Voting with our feet

Can walking change the face of a city?

Desire lines are the pathways worn into the ground by people walking where they want to walk. They are the shortcuts formed when people leave sidewalks in favour of a more direct route. They are a physical record of how people prefer to get around. This makes them an important resource for planners and urban thinkers. 

Most importantly, they reveal the gap between what people want and what their cities offer. These days, in the midst of a pandemic, more of us are expressing our walking desires. But our attitude to walking has changed. It’s how we get exercise, take a mental-health break and even get a little entertainment. That has prompted a host of changes in North American cities.

Walkability isn’t just only a matter of how we get around. How we come to rest is also critical. In New York City, COVID-19 highlighted important features of urban life. Parks became critical for those who needed to stretch their legs. And stoops once again proved their worth as urban infrastructure. People sitting on the steps in front of their buildings could get a little fresh air. They could also socialize with their neighbours while maintaining social distance. In New York, those buildings with stoops are generally built right up to the sidewalk. The stoops serve as extension of public space. 

In other cities, balconies served these purposes. Both are examples of how this pandemic made us evaluate our buildings anew. In turn this brought new attention to how buildings affect walkability. It’s long been known that walkability was not just a function of sidewalk width. That’s why cities encourage street-level retail in new residential buildings. 

Brian O’Looney is an American architect who has studied these issues for some 15 years. The result is Increments of Neighborhood: A Compendium of Built Types for Walkable and Vibrant Communities. 

In the textbook, O’Looney, lists 24 types of single-family homes and discusses how they work in walkable neighbourhoods. These include townhouses, stacked units and other attempts to address the missing middle. Throughout, O’Looney remains a realist. He always keeps North American markets and building codes in mind.

No one really knows what the effects of COVID-19 will be on cities. It’s a safe bet that walkability will have new urgency when we are allowed to rub shoulders again.

April 30th, 2020
Updated: May 4th, 2020

The pandemic has changed the notion of walkability.