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Susan Claris: The Benefits of Walkable Cities - Architecture IO

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Rethinking How People Move in Cities November 14, 2014

The Benefits of Walkable Cities

Walking is many times not considered as a mode of transport. This oversight has many unintentional consequences, as walking has ample economic benefits for developers, employers and retailers, as well as a host of health benefits, both physical health and mental health. Walking is the lowest-carbon, least polluting form of transport. It’s a great social leveller and having people walking through urban spaces makes them safer for others. And best of all – it makes people happy!

Transport planner and anthropologist Susan Claris talks about her belief that walking should be at the heart of all our decisions about the built environment, as walkable cities are better cities.

Thank you very much and good afternoon everybody! My message here today is a very simple one, which is that walking should be at the heart of all of our decisions about the built environment, because walking cities are better cities. And I think the fact that walking is so neglected was actually made for me, quite helpfully, but probably not intended to be, with the opening slide for this conference, which has the focus of “rethinking how people move in cities” and I don’t think that was a single pedestrian shown on that slide. There was hot air balloons, there was boats, there was bikes, there was wonderful all sort of modes of transport and I looked very closely and I couldn’t actually see any pedestrians. The only people I could see were people who were cycling.

So, what I would like to do, and the message that I want to get across today is that I would like that to change in the future. I describe myself as a passionate pedestrian, partly because I like alliteration, but also because those two words very rarely appear in the same sentence together. People are passionate about other modes of transport, people are passionate about their cars, the petrolheads, people are passionate about trains, the trainspotters, I’ve yet quite to work out what people who are passionate about cycling are called, so I’d welcome any suggestions on that one. But people generally aren’t passionate about walking. I am. Those are my trainers, and that shows that this talk is personal to me, I did arrive on that footwear today, and it is rather soggy from my walk this morning. But that is how I get around, that is my main mode of transport. So, yes, so the final thing to say actually, if you look up the word “pedestrian” in the dictionary, one of the meanings of it is actually prosaic and dull. And I would like that word to be treated differently in the future, so walking and pedestrian is something, that is exciting, is something that is fun. So I would like to run through “why focus on walking?” Most of us walk already, a number of us walked here today. These are stats from the Department for Transport, that 22% of all trips are by walking, on average we walk 187 miles per year. I think that means that some people are walking a lot and some people are walking very little. And you can see from the images there that women walk slightly further than men, probably not surprising that is 17 to 20 year olds who walk the most, and is the 70 plus who walk the least. And I think there’s potential for actually increasing the number of walking trips with an increasingly elderly population as we’ve heard, because of the benefits that occur, and I will talk a bit more about that.

So, I think we do need to focus on walking. There is potential to get people walking more, maybe not so much in London but particularly in other cities, and it brings about a number of benefits, and I just really want on focus on five benefits today, in terms of the economy, physical health, mental health, the environment, and social capital. And in my plea for walking, it’s really the fact that walking can be a method of transport in itself or it can be part of an element of nearly every other trip. So this photograph and all the photographs I’m using, there aren’t many, are just ones that I have taken as I travel around London, normally walking.

This one, I was actually on a bus, you can see a bit of the reflection at the top, and it shows the multimodal concept for me, so you’ve got people walking, you’ve got a couple of cyclists, I’m just allowing a car to creep in. You’ve got boats and actually I was on my way to a train station which is why I was on the bus. So it`s not just say that walking should be given consideration and no other mode should be considered but it’s really that walking should be the starting point and the first mode that people think about, because it’s a component of other modes.

So the first thing I’d like to talk about is in terms of the economy and there’s some good research coming through on this. And the reason I’m starting with the economy because for many people, many decision makers it is regarded as the most powerful reason. It’s not the one I feel most strongly about but I said it’s the one that tends to win over arguments over where transport investments should go.

So, in terms of, the first point I want to make is in higher rates. This is U.S. researchers come through that shows that if office space is in walkable commercial districts, it commands up to 74% higher rates that in traditional business parks. So there is now a value that is being put on walkable places, largely because they’re places where people want to be, where employees want to be. And again, there’s some good research coming through in terms of the properties that are adjacent to the High Line park in New York, for example. It is now absolutely prime places because there are such good walking connections to get there. It also makes good business for employers because there is research that shows that people who walk to work and who cycle to work are healthy, healthier than people who drive by car. They have lower absenteeism rates, and also, they tend to arrive at work more alert, generally more happy, so there’s a very strong, powerful reason for employers.

Pedestrian spend more is an interesting one. I’ve worked as a transport planner for Arup for more than 20 years, typically with local authorities and when you work with councils to do with town centres, the conventional wisdom has always been you need car parking, you need good car parking, quality car parking because the people who arrive by car will spend the most money. The research from TFL is actually that people who arrive on foot at town centres spend more, and I’m probably living testament to this, than people who arrive by car. So pedestrians are very valuable in terms of the economy of a town centre. Interestingly Public Health England have also produced research that shows that physically active people earn more, six and a half thousand pounds per annum… not entirely sure how they got to that figure but it’s an interesting one to play around with. And also, you get high returns on investment, typically walking and cycling schemes have very high benefit-cost ratios, much higher than any road schemes.

And, I’ve put it last, it’s an important one, but is not one I wish to focus on as much, is that actually, if you have more people walking and also people more cycling, it reduces congestion. The images to explain that in case it looks slightly bizarre is at Kings Cross station, the canal steps at the back. The top picture was in September, and I just thought it was a nice image of people out enjoying the sun. And for me, Kings Cross is now a very walkable space, it’s a good area and it’s getting better all the time. The bottom picture is of 3000 pumpkins, they were put out a couple weeks ago for Halloween. That was in the morning. I went to see them in the evening when they were all illuminated, and it was particularly warm weather on October the 31st this year and it was just an absolute joy to be outside, to see all the people, but best of all, where you’ve got fountains in the area behind by Granary Square, there where children just playing in the fountains at 10 o’clock in the evening. And it was a super environment, it was just a complete joy to be there and I think it shows that if you design an area with walking in mind which is what that is, you can get huge benefits. Physical health is probably the one that I feel the most strongly about in terms of the benefits that that brings. And I think the interesting thing for me is transport can be the cause of poor health in terms of inactivity, some interesting studies that show the rise in obesity levels when you have increased car ownership. But it can also be the cure and transport can actually help to shape more healthy communities in terms of active travel, improving air quality, reducing the noise. Again, increasing evidence, particularly from TFL that transport can actually be the main way that people stay physically active, it isn’t sport, it isn’t going to the gym once a week, or playing football once a week, if you can actually incorporate physical activity into people’s everyday lives, that is the way that they are going to stay most active. And the importance of this is that physical inactivity is the fourth largest cause of the disease and disability in the UK. And also globally, the World Health Organisation shows that physical inactivity counts for an estimated 9% of premature mortality. And if you want a number on that, that’s 5.3 million of the 57 million deaths that occur worldwide in 2008. Physical inactivity is not often seen as a threat to people’s health but it has a significant impact on people’s health and there’s scary statistic that 28% of the UK population exercise for less than 30 minutes a week, not 30 minutes a day, 30 minutes a week. That’s a quarter of population not even getting 30 minutes exercise. And depressing figures: 64% of adults are overweight to obese, in some local authorities areas up to 75%. So it’s been estimated that what’s been termed as this “inactivity crisis” is responsible for more than 37,000 early deaths in the UK. That’s more than air quality where its tendency for people is to focus more on air quality aspects of transport not physical health. And this matters now to local authorities because they now have a responsibility for public health and there’s clear evidence that shows that if you have regular to moderate intensity activity, it can help manage over 20 chronic health conditions, that includes coronary heart disease, stroke, type 2 diabetes, cancer, obesity and mental health. And there is huge potential, if you look at nearly one quarter of car journeys in the U.K. are less than a mile in distance, 40% of journeys are less than two miles in distance. Now I would argue that those are walkable or cyclable, particularly walkable for the one mile journey for most people. And, last year, there was something like 310 billion vehicle miles on the road, so if you could get rid of all those, that 20%, nearly one quarter of car journeys, you will reduce that number by a lot with huge benefits.

So really, my plea is that we need to design physical activity back into our everyday lives because active travel is the most viable option for increasing people’s physical activity. The other thing I just want to touch on which I find it quite interesting is people’s attitude towards risk. If I talk to people about walking and cycling, typically their argument against cycling is “it’s too dangerous”, their argument against walking is “it’s too far” or “it rains” or I feel unsafe on the streets at night, there is nearly always a reason for people not doing things. And the safety argument I think is particularly interesting and the National Health Service have produced an atlas of risk looking at your likelihood to die from certain causes. And this ranks, sorry it’s a bit of a cheery subject for a Friday afternoon isn’t it?… This ranks causes of death 1 to 18.

Number 1 is heart and circulatory disease which is 34%. Number 2 is cancer, 23%. Number 3 is respiratory disorders which is 14%. You have to go all the way down to number 12 until you get to transport accidents, which is half a percent, half of 1%, and of those half of one percent, only 5% of that is for cyclists, 22% is pedestrians. And you’ve actually, statistically, you’re more likely to die from committing suicide than you are from being killed in a transport accident. So, I’m not saying that there are no transport accidents, there are, unfortunately, they tend to be very high profile in London, which I think puts people off, when there’s a cycle accident, is front page of The Standard, “another cyclist is killed”, but actually, you’ll far more likely to die from other causes, particularly related to physical inactivity, in your own house.

So, transport systems do have a highly significant role play in people’s transport choices and I think, myself as a planner, we have a crucial role to actually encourage people, to particularly, to walk more. And just to finish on the physical health and to give a Copenhagen fact, we will hear about Copenhagen, I’m sure, from Mikael [Colville-Andersen] later, was that if active travel in England and Wales shifted to Copenhagen levels, and that means increasing walking from .6 of a kilometre to 1.6 of a kilometre a day, so if we all just walked one kilometre more a day and increased in cycling, that’s the bigger increase, from .4 to 3.4 kilometres a day, over 20 years, £17 billion of expenditure on treating health conditions would be averted. Now you can do a lot to improve transport with 17 billion as we were just hearing.

And the picture here is Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park, I like fountains, it brings out the child in most people, they enjoy it, and again is about creating places where people want to have fun, and I think the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park has done a fantastic job of that with the cycle routes that go with the pedestrian areas and with the play areas.

The third aspect I want to talk about is mental health. Mental health conditions are improved by walking as is memory, and I think also the whole experience how you move through a place is very different if you walk through it, how you interact with it and it’s the time that gives you for things like thinking. And Public Health England have produced research that shows that inactive people have three times the rate of moderate to severe depression compared to active people. So really, being active is central to our mental health and to our sense of well-being. There was an interesting article I read the other day by a GP who works in Wigan, Dr. John Morgan, and he actually prescribes walking to his patients. He made a plea for medicalising walking because he sees it as a way to deal with a lot of health conditions. So he found that when he prescribed walking to his patients who were depressed and on antidepressants, 29% of them actually were able to give up antidepressants. And also, there were other benefits, he found that by prescribing walking, sometimes starting off with very short distances, the house to the lawn post, the house to the second lawn post away, that people were actually able to avoid other aspects of surgery as well, for example, knee replacement.

And the second quote on here, the second bullet point on here, I found fascinating, this was the office of National Statistics a couple of weeks ago, tweeted this, that the leading cause of female death in the UK now is dementia and Alzheimers disease. 12.2% of female deaths in 2013 were to do with dementia and Alzheimer disease. Figures from the Department of Health show that actually, if you are physically active, you have 20 to 30% chance, lower chance of being depressed and in terms of Alzheimer, the chances of you getting Alzheimer disease are lower by 40 to 45%, by being physically active. And I think that, certainly, the benefits of mental health in terms of walking are much overlooked. This photograph by our offices in Arup is near Fitzroy Street, this is a nearby pub that I was walking past the other week, and I think, if you walk past something like that, it lifts your spirits, you’ve got the whole physical well-being that comes from walking, the fact that you actually feel better, because you are doing something physically active and you have that motion and you get to see joyous sites like that. So for me, that’s all part of it.

The environment, I’ll start by explaining the birds. I’m on secondment at the department for transport at the moment, so I do walk to work, it’s just under 5 miles and I love it, and I get to walk past through Trafalgar Square and St. James Park, So the top picture is Lizzie, who is a Harris’s hawk, 6 and a half years old I think is Lizzie, and she is there to get rid off the pigeons on Trafalgar Square. And actually you walk through Trafalgar Square now, pigeon-free, nothing in particular against pigeons, but it’s such a nicer environment to be there. So, interesting that the pigeons don’t seem to come back when Lizzie is not there. But Lizzie does a fantastic job out there. And then, there’s one of the pelicans who always rather proud themselves in St. James Park. Again for me, one of the benefits of walking, I think there aren’t many places where you can walk through a capital city and see a Harry’s hawk and a pelican on your journey to work.

So walking is the form of transport that has the lower negative impact on the environment in terms of energy demand, it reduces noise, air pollution, carbon dioxide, and on the plus side, also good parks and green infrastructure help create better quality places and also higher value properties. And the main cause of poor air quality in the UK is road transport and the city got 29,000 deaths linked to air air quality each year. So strong environmental benefits.

And then the fifth and the final benefit I want to talk about, is it in terms of social capital. This photograph, I live in Newington Green in Islington, this photograph is of Newington Green, which, before I moved there, about 10 years ago, I’ve been there 5 years, Newington Green is surrounded by a gyratory system, the center of it was very over grown, it was heavily used by drug users and it was a place where nobody went. What the council did was to take out some of the road capacity, put in more road crossings, put in a café, put in a play area, put in some benches and it’s now, a lovely walkable place. So the very distinct social benefits I think that come about from walking. You have more people out walking at least to safer neighbourhoods and it makes other people feel safer. People are very good, pedestrians are very good of being the eyes and ears and seeing what’s going on. You have increased social interaction, people who walk more and more like to know their neighbours, trust their neighbours and be socially engaged. And it’s inclusive, the point that was made previously, walking for me cuts across all class boundaries it’s available to almost everybody and is virtually cost free so it’s a great leveller.

So those are what I see is the five main benefits in terms of what do we all do about it, and I love this diagram, this is from TFL, about whole street approach, it comes there document improving health of Londoners. I think one thing I want to point out is focusing on streets not roads, and I like to play on words, this is not original, I nicked this from John Dales, but you can play word association with street and with roads. If you tell to people road, people say “road rage”, “road hell”, “road kill”, generally negatives. You talk about streets, people say “street life”, “street party”, has a very different vibe and a very different meaning so I think the more we can talk about streets, rather than roads the better. And in terms of what we can do, some of the writing doesn’t come out easily, I`ll just quickly run through it. We need pedestrians, more walks of live, roads should be easy to cross, there should be shade and shelter, they need places to stop, there should be places where people choose, and I think the choose element is really important to walk and cycle, they shouldn’t be too noisy, people need to feel safe, there needs to be interesting things to see and do, people need to feel relaxed and there needs to be clean air. And I think the more we can start taking all of those factors into account in terms of the desire into built environment and buildings in the built environment, the better.

I finished with a couple of pictures of the poppies, the poppy up in King Cross station and the poppies down at the Tower of London. And the final thing I want to do, one of the things I said about pedestrians is: (a) people aren’t passionate about them, apart from me, and also, there aren’t many high-level advocates, other modes of transport have their role models, their champions, their advocates. Walking doesn’t have enough but I was absolutely overjoyed to find a quote in the paper last week, an article on the paper, from Ben Okri, the Nigerian poet and novelist, and is the “King for a day”. “What would you do if you were king for a day?” So his is: “If I had the power to impose my will, I would get people to walk more.” And I live you with a short quote, he says: “I would have people walk when they are depressed, walk when they are overwhelmed with problems, when they are anxious, when they are sad. I’d have them walk when they are happy, just so they can infect the world with their precious mood.” Thank you!

Susan Claris

Susan Claris

A transport planner and anthropologist who has worked for Arup for more than twenty years, Susan has a particular interest in how urban mobility creates more liveable communities and, specifically, the many benefits that arise from making cities more walkable. Susan was the researcher on Urban Mobility for the World Economic Forum’s SlimCity, and Arup’s Drivers of Change programme.

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