The walking city

Today’s research is tomorrow’s design. We’re asking researchers within Arup and beyond to describe their work and its potential applications. Demetrio Scopelliti, an architect in our Milan office, spoke with us about his investigations into pedestrian-friendly urban spaces.

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What are you studying?

We’re studying the role of walkable spaces in improving cities — making them healthier, safer, more attractive, and more sustainable. We want to demonstrate that investing in walkable public spaces should be a no-brainer.

Why is this important?

Studies say that car culture is on the decline in the Western world. The recession has made it difficult for people to afford cars; the costs associated with purchasing, running, and maintaining them quickly add up. At the same time, the growing ubiquity of the Internet has facilitated the development of more flexible commuting arrangements, and new research has demonstrated the harmful effects of sedentary lifestyles.

One logical response to all these challenges: more pedestrian activity. Walking is a cheap, healthy, and social form of transit that’s accessible to people of all ages and socioeconomic levels.

This has huge implications for urban design. In the past, city planners’ emphasis on transportation efficiency produced streets that prioritize cars over other modes of traffic, often resulting in unfriendly environments not designed for the human scale.

Walking is a cheap, healthy, and social form of transit that’s accessible to people of all ages and socioeconomic levels.

Today, we know how to evaluate cities for motor vehicle accessibility, and we have begun to make great progress in understanding how to better integrate bicycles. Walkability, however, is a massive field waiting to be explored. Designers and policymakers have a general sense that increasing pedestrian activity brings a broad range of social, environmental, and economic benefits. To name just a few, it can reduce air pollution and traffic congestion; foster social cohesion; address physical and mental health problems; attract private investment; bring vibrancy to local streets; and provide new opportunities for communities.

Some cities have started to take action on this front. Hamburg, Helsinki, and Madrid have contemplated going car-free. New York and Los Angeles have developed low-cost interventions for creating pedestrian-only streets. Mayors around the world are implementing Vision Zero strategies to reduce traffic fatalities. However, few comprehensive studies on the topic of pedestrian spaces have been published.

What are the potential implications for the future?

Our work aims to establish a shared global recognition that creating walkable environments shapes better cities and, therefore, a better world. We hope that the study will support arguments that walking should be a prioritized form of mobility — after all, everyone is a pedestrian.

Funded through Arup’s internal research program, “Cities alive: Shaping a walking world” aims to influence conversations within the firm as well as beyond. We want to provide frameworks and approaches to guide long-term planning with regards to cities and transport.

What are the next steps?

Currently in the early stages of the study, we have developed a list of more than 75 benefits of walking that should be achievable in most contexts. After completing the initial research, we hope to develop a tool that will allow cities to obtain quantitative and qualitative measurements of these benefits. We are convinced that data and evidence are the best ways to influence decision makers to shift from car-centered to human-scale cities.

 

Questions or comments for Demetrio Scopelliti? Email him at Demetrio.Scopelliti@arup.com.

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