Ten steps to walkable neighbourhoods

Illustration of people engaging in an urban space

As we seek nominations for our annual walkable neighbourhood awards, we asked the transport specialist behind the Mayor of London’s Healthy Streets transport strategy to share her ten indicators of healthy streets.

Lighter days and the first signs of spring can help give us the little shove we need to get out of the chair we seem to have been slumped in for months and head outside. While many Ramblers will be familiar with the benefits of going on a ‘proper’ walk there’s good evidence for the importance to our health of daily short walks. It may seem a small act to get up and walk out the front door and yet many people can go for days without doing it. In London, for example, a fifth of 60-69 year olds do not leave their home at all on a given day.

The benefits are not just for the individual but also for their community. The simple act of walking on our street makes the street instantly feel more welcoming to others. On a stroll around the block we can find opportunities to support local businesses. We can even get proactive and look out for obstacles on the footway and move them. I find myself often moving road works signs that have blown down and rubbish bags that I can skip round but that I would find a real hindrance if I had a buggy, suitcase or friends with me. These small acts of kindness may sound rather noble and virtuous but actually they benefit us as much as they do others. It is well documented that being thoughtful and giving to other people makes us feel better ourselves.

Clean air

It is understandable that many people are not taking the opportunity of daily local walks though. In many places the absolute basics necessary for a walkable neighbourhood are not present. For example, we all need clean air to breathe. That should be a given, we wouldn’t put up with a water supply that could not be relied upon to be potable, and yet there are over 600 Air Quality Management Areas across the UK. These are areas that are not expected to meet national air quality objectives. Particulate pollution levels are within legal limits in many places, however there is actually no safe level for them in terms of human health so anywhere with lots of cars is likely to have unsafe particulates from exhaust fumes, tyre and brake wear.

Air quality is not something we can judge for ourselves much of the time because the air pollutants that affect our health are so small as to be undetectable to us.

People feel safe

But something we can easily sense is our safety. It’s very hard to enjoy walking around your neighbourhood when you feel intimidated by people driving aggressively or discourteously. This is often a result of a street layout that suggests that people driving have priority over people walking. Speed limits are being reduced to a maximum of 20mph in many communities to help make them feel much safer. This can be further enhanced by changes to the street layout that make it clear to drivers that they need to drive more slowly and courteously such as narrowing the carriageway and tightening the turns.

People feel relaxed

For me, most critical after safety for ensuring that walking is relaxing is having an even and wide path. This doesn’t sound like much to ask for and yet this is rarely my experience. Footways are often very narrow, obstructed with sign posts and poorly positioned bins, the paving broken, uneven and frequently changing level. When walking with other people these failings can be most apparent. Just as you get the funniest part of whatever story you are regaling your travel companions with the group has to break up to negotiate a tree or a car pulling out of a driveway before regrouping, by which point the flow of your narrative has been lost and the story falls flat.

Not too noisy

Another factor that can seriously disrupt the telling of a good yarn is traffic noise or a honking horn, loud motorcycle or siren that mean you have to break off your conversation. Traffic noise can be reduced by maintaining carriage way surfacing and using a low noise surfacing (although this can mean that people drive faster so it’s no panacea).  Driving style can also reduce noise, driving calmly can make an important difference to the noise levels on the street and how relaxing it feels.

Easy to cross

And a third factor in making a walk relaxing is feeling you know where you’re going. When you’re exploring you don’t necessarily need to know your exact route but the layout of the street network can reassure you that you’re heading in the right direction. I would always prefer a layout that intuitively makes sense for finding my way rather than endless signage that is rarely telling me what I want to know when I want to know it.  This legibility of intuitive street layout can’t easily be retrofitted into places but many of our older towns and city centres already have this. Last years’ winner for Britain’s best walking neighbourhood, Hastings Old Town, is a perfect example with a street network that is navigable but still invites curiosity.

Things to see and do

This brings me on to the importance of streets being interesting and dynamic. Sights, sounds and smells that are always changing give you something new to spot. Humans are naturally curious animals, we find these changes rewarding to note. This was apparent in last years’ nominees for Britain’s best walking neighbourhood who cited this as what made their neighbourhood special. In Diglis, Worcester, Ramblers said ‘there’s always something different every time you come’. In Stocksbridge they said that ‘You can come here every day of your life and see something different’. This is so important for a rewarding walking experience.  In Newtown, Ramblers said there’s the chance of spotting an otter or a kingfisher while walking, in Salford there’s new architecture popping up amongst the old, in Hackney a new shop or café might be opening. When you’re out and about spotting curiosities you need to be able to easily get a closer look and this is why it’s so important that streets are easy to cross where and when you want to.

Making it easy, anytime

While springtime can spur us to set out on foot we really need our streets to be appealing to walk in throughout the year. This means making sure the footways aren’t covered in slippery leaves in autumn, ice in winter and sloppy puddles in spring.

Shade and somewhere to rest

It means enough shade to keep us cool in summer and shelter to wait out a downpour. It also means having somewhere to stop and rest when we have heavy or bulky bags, an injury or impairment that makes walking longer distances without a break a struggle.

Making it social

People do like to be where other people are, as long as the path is wide enough. People like to see other people standing, chatting, shopping and going about their business so we need spaces for just being on streets as well as striding along. Streets need to be accessible and welcoming to all, in Kirkby Stephens they are making a special effort to improve the accessibility of the town for everyone but there is still a long way to go in many places. A great way to make sure streets are welcoming to all and that the community gets out onto the street and uses it as a social space is to initiate a community project like DG1 in Dumfries.

Do you live in Britain’s Best Walking Neighbourhood?

Are you curious as to whether or not you have a great walking neighbourhood? There is one very simple test. Do people in your neighbourhood choose to walk for short local journeys rather than use a car?  If the answer is yes, then you should consider making a Britain’s Best Walking Neighbourhood award nomination – it only takes a few minutes. If the answer is no then you can take steps to make changes. You can use the Guide to the Healthy Streets Indicators below to identify what can be improved in your neighbourhood and maybe take some inspiration from the examples below.

Healthy Streets Approach

Circle of many elements that make a healthy streetThe Healthy Streets Approach was developed by Lucy Saunders through her research into the health impacts of transport, public realm and urban planning. It turns out that the key elements necessary for public spaces to improve people’s health are the same as those needed to make urban places socially and economically vibrant and environmentally sustainable.

Lucy has distilled these down to the ten Healthy Street Indicators. Focussed on the human experience, these indicators show what really matters on all streets, everywhere, for everyone.

Magazine of the Ramblers

Jeremy Burke

In terms of walking in London one thing that’s would make a significant difference would be to stop pavement parking. It is illegal (Greater London (General Purposes) Act 1974) but you wouldn’t think so, judging by the total lack of enforcement in some areas. I live in Lewisham and the outsourced parking company, NSL, simply will not deal with it.
I have devised and led over 20 different urban walks around Forest Hill, but some pathways are all but blocked by parked vehicles. There are some really nice walks in London, and in my area based around what’s left of the Great North Wood. It makes living in this part of London a delight, but heaven might require getting the cars off the pavements.