The walkable neighbourhood

March 05 2021
The walkable neighbourhood

Planning Matters, with Chris Gosling

YOU can't have missed the fact that planners tend to fall into jargon, whether they love it, loathe it or seek to hide behind it.

One of the latest buzzwords, or rather phrases, is the 'walkable neighbourhood'.

It sounds like it should have been part of the planning vocabulary for ever, but I tried to track down the source and, as far as I can discover, it originated in the Manual for Streets, the 2010 version, which incidentally is about to be updated.

The Manual for Streets, produced by the Department for Transport, is maybe not the first planning document that most planners reach for, but it has always been full of wise words which tend to become misapplied.

For instance, the original document set out the idea that when encouraging the public to choose to walk, not just the distance, but also the experience of the journey is an important factor. This makes perfect sense.

Of the choices of approach into Fishponds, many people opt for the cycle path parallel to Fishponds Road rather than the road itself. This is even despite the road being more likely to take you closer to your destination.

The concept of the walkable neighbourhood has been a topic during lockdown, as an aim of town planning. It came about through the necessity of leaving the car at home for shopping and the distance to the shops becoming a crucial measurement of the success or otherwise of neighbourhoods. This is particularly important with an ageing population and for those who already suffer from mobility difficulties.

Manual for Streets suggests, under this heading, that "walkable neighbourhoods are characterised by having a range of facilities within 10 minutes' (up to 800m) walking distance of residential areas, which residents may access comfortably by foot". It goes on to state that this is not an upper limit, but that it is unfortunately how it is often applied. Comfort and convenience disappear as the magic number takes over.

The remedy for accessibility by foot is often a matter of retro-fitting. When the facilities and the residential areas are already there, threading footpaths between them as an afterthought is a nightmare task. It is much more easily achieved at the outset in the planning of residential layouts.

Even then, the classic case of where the layouts fail soon becomes evident. This evidence usually takes the form of mainly minor variations, known as desire lines.

These are the routes that the users actually want to take from A to B and not the ones prescribed for them. They can usually be seen across public land or private land that is open to the public: The grass or even plants have gone, suppressed by the path users taking the direct route. Have a look near where you live: I bet you will spot one. The unofficial accesses onto the cycle path are a prime example.

They are an example that, wherever possible, the user is king and common sense will out. If walkable neighbourhoods are not designed that way, lockdown or not, pedestrians do what they can to make them so.