A Brief History of Walkability

Origins of Walkablity
How a walkable city came to be did not occur overnight. Some of the most walkable cities in the world are the ones that have stood the test of time. Take for example the city of Rome, a city founded as far back as 753 B.C.E. Its street infrastructure is made up of a system of informal, weathered, and meandering roads that are some of the most walkable roads on earth. To distinguish the successes of Rome’s walkability from others around the globe, it is imperative to relay it back to its origins as a city and the planning that it required. Rome is a city built upon the topography of the land – it grew out of seven hills and along the River Tiber, a source of transport and water for the city.  Forma Urbis Romae (Urban Form of Rome), an ancient map of Rome, dates back to 203-211 A.D. and illustrates the building plans within the city as well as the hills and networks of water that grace its landscape. Settlements were consolidated east of the river within the valleys that dip between the hills. Encompassing the limits of Rome is the Aurelian wall. Completed in 282 A.D., it functioned as a fortress for the city and its inhabitants. With both natural and man-made parameters, the city was able to limit development within a contained land area. As the population of the city increased, Rome grew more and more dense. The decision to build up, rather than tearing down for new construction projects has played a part in the fabrication of a city that is uniquely Rome. Unwavered by development, the roads that wind through the historic city have stubbornly remained compact and narrow. The fluctuation of Roman culture through millennia has morphed the city into a hybrid of a city of the past and of the twenty-first century. Pressured to move forward (quite literally), the city has adopted a number of lines of transport moving through the city (trams and buses) and in/out of the city (trains). Learning from Rome, a walkable city explores its parameters, both geophysical and historical, and from there, paths of walkability will unwind themselves.

The Seven Hills of Rome – Rome Today

A More Perfect City: the Beginnings of Suburban Sprawl
A walkable city cannot be every other city on the map. In addition, it cannot be drafted and orchestrated with a straightedge and a sweep of a pen. Walkable cities are more complex than that. As old as global cities are, it was not until the turn of the twentieth century that urban planning was born as a discipline. Over the past century, urbanists have been conceptualizing grand plans for cities across the globe. Assuming a societal position and a call for agency, urbanists have made both successful and unsuccessful attempts at planning hollistic cities. Take for instance, Le Corbusier’s Voisin Plan for Paris (1925) – simply put, the concept was to lift auto-centric streets and pedestrian sidewalks. Le Corbusier envisioned a vertical city with offices in space and residents elevated stories high. In retrospect, we can make an educated guess that this sort of plan would not work in terms of walkability. Diverging the horizontal streets in opposition from the vertical city is foretelling of what was to be one of the most shape shifting pieces of infrastructure that would change the American landscape.

Voisin Plan for Paris

In 1961, critic Jane Jacobs released her widely renown novel, Death and Life of Great American Cities. During this period, America was experiencing a transition in urban culture – from industrial and economically prosperous city centers to quaint and picturesque suburban towns. The 1950’s marked the beginning of the post-World War II era of leisure and recreation. Before the war ended, nearly 70 percent of Americans lived in metropolitan cities. By the 1990’s, only 40 percent still lived in metropolitan cities. It was during this period that cars became comfort and from suburbia grew segregation. A city affected by suburban sprawl was St. Louis in the 1960’s. The white population fled to southern suburban counties while many of the black population remained in the urban north region of St. Louis. Part of the reason for this is the popularization of car culture. Many suburban dwellers were able to afford to commute to work; money was at their disposal, with activities within suburban towns that included drive-ins theaters, dining restaurants, hotels, and banks. With development such as these occurring in areas of lower density, the question then becomes – at what price were people willing to pay to remove themselves from the once booming city that St. Louis once was?
Jane Jacobs felt impelled to write of such cities and why they must not be devalued through neglect. Cities can be powerful forces that captivate the interests of many, but for it to do so, a city has to have its participants. For instance, Jacobs begins by introducing the role of sidewalks as a stage for a number of activities (all of which must be realized in order for a sidewalk to function properly). The realms of sidewalk functionality are: of safety, of assimilating children, and of contact. To be safe is to have eyes on the path. The actors include the walker and the watcher. How would this work in suburbia where neighborhoods are focused inward and not outward towards the streets? People must frequent the sidewalks; sidewalks need users. Which brings us to the next realm – of assimilating children. Parks are pockets along sidewalks, when really, parks should be the streets themselves. In order for streets to be safe enough for young children, the streets must not be central to car usage only. With minimal car activity, alternate activities can occur within the streetscape that facilitate contact and exchange between pedestrians.

The Theory of Walkability
Fast forward half a century and enter Jeff Speck’s Walkable Cities: How Downtown Can Save America, One Step at a Time (2012). Following Jacobs’ publication, Speck in response has expressed the urgency for planners to sell to the rest of the city the idea of walkability. His General Theory of Walkability is supported by four main conditions – that a walk should be useful, safe, comfortable and interesting; useful in that it serves as a way for inhabitants to move through a city and where conveniences are attainable; safe because sidewalks are free from distractions of automobiles; comfortable in that the outdoors become livable; interesting enough that the architecture and pedestrian interactions convey a sense of humanity and genuity. Speck proposes the potential in many cities across the nation to adopt walkability as the solution to today’s pressing issues relating to health and environmentalism. According to data collected by Walk Score, the ten most walkable cities today are as following: New York, San Francisco, Boston, Philadelphia, Miami, Chicago, Washington D.C., Seattle, Oakland, and Long Beach. Learning from the successes of these walkable cities, it is clear that a lot of opportunities lie in many other great American cities. The only tricky part is achieving walkability and convincing a population stuck within the culture of cars to rediscover their downtowns and historic centers.

Bliss, Laura. “The Trade-Offs of Suburban Sprawl Have Been Plain for 50 Years.” CityLab. The Atlantic, 10 Dec. 2015. Web.
Jacobs, Jane. The Death and Life of Great American Cities. New York: Random House, 1961. Print.
Le Corbusier. “Plan Voisin, Paris, France, 1925.” Fondation Le Corbusier. Fondation Le Corbusier, n.d. Web.
Lewyn, Michael E. “Suburban Sprawl: Not Just an Environmental Issue.” Marquette Law Review 84.2 (2000): 301-82. Web.
Speck, Jeff. Walkable City: How Downtown Can Save American, One Step at a Time. New York: D&M, 2012. Print.


One thought on “A Brief History of Walkability

  1. randypeppler October 16, 2016 / 2:52 pm

    Wow – this is really amazing! I have to take off a few points for being late, but this may be the best background post written. Washington was planned but I find many areas unwalkable, which is a shame. I like how you brought St. Louis into this, since it is a city that is still suffering from what happened with respect to white flight and general neglect. One of the Speck comments really struck me – “sidewalks are free from distractions of automobiles”. We know that is a rare commodity. Even here in a college town. 36/40 for your Intro blog post, and 36/40 here.


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