Enrique Penalosa, the mayor of Bogota in Colombia, which pioneered closing city streets to automobiles once a week, concurs.” God attained us walking animals- pedestrians ,” he tells.” As a fish needs to swim, a bird to fly, a deer to run, we need to walk; not in order to survive, but to be happy .”

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