The office—18 minutes. The city centre—15 minutes. The metro—four minutes. The gym— two minutes. The supermarket—one minute. The bar—30 seconds. Life here is, quite literally, on my doorstep. Living within reach of all my daily necessities enables day-to-day life in Barcelona to unfold with ease and creates a dynamic environment in which to live, work and play. What makes all this possible is walkability—a stunningly obvious, yet almost intangible quality. It is inherent in the dense, compact nature of the city’s fabric. It is embodied in the vibrant street life, the built environment and the historic strata. It is enhanced by design, an extensive public transport infrastructure, and a diverse mix of uses. And it enables an urban vitality that sets the scene for an efficient and convenient daily routine, played out largely within the public domain.
Talk the talk
Walkability is becoming a buzzword across the urban design world. American city planner, Jeff Speck, has made it his life’s work to study, develop and implement the concept of walkability, based on a rationale of health, wealth and sustainability benefits. Firstly; the green argument. We are all aware of the sorry state of environmental affairs around the world, but how can we make an impact in our daily lives? The way we move influences the way we live, and therefore, our carbon footprint. Historically, cities have been perceived as unhealthy and polluted, yet carbon emissions per capita are consistently lower in densely populated areas.
Throughout the 20th century, however, automotive use has enabled us to sprawl and has encouraged wasteful, dispersed forms of development across the globe. The inherent mixed-use development model of a compact city offers us the best chance to go green—by foot. As economist Ed Glaeser put it; “we are a destructive species, and if you love nature, stay away from it”. But how does all this affect your finances? The place we live shapes our economic activities and how we spend our productive energies. The most obvious economic benefit of driving less is the saving made in automobile expenses, which provides more disposable income and is likely to be spent locally.
Staying local; a prosperous economy depends (amongst other things) on the productivity of its citizens. When people come together they become more productive. To continue evolving, a city must provide the kind of environment that attracts talent, bringing vitality and new ideas. To many, the walkable life is simply more appealing. Surveys suggest that “creatives” and young professionals in general—the Friends generation, who grew up amidst a mass culture that idealised city living—prefer the pedestrian culture that grows from walkability. The health arguments are many. In 2004, US scientists published the book Urban Sprawl and Public Health, evaluating the damage done by the auto age. Asthma and car accidents rank high, but most eyes are on obesity—a global epidemic, which has nearly doubled since 1980, and causes a range of serious illnesses.
Physical inactivity is as (and sometimes more) important a factor as diet. Studies have linked obesity directly to the automotive lifestyle, even quantifying likelihood of obesity against minutes driven daily. Lengthy commutes reduce opportunities for recreation and socialising, render time unproductive, increase stress and, ultimately, decrease contentment levels.
Our environment has a big influence over this. Suburban sprawl is conducive to automobile dependency, whilst walkable neighbourhoods invite residents to build exercise into their daily routine. The car, which was once an instrument of freedom, has become a “gas-belching, time-wasting, life-threatening prosthetic device”, says Speck, essential to those living in an automotive landscape where there is no longer any such thing as a useful walk.