Walkable cities are more pleasant even for those who do not walk much. These cities are cleaner, safer and more sustainable than others, since the factors that make it walkable are very often just good.
Why don’t we have these cities more often?
Maybe the biggest reason is that cities are planned in pieces. Traffic engineers want to make the roads convenient and safe for cars, so they develop roads that move cars faster and more efficiently through cities. Pedestrians, houses, trees and stores are things that get in the way of traffic. By making the cities easy for people to get in and out, they are essentially draining the life blood from the city. The car is hard on the life of a city. The traffic engineers do their job well, but their piece is not the only one. Another piece are architects. They like special or beautiful buildings. Beautiful buildings are good, but the life of the city depends on the places between them. This they often ignore.
Density is an important factor for walkability and transit. All transit trips begin and end with a walk. If people cannot walk to and from, they must drive. Density does not always mean very tall buildings. In fact, smaller cities often cannot support high rises. But the density much be closer and maybe average 4-6 stories. A simpler fix is to allow more people in given areas. This might include so-called “tiny houses” and grandma or mother-in-law apartments. These allow homeowners to share living space. What is holding this back are zoning laws.
The author talks about “prospect and refuge”. Our species grew up on the savanna and we have a natural propensity to like those sorts of landscapes. Prospect refers to being able to see far. We want open space so that we can see danger coming or opportunity available. This is the open, grassy prospect. Refuge is that place we can go for safety – trees to climb or rock outcroppings to hide. Most people like a combination of open and closed spaces. We want “defensible space. This is why we dislike large empty squares of long straight highways.
There are some paradoxes of planning. For example, laws forcing better gas mileage tend NOT to save gas because people drive more when they get better gas mileage. Worse, it encourages sprawl. Driving an efficient car matter less than driving less in general.
We can make our cities more inviting by keeping this in mind. People like colonnades, porches and overhangs. Cities that have these kinds of things on the edges of the streets attract walking. Defensible space is important too. No matter how wide the sidewalk, we don’t like to be near the fast passing cars. This can be remedied by allowing on street parking or by planting trees.
Trees are the street amenity that all pedestrians like. It is less popular with traffic engineers. For them, a tree is a dangerous hard barrier that might cause injury if a car gets out of control. Of course, it is ironic that they prefer soft pedestrians to hard trees.
Trees are safer than non-tree lined streets. Sure, if you run into a tree it is hard, but the presence of the trees calms traffic. People drive slower in tree-lined places. They change behavior. Drivers respond to wide open spaces and they drive faster. So, if you goal is rapid driving, by all means clear the space. But that is not the usual goal in a pleasant city.
Our cities are shaped by choices, many of them not made consciously in context. The cities we most love are often not the ones we choose to build, as we focus on simple efficiency. The car is the enemy of the pleasant city and its benefactor. We have to decide when and where we want them, not just default to everywhere.