Such confronting statistics raise questions about the future health and sustainability implications of our transit mode choices. Planners, urban designers and landscape architects, face a great challenge in supporting this ‘healthier’ form of transport and decreasing our love affair with automobiles.
Walking is the most sustainable form of transport. It is directly associated with numerous health, social, environmental and economic benefits. Nonetheless, there are considerable barriers hindering walkability in suburbs, ranging from psychological (perceived safety concerns, lack of time), to natural (weather, topography), to built form (presence of footpaths, distance).
A study at the University of Western Sydney has challenged the relationship between built form and functional walking practice, questioning whether the design of suburbs has any affect on walking habits; and if so, how do professionals retrofit ‘unwalkable’ suburbs?
Post-1970 metropolitan suburbs were centred on culs-de-sac, creating a greater reliance on private vehicles. Light-years away from Clarence Perry’s design of a ‘Typical Neighbourhood Unit’ (1920s), much of current-day suburbia continues to fail to meet Perry’s benchmark of walkability: that is living in an environment which encourages residents to walk to local shops and provides open spaces and schools within a maximum 10-minute walk.
In Sydney, neighbourhoods such as Bella Vista and Crestwood are prime examples of car-oriented spaces, exhibiting segregated land uses, minimal footpath provision, and curvilinear street layouts. Conversely, Rouse Hill, located eight kilometres from Bella Vista, is regarded as an example of sustainable suburban design. It integrates mixed land uses and housing options, pedestrian priority and a hybrid street layout conforming to 400m/800m walkable catchments. Such design features provide the new community with walkable urban design features from the outset, encouraging residents to engage in functional walking.
Desire to increase own pedestrian activity
In a survey of walking practice across three suburbs with contrasting urban design strategies in Sydney’s north-west (Rouse Hill, Epping and Bella Vista), informants expressed a strong desire to increase their own pedestrian activity but felt there were a number of barriers preventing them from doing so. Lifestyle changes, including time constraints due to increased working hours, shopping centres becoming larger and further apart, grocery chains providing low-priced products, and increased concern for safety all impact walkability.
At a Local Government level, difficulties in establishing walking school buses, as well as funding limitations, have hindered any desire to actively retrofit ‘unhealthy’ environments. On an encouraging note, in recent year developers have shifted their priorities to ensure that healthier environments are produced, incorporating theories such as New Urbanism to provide practical urban design solutions. The study recommends retrofitting ‘unwalkable’ suburbs and encouraging walkability through increasing densities and introducing mixed-use zoning around daily activity hubs; giving new life to neglected and dated corner shops; enhancing the pedestrian environment, through traffic calming devices, CPTED strategies; and promoting walking school buses.
Integrating such urban design strategies into suburban design will go a long way to facilitate greater walking habits in suburbs. Sadly for many residents, choosing the car as a cheap, convenient, and time efficient mode of transport for local trips remains the reality.