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Informed Design

Public Spaces and Walkable Places – Sidewalks and the Return of Community

September 14, 2021 7 minute read

It feels like we’re finally coming alive again! Putting those COVID days of WFH, isolation and staying at home behind us, communities are now rediscovering the ritual of going back to school, beauty of the outdoors, their cherished shared public spaces and the joys of enjoying sidewalks.

More than ever, walking and exercise regimes are the foundation of our general health and wellness. Walkable communities are not only healthier than their sprawling suburban counterparts, they’re also more densely populated, diverse, resilient and vibrant. Walkability is a critical concept in sustainable urban design that rates a community’s openness to walking, and lists physical health, environmental and economic factors among its benefits.

Right up there with walkability is the presence of sidewalks. They enable and facilitate enjoyable walking experiences in the community as well as create convenient, easy access to local amenities. Sidewalks are the connective tissue holding our neighbourhoods together, corridors linking us to our favourite public spaces and valued community assets that are a pleasure for us to experience and enjoy.

Spurred on by COVID, walking has come back as a personal lifestyle choice, a buffer against the seemingly endless lockdowns we’ve had to endure, as well as a gesture we’ve made to do our part for the deteriorating state of our environment and the growing need for action around climate change. More walkability in the neighbourhood and better access to essential local businesses at the height of the pandemic has led to recognition and acceptance of urban planning initiatives that prioritize walking and biking over other forms of personal transportation. Priorities that promote the idea that we should have easy access to everything we need in the community within easy walking distance of our homes. Because of the pandemic, North American and European cities quickly took to the idea in droves – temporarily at least – along with an equally temporary shift in sentiment away from using the car to achieve the same ends.

Sidewalks & Inclusive Design

Anyone who’s ever crossed the street at the traffic lights, particularly if they’re parents with young children and a stroller in tow or have mobility issues, knows about “curb cuts.” Those scooped out mini ramps you find cut into the sidewalk that makes crossing the road easy.

This is what’s known as the “Curb Cut Effect.” A simple design originally intended to assist disabled pedestrians across the street, but which quickly became so useful to so many people crossing the road that its benefits were universally accepted, such that the original design intent was lost. The curb cut is a classic example of inclusive or universal design innovation in plain sight.

Coined by American architect Ronald Mace back in the 1970s, universal design refers to the design of things used to the greatest extent possible by anyone who can use them, regardless of their age, physical ability or status in life. It is the design standard for the built environment and is most commonly found in buildings, parks, roads and public spaces where architectural design strives to be inclusive. Principles of universal design include equity, flexibility and simplicity of use, low physical effort and a certain level of tolerance for error, to reduce the harm and adverse consequences as a consequence of unintended actions.

Inclusive design is also instrumental in enhancing accessibility in every aspect of social life. Though both concepts aren’t quite the same, they are nevertheless closely linked through their complementarity. Accessibility is about removing obstacles in people’s lives whereas inclusive design seeks to create solutions tailored to individual needs but at the same time be usable for as many people as possible. In essence, they share a common goal but their approaches to achieving it are different.

Public Health Impacts

The ongoing design and policy debate around sidewalks are crucial for determining the character of our built environments in the future as well as the parameters of public health. Beyond tackling the immense public health issues around COVID, countries around the world are still confronted with growing global health matters of chronic disease, particularly obesity, diabetes and heart disease that are among the leading causes of fatalities worldwide. Obesity and diabetes remain on the rise among North American populations, exacerbated by the persistence of insufficient physical activity combined with poor diet choices influenced in part by the character of built environments where humans live, work and play.

The challenge facing municipal planners, architects and designers is to create environments that will encourage greater walkability and cycling that can help restore adequate physical activity back into our daily life. Over the years, numerous leading planning advocates and urban thinkers like Jane Jacobs and Jan Gehl have identified the sidewalk as the critical source of our urban vitality and the lifeblood of our neighbourhood life. They see sidewalks as the crown jewel of our neighbourhoods, prized community assets to be nurtured, cared for and expanded. The state of our sidewalks is the measure of our community. They are the prism through which neighbourhoods channel their collective energies in their network of storefronts and streetscapes.

Sidewalks and the New Urbanism

The strength of the idea of New Urbanism draws on the growth potential inherent in walkable communities and the evolution of local mixed-use developments with housing, shopping, essential services and work opportunities in the neighbourhoods to sustain them.

Rising out of the ashes of the pandemic, cities worldwide are experimenting with Open Streets programs, quiet neighbourhoods and extensive cycling networks to harness the energy and resilience of their local communities and give them the sustenance they need to thrive. Signs are it’s working based on mounting evidence of the growing and enthusiastic new urbanism that’s unfolding. A hugely popular movement “driven” by walkability, bike use and sidewalk use and the waning reliance on the car.

For the moment at least, these temporary walkability strategies are working, sustaining local economies and nurturing these communities, keeping them afloat. But will they last? The smart thinking says they will only go so far. And there needs to be another, more courageous step to be taken for matters to go further. It is a step that goes beyond the temporary into the realm of planning options for communities where the resulting social change will likely be more permanent.

The question remains whether it is a step too soon and too far.

— Ian Chalmers, RGD

Ian is the Principal and Design Director at Pivot.


Ian Chalmers, RGD
Principal & Creative Director

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