Urban Planners Are Saving The Planet With Redesigned, Walkable Cities

With an increasing number of urbanites preferring walkable cities rife with green spaces over car-friendly city sprawl, urban planners have become our first line of offense in city redesigns.


May 17 2019, Updated 6:02 p.m. ET

The healthiest, most economically advantaged and sustainable cities on the planet share one trait: their walkability.

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Walkable cities are better for the environment, people’s overall wellness, and positively impact levels of wealth. Unfortunately for those of us in the United States, a lot of our cities were built around cars — not feet. For as much as folks love the walkability of New York, Boston, Minneapolis, and Savannah, they dislike in equal measure the sprawl of other beloved cities like Atlanta, Los Angeles, and Dallas.

Recent pushes for healthier urban designs across the country are changing the landscape of cities. Central Park, arguably the world’s most famous green space, will be permanently closed to cars as of this June. Meanwhile Los Angeles, leader of car culture, has found itself in the throes of an "infrastructure renaissance" to become more pedestrian and eco-friendly. And 62 percent of millennials today say they prefer to live in pedestrian-friendly, mixed-use neighborhoods.

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Experts assess various factors to determine a city’s walkability.

The walkability of a city is measured by the following:

  • Access to amenities like supermarkets, doctors, parks, schools, and restaurants;
  • Design that encourages safe pedestrian traffic such as crosswalks, well-lit sidewalks, a city center, and proximity of destinations to one another;
  • Green spaces! Trees have been shown to improve commuter mental health and actually reduce the number of traffic accidents;
  • Concentrated transit corridors (making public transportation easy, with direct routes to major hubs);
  • A design that people find interesting with public art, mixed-use buildings close to the street, a variety of architecture, parks and green spaces; and
  • Comfort and ease with which people can get around, including designated spaces for bicycles, pedestrians, and vehicles. This may also include narrower streets with fewer lanes, forcing vehicles to drive slowly.
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    You can see how your favorite city stacks up to these litmus tests with applications like Walk Score, which allow you to look up any American city’s walkability score. The group’s “Walk Scoremetric” draws on data from the US Census, Google and OpenStreetMap to rank communities from zero to 100. In 2017, Walk Score found the top-10 walkable US cities to be (in order from most walkable to least) New York, San Francisco, Boston, Miami, Philadelphia, Chicago, Washington, DC, Seattle, Oakland, and Long Beach.

    But don’t stop stateside! Just last month, internationally renowned urban planner and consultant Brent Toderian came up with a way to find the most walkable city in the world: He surveyed the Twitterverse.

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    Hundreds of results poured in; with the top-five cities voted for (in order from most beloved to least) Barcelona, Edinburgh, Venice, Tokyo, and Toronto. The only US city to make the top 10? New York, in seventh place.

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    Following the outpouring of responses, Toderian had this advice: "If you can focus on only one thing for a more livable, healthy, sustainable, resilient, successful city, work to build a more #walkablecity."

    And as we found out, urban planners are scrambling to oblige.

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    City planners have answered call to redesign outdated, unsustainable design.

    Devesh Doobay, director of planning and economic development for the City of Riverdale, Ga., has in the last 15 years also worked for planning departments in New York City and Tampa, Fla. He spoke to us by phone about the changing landscape of urban planning.

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    "Nowadays with real estate, listings include walkability scores," Doobay said. "People want to walk their kids to school, or to friends' houses. People want to walk to the town center. Even people not in cities want this. Part of the job of urban planners now is to fix things. People used to want the sprawl, which we’re used to seeing in most towns and newer cities. But now, we have to retrofit."

    Doobay said planners are going block by block through towns and cities to deconstruct where things went wrong, and replace sprawl with what he calls "community cohesion."

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    "Since the advent of cars, when people were planning cities they just didn’t know any better," Doobay said. "Fifty years from now, planners will look back at us and think we’re crazy for not considering autonomous vehicles in our urban design. The truth is, plans are redone constantly according to different times and trends. Today, we’re getting back to walkability. And for that, there’s a lot of thought that has to be put into the deconstruction of things."

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    Central to walkable cities are green spaces.

    Incorporating green spaces into urban design is critical, Doobay said. "It allows for the interspaced areas to create recreation spaces actively and passively. Even if it's just a small patch of grass with a bench on it in a median of a city block, sitting there to meet a friend and be in that green space serves a vital purpose, especially in denser, more urbanized cities. In more sprawling cities like Dallas, LA or Atlanta, green spaces can serve as more environmental buffers to incorporate nature into a city landscape. But they also answer infrastructure concerns."

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    Natural buffers can soothe the mind and attract people to an area while also providing geographic connectivity, beautification, and runoff absorption through their permeable surfaces.

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    "Taking the holistic approach to incorporate nature into the urban fabric is what people love," Doobay said. As cities go neighborhood by neighborhood to find ways to appeal more to pedestrians (and by extension, tourists), planners are also rethinking vacant lots, focusing efforts first on making streets people want to explore by foot. That can come in the form of small retail shops, or converting long-lost industrial space into parks and green spaces. Examples of the latter are New York City’s Highline, or Atlanta’s more recent BeltLine project comprised of a network of trails, parks, and transit connecting 45 neighborhoods.

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    "The Highline opened the eyes of the country," Doobay said. "We realized we could take abandoned pieces of a city and make them useful… As people use these areas for walking, jogging and enjoying green spaces, the city can make money off of it. The Beltway will be the largest greenway system in the country when it’s done. Walking is going to be our main form of transport. That’s what we want, that’s what people want. People can grab an Uber [for longer distances], don’t need car insurance, and fuel to get around isn’t in gas — it’s food. That conversation of the walkability affecting almost all other components of the human experience is happening now."

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    Slowing down forces us to interact with the environment (and each other).

    Almost all of us have experienced the palpable difference between walking and driving through a neighborhood.

    "It’s a completely different perspective," Doobay said. "You can observe and interact with the urban fabric in a more intimate way. In cities when you’re in a car or another mode of transportation (even train, bike) they’re different experiences altogether. You’re able to cover more distance geographically, but when you’re walking you have that intimate interaction with public spaces, pedestrians, and the environment, natural or built, retail or residential. It's also slower so the impact of time, of just going for a walk for a half an hour instead of biking for a half hour you see less but you know the landscape more."

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    And never underestimate the power of a good grid design! "Simple grid patterns make it easy for pedestrians," Doobay said. "New York City, San Francisco, and Philadelphia all have these grid patterns, as well as a centralized urban core. Also, the component of water is coming up more and more in planning. All three of these cities have water by them: rivers, or oceans, development can’t be encroached because the water cuts it off. That promotes density; which in turn promotes walkability."

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    That density is exactly what revered city planner and urban designer Jeff Speck attributes to America’s most successful public spaces: Rockefeller Center in New York, Ghirardelli Square in San Francisco, or River Walk in San Antonio. In a TED Talk, Speck outlined those same four standards by which to judge a walkable city’s offerings: a reason to walk; a safe walk; a comfortable walk; and an interesting walk. 

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    It’s time our interactions with with urban design and green space promote quality of life.

    The success of a city lies in the quality of life it can offer those who live there. Chief among those urban concerns is mobility through a space. During the peak of mid-century urban (and suburban) expansion, city centers were designed with cars in mind; with highways dividing residences and parks from riverside, and wide, multi-lane roads and expressways chopping up neighborhoods.

    But as our understanding of how green spaces, clean waterways and foot traffic improve mental and physical health and help to protect ecosystems, planners are working to reshape the urban landscape yet again. Except that this time around, pedestrians and green spaces have seats at the head of the table.

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