Walkability: It’s not about the buildings, or even the streets. It’s about the experience.

We are excited to see the high level of understanding in the Surgeon General’s Step It Up call to action last week, to promote walking and walkable communities. The Surgeon General noted, “Improving walkability means that communities are created or enhanced to make it safe and easy to walk and that pedestrian activity is encouraged for all people. The purpose of the Call to Action is to increase walking across the United States by calling for improved access to safe and convenient places to walk and wheelchair roll and by creating a culture that supports these activities for people of all ages and abilities.”

The Surgeon General points out that design and land use are critical components to increasing walkability, but leaves it up to all of us to define what walkability means at home. Working in the delightfully walkable neighborhoods in and around Portland this week, we are reminded of three key elements that create a walkable neighborhood: it has to be entertaining, feel safe, and provide meaningful destinations.

Step it Up! A Partners Guide to Promoting Walking and Walkable C

A Walkable Neighborhood Is Entertaining
Being able to see into the shopfront is critical to the pedestrian experience. The trouble is, when you buy standard shopfront kits, they generally come either reflective or tinted. Clear glazing requires a special order, and therefore an understanding of how important it is to make it happen. Depending on the local context, somewhere between 50% and 70% of the frontage needs to be clear glass, to provide an entertaining environment.

The reflective glazing diminishes the opportunity to see into the shopfront.

The reflective glazing diminishes the opportunity to see into the shopfront.

However, there’s nothing that people find more interesting than other people, making activity on the sidewalk essential for entertaining places. We can admire beautiful streetscapes or stunning buildings, but there’s nothing that keeps us moving down the street more effectively than sidewalk cafes, pubs, and shoppers. Opportunities to observe other people is something that incentivizes the walker to move through the environment. Steve Mouzon calls this pedestrian propulsion, which makes for Walk Appeal.


Smaller building widths help contribute to an engaging environment, which is why more people linger in the West Village than the Upper East Side in New York. Here in many Portland neighborhoods, every thirty or forty feet, you have a new topic.

Ample studies have been done on the power of biophilia and green in the city. Portland offers it up in spades with the number and frequency of parks and squares downtown, providing ample shade, grassy spaces, and an opportunity to linger and decompress in the busy city. Researchers in Toronto found that having 10 more trees on your block has health benefits similar to being seven years younger or making $10,000 more per year. My fellow PlaceMakers Kaid Benfield and Hazel Borys talk more here and here.

In addition these benefits, green infrastructure diminishes of the urban heat island effect and helps with stormwater management, with significant positive environmental and economic impacts.


A Walkable Neighborhood Provides Meaningful Destinations
Portland is a prime example of embedding parks within the urban environment. Throughout downtown, full-block parks and smaller civic spaces are frequent and accessible. They are located in adjacency to food truck pods and make for great lunch venues. This provides respite and rest in an urban environment.


The Surgeon General made recommendations strongly encouraging cities to enable walking to work, school and retail close to home. The report also acknowledged that land use regulations are critical to making this a reality. The 21st century zoning ordinances such as form-based codes provide mixtures of compatible uses within a single zoning district, and will be a critical tool to implementing the Surgeon General’s Call to Action.

A Walkable Neighborhood Feels Safe
The Surgeon General also pointed out the importance of multi-modal thoroughfares for creating walkable environments. Many studies regarding complete streets and road diets point out that it’s more than just a matter of having a sidewalk. Instead it’s about designing an environment that slows down cars instead of policing drivers. More on that from Scott Doyon here.


This call to action has similar weight to that of the Surgeon General’s to warnings regarding tobacco. We are thrilled by the understanding of the connection between walkable urban environments and the health of communities. We’ve been told that “Sitting is the new smoking,” and is insidiously deadly. We have all sorts of gadgets strapped to our bodies that vibrate when we’ve sat too long, but when we have the pull of great walkable places getting up to our feet, it’s a powerful combination. In our busy lives today, we need a strong incentive to move it, move it!

Susan Henderson

If PlaceShakers is our soapbox, our Facebook page is where we step down, grab a drink and enjoy a little conversation. Looking for a heads-up on the latest community-building news and perspective from around the web? Click through and “Like” us and we’ll keep you in the loop.


  1. Sad if ‘planners, urban designers, form-based code wranglers, storytellers, advisors and advocates’ accept the car as a given. This takes the basic foundation of sprawl economy and hallows it, driving a stake further and further into the premises of actual change. When cyber moves from gadgets to structures, from small to large, present forms will give way to a post-automobile, redensified and more just mode of living that seems to forgotten in the euphoria around walkability.

    • wut

    • Very well said. Please say more about cyber at large scale.

      • I have worked for five decades since study with C. A. Doxiadis on the notion of post-automobile society. I later absorbed much of Alexander’s Pattern Language, Integrating this with the inspiration of B. Fuller, I see the cyber age as the one we are living in. I see post-automobile, post-oil as the future. I see Fuller’s sense that progress moves from small to large as meaning that the last thing to go will be what is under our noses, our world of houses, streets, cities and so forth as presently structured, build and conceived. I have imperfectly sought to express myself on this for all these years and must confess to failure. My latest efforts are two Kindle books Cybercommunities: A Handbook and The Visionary A Novella. I regularly opine on all this on Twitter @stephencrose I see exactly what I have in mind. But I have great difficulty expressing it in ways that others can see. Think Pattern Language post-cars. I have found reading here frustrating because it is so inured to the sprawl world I feel is doing us all in.

  2. Uses create a useful work and walkability more than the fine details of storefront design.

  3. This is wonderful.

    I disagree with the “meaningful destinations” thesis at face level simply because I often feel that the best walks are driven by the desire to be free of any sort of responsibilities. And I think that is your point, but by presenting the ‘destinations’ claim like this it distracts from the true beauty of stumbling across a food truck or a previously hidden piece of art. So I think it’s the terminology that throws me off; it’s not that walks need great destinations but rather that cities need to cultivate atmospheres and communities of creativity so that people are consistently entertained as they explore.

    Regardless, thanks for writing this!

  4. Great article.
    “Meaningful destination” is very interesting, and I think it has impacts not only for the urban planners, but also in the architecture.
    Mixing residential and economic buildings is now something widely spread in the urban planners community. But you can’t have cafés and shops every where.
    However, one characteristic of these street is that you have building entrances very often and diversity in the facades.
    In Paris (France), I noticed that there is an entrance at least every 11 meters in Haussmann streets (cf. “rue Voltaire, 75011 Paris, FR”). New building operations (and many operations after 1970’s) group entrances so there might be just one door for 36 meters of building facade (cf. “rue des poissoniers, 75018 Paris, FR”), also I’m not counting emergency exits that are never used and do not impulse any kind of interaction.
    Too often, walking (but also cycling) is treated as a leisure thing, not a mode of travel. If roads were treated as walking-path or cycling-path, sure you would turn immediately crazy…

  5. All of these things matter, and yet none of these things matter to a great degree. For example, I don’t see the value of a south- or west-facing wall of glass in my city (Phoenix), without also incorporating features to mitigate heat radiation, but these issues are somewhat unique to my region. I also see issues related to over-design rather than under-design of blocks/neighborhoods, where we tend to develop blocks more so than lots, and where vehicular traffic flow is prioritized equally almost everywhere. I’m a fan of freeways but not massive arterial streets, but I appreciate that this distinction is lost in communities that once had (or still do have) vibrant small streets. There can’t be a one-size-fits-all solution when starting from such disparate places and place designs, but we can all agree that walking needs to be more normalized in our cities and our modern lives. Here, we could do with more shade, decreased setbacks, small-grained design/development, lower parking requirements, and a host of other indirect measures to lay the groundwork for walkability. Until then, I’m cautious about signing on with specific design ideas that will almost certainly end up watered down into misapplied aesthetic notions for our next over-parked strip mall developmemt.

  6. Would love to hear the words “independent business” or “locally owned businesses” used more regularly in this discussion because that’s what we’re really taking about with destinations. Also, to your point about safety, studies suggest that an increased presence of independent businesses decreases crime.

    Here are all the current studies regarding independent businesses: https://ilsr.org/key-studies-why-local-matters/


  1. […] require these auto-centric development patterns, that have proven increasingly unhealthy for the people, planet, and profit. A wide variety of interventions are underway to try to reverse this. Some of […]

  2. […] you’re geared up, you’re more likely to brave the elements. If we really want to follow the Surgeon General’s warning to step it up, walkability is achieved at the scale of the neighborhood, not the scale of the […]

  3. […] Read the article, with links to background information, here. […]

  4. […] discussed how walkability isn’t just about the streets and buildings, but rather about the experience. And some of the details of urban design that make for great plazas, squares, and people places. As […]

  5. […] of our current lifestyle is as dangerous as smoking. Sitting is the new smoking. However, the Surgeon General recently adding his voice to that warning with his Step It Up call to action has made walking in […]

  6. […] The square provides an accessible place of solace and celebration. In the end, as I’ve said before, it’s not about the buildings, or even the streets. It’s about the […]

  7. […] Advocates for more walkable places are not only part of a broader conversation about traffic congestion and transit equity, they are part of a conversation about placemaking: The art of making places that people want to go to, preferably on foot (often connecting with public transportation or a protected bike lane network).1 […]

  8. […] on Walkability: “A walkable neighborhood provides meaningful destinations & a walkable neighborhood is […]

Join the Conversation