Accepted Arguments for Urban Walkability

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Introduction

The transit oriented development approach is being adopted by many cities around the world, particularly those contested with transforming their car dependent neighbourhoods into more habitable and sustainable developments. The simplest way to describe the principles of TOD according to Calthorpe (1993) is “moderate and high density housing, along with complementary public uses, jobs, retail and services, concentrated in mixed – used development at strategic points along the regional transit system”. Yet, much as connectivity to regional significance through transit is important, it is the communities’ close interaction, supported by a walkable environment that Calthorpe claims is the “key aspect” of any flourishing TOD.

Over the years, pedestrian friendly design thus generated considerable interests and a significant amount of literature and influential policy on urban walkability in TOD’s were developed in the Western world’s temperate urban zones. Presently, however, many of the world’s fastest developing urban areas are found in subtropical latitudes (O’Hare,2006). Western Australia, and particularly Perth, the urban centre of the region is one such case and serves as the focus of this research. The paper explores the key aspects and physical qualities of built environment related to urban walkability with an intent to encourage further discussion and studies on how subtropical TOD’s can be designed to enhance pedestrian movement as well as question whether the orthodoxy of existing urban design principles require some alterations to better adapt to subtropical regions.

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The paper establishes the accepted arguments and urban design principles essential to urban walkability and develops from a review of urban design & sustainability, a framework that would encourage pedestrians’ movement and transport waiting in a subtropical TOD. A literature review is produced to confirm the growing importance of walkability and ultimately the paper explores, through field observations, how the established urban walkability principles apply in the subtropical regions. It concludes by giving some recommendations that could be applied to Claremont town Centre for an improved pedestrian friendly TOD.

Accepted arguments for urban walkability + Literature review

Recognised as the oldest form of urban transport, walking is a way of encountering and engaging with the local surroundings and wider society in a manner not quite possible when adopting other means of transport, especially motor transport. Gehl & Gemzoe (2003), strongly highlight walking as a solution to bettering the public ground as part of the enhancement of the local neighbourhood and urban rejuvenation.

With emerging concerns that car dependent cities will not be sustainable in the future, due to energy costs, fuel availability, congestion, pollution and other environmental impacts, much awareness is being raised about the importance of walking. According to US researches, studies show that there is a 30% more likelihood that compact-mixed use development residents would walk (to a restaurant/park) than those inhabiting vast motor-oriented environments (Cervero & Radisch,1996). Hodgson, Page, & Tight (2004) also conclude from their research that that TOD’s with appropriate design lead to more pedestrian and transit trips resulting in a decline in non-motorised transportation modes to reduce pollution emissions

In conjunction to sustainability issues, the intra-generational equity theory and policy also acknowledge that a major part of the population constitutes of people who are extremely young, old, unhealthy, disabled or needy to have access or control over a private car (O’Hare,2006).

Recently, considerable interest in improved walking environments has been generated as a result of the desire to encourage nonmotorized transportation modes to reduce pollution emissions and to improve public health by increased levels of walking (Evans-Cowley, 2006). A large body of research has confirmed that a favorable walking environment is a necessary condition for promoting walking and neighborhood interaction (Clifton, Smith, & Rodriguez, 2007).

Public health

The World Health Organisation (WHO) Charter on Transport, Environment and Health as well as the WHO Healthy Cities Program have recognised the prominence of urban walkability long before the urban design and planning fields.

The public health sector recognises that ‘active transport’ (such as walking, including walking to the bus or train) involves incidental physical activity. This incidental physical activity is an important component of active living (O’Hare 2000). Active living, together with a healthy diet, has the potential to reverse current international trends towards sedentary lifestyles and the accompanying health risks associated with obesity. Australia has been rated by different agencies as one of the world’s top four countries for obesity. Given that much of the world’s urban population growth is occurring in the tropical and subtropical zones, it is important to examine urban walkability principles with particular attention to conditions in those non-temperate climatic zones.

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A Perth study found commuters using public transport accumulated seven times more exercise than private motorists

The prevalence of obesity in Australia has more than doubled in the last 20 years: 52% of women, 67% of men, and 25% of children are overweight or obese.

Urban walkability principles in TODs :

Jacobs (1960) spelled out almost half a century ago that urban design qualities relating to the quality of pedestrian experience are essential to support walkability. “Active frontages” and “eyes on the street” were recognised as few of the many crucial aspects. Based on the best practices from around the world, 8 principles vital to creating walkable TOD’s are identified in this paper.

1. WALK - Developing attractive pedestrian environment ensures accessibility and mobility for all.

2. PLACE-MAKING - Creating a sense of place makes encourages pedestrian activity and liveability.

3. CONNECT - Creating dense networks of transit routes results in a high degree of connectivity.

4. TRANSIT - Locate land uses so that they are transit supportive and close to high quality transport.

5. MIX - Planning for mixed use will promote pedestrian interest, safety, 24 hour activity.

6. DENSIFY - Sufficient density and compact form make transit viable and improve walkability.

7. COMPACT - Planning for compact areas with short commutes improves efficiency.

8. SHIFT - Controlling the amount/location of parking increases mobility.

It is however important to understand that although listed individually, for a development to become truly transit oriented, we must be able to blur the boundary between these principles so that they are all interrelated

Urban design theory and practice guidelines for walkable places were mostly developed in cities located in the temperate climatic zone. In the subtropics, summer is the season of discomfort for walkers, whereas in temperate cities it is the winter that brings discomfort to urban pedestrians. The coastal subtropical city lacks the icy winds, snow, sleet, frost, and other winter discomforts of the temperate city. The pleasant winter pedestrian conditions of the subtropical city are offset, however, by the summer challenges of heat, humidity and glare. The next section of this paper explores the need for an ‘intemperate’ approach to achieving urban walkability in the subtropical city

Urban walkability in subtropical TODs - Framework

It is important to understand that in the fast growing subtropical urban regions of the world, climate and local topography are influential elements associated with walkability. Moving at a slower pace, pedestrians are prone to observe many more perceptible details and are exposed to the surrounding elements and climatic factors. Protection from sun, rain, humidity or heat must therefore be taken into account when planning a pedestrian environment. Drawing on research and keeping in mind the factors associated with subtropical urban regions, a framework of urban design principles is developed as strategies that would best enhance pedestrian movement or waiting in subtropical TOD’s. The key factors to making walking appealing are grouped in three major categories: SAFETY, ACTVITY AND COMFORT.

Figure 1 – Framework Venn diagram, 2014.

Figure 2 – A balanced street has ample sidewalks, comfortable bike facilities that connect to a network, and safe ways to cross streets, making active transportation possible even on larger roads. Image by EMBARQ.

Stimulating walking necessitates that these travellers can move around efficiency, comfortably, and most importantly, safely. Physical design strategies that could be implemented in the ‘Safety, Activity, Comfort’ framework are discussed below :

Safety:

1. Ensuring wider sidewalk can provide for easy pedestrian movement and at the same time promote commercial activity/interaction

2. Removing physical or perceived barriers to ensure that the pedestrian has flat and obstruction free band of sidewalk – “pedestrian zone”

3. Providing pedestrian oriented quality lighting that illuminated their paths will add to the walker’s sense of safety

4. Responsive walk signs at crossing lights designed with better timing and automatic changing to prioritise the needs of pedestrians, raised intersections, mini roundabouts or speed humps will encourage safe movement.

Activity:

1. Well-connected streets ensure that residents can conveniently access all parts of the TOD, thus activating the street use.

2. Developing mixed-use street active frontages promote safety, security and foster vibrant social life in the streets.

3. Attractive spaces with building orientation to the public street, visual interests, building articulation and landscaping encourage pedestrians to gather and linger

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4. Way finding aids/proper signage must be implemented to help people orient themselves and encourage movement through open public areas.

5.Transit stations should be activated by café/newspapers stands or other facilities to make transport waiting wothwhile

Comfort:

1. The use of shelters in pedestrian and transit areas/stops allows for discomfort reduction and provides rest for pedestrians.

2. Provision of footpath awnings, arcades, and other weather protection at least at certain intervals will serve as shelter from sun or showers.

3. Providing a high degree of street amenities (benches, garbage cans, drinking fountains) and resting places will heighten the image of the street and attract all demographics to comfortably linger.

4. As well as providing a solution to the heat & humidity, street trees shade and protect pedestrians from the rain. Walkers can also be protected from cars when greenery is carefully designed along curbs.

5. Sidewalk with a width proportional to the scale of the TOD area and planned walkability level ensures comfortable walking experiences for everyone.

Case studies

Subiaco City and Claremont Town centre, selected as case studies for this paper are recent both transit oriented areas developed in Perth region with a railway line passing through. The study area boundaries for each include the area within an 800-metre radius surrounding the train station.

Subiaco city -Subiaco, known as Subi is a historic inner western suburb located around 3kms from Perth CBD and is focussed around a lively retail strip of Rockeby road. The Subi Centro project encompassing the North and West of the Subiaco railway station began in 1994 and incorporated many new dwellings, business centres and commercial space. An important aspect was the undergrounding of the railway line which in the past divided Subiaco. As an exemplar of urban regeneration supporting its heritage context, the project achieves a high quality public realm.

Claremont Town - Claremont Town centre, another western suburb finds itself midway of Perth CBD and Fremantle port on the north bank of Swan River. Claremont Town centre is a significant shopping area concentrated around St Quentin’s Avenue/Bay View Terrace and located south of the Claremont train station. The Claremont North East Precinct project is an on-going project started in 2005 as an initiative to revitalise the Northern part of the town which is currently disconnected from the southern part. It aspires a vibrant mixed used development around the Claremont football oval as a step towards social, economic and environmental sustainability.

The purpose of this report, being to assess and enhance the quality of pedestrian environment, 3 methods is used to gather information:

1. Ped-shed analysis is conducted at a 400m radius (5 min walk) and an 800m radius (10 min- walk)

2. SAFETY-ACTIVITY- COMFORT assessment sheet is used to rate physical micro – attributes of the built environment on the streets.

3. Observational analysis of the site – pictures/personal experience

DATA ANALYSIS

The information collected from these were used to assess to what degree the factors discussed in the framework and considered influential to walkability are either present or lacking in these two study areas.

Pedshed ratio

Analysis of the connectivity of both TODs was assessed through the ped-shed ratios calculated. A comparison of the two diagrams that Subiaco’s street grid network provides many paths and connected streets, encouraging them to walk and be within short walking distance of the train station. Claremont on the other hand, lacks this degree of pedestrian connectivity and offers limited route choice to the person walking.

After analysing the connectivity of each site, visuals were gathered from field observations to compare one to another. The Safety-Activity-Comfort assessment sheet was then used to examine and rate each category.

Key findings

As seen from the rating, Subiaco city stands out terms of providing certain positive physical street elements that affect walkability. Observation from field analysis showed that street frontages on streets adjacent to the train station were quite lively and highly articulated. Seating areas, lighting, greeneries and shaded spots contributed to attracting pedestrian activity in the area.

It was gathered from observations and research that Subiaco’s success as a pedestrian friendly locality was also due to the fact that the City of Subiaco Councillors had established a vision statement of “The Best Main Street Village in Australia” for the area. Rockeby street, in this regard, was developed as a place to come back to instead of just being a transit street and development trends, opportunities and changes were carefully thought of so as the area’s unique ‘sense of place’ was preserved. Famously advocated by Toderian(2014) as “streets that are for people to enjoy and linger, not just move through..places that are both initially attractive and ‘sticky’, inviting people to love it and not want to leave it”, positive ideas of sticky street concept seems to have been successfully adopted in designing Subiaco’s main street. With the objective of planning not just for the infrastructure and public transport, but also the shops, cafes and the people, Rockeby Street has flourished as iconic community hub of social, civic and commercial activity with public spaces as focal points.

On the downside however, field observations also indicated a number of vacant shops or those in the process of closing down in Rockeby road retail strip. High rental rates, competition from nearby precinct and over restrictive licensing policies has caused a decline in café/retail strips and a 5% retail vacancy rate in the area (Tsagalis2012). It was also found that an alfresco dining licence in Subiaco was more expensive than Western Australia’s average and compared to a survey of local governments in Perth and the eastern states (Law, 2014).Mayor Henderson (2014) has approached this issue stating that “We are aware that council needs to step up to the plate and make some changes in order to create the vibrancy in the main street in Subiaco”. In an effort to encourage more local businesses to operate street trading/ alfresco dining areas to revitalise a spirited street and safe environment for the community, the council of the City of Subiaco has recently resolved to amend existing associated fees. As of 31st October 2014, a notable reduction in application/licensing fees, a m2 basis fee and the initiation of low-cost short term options will be available for Subiaco retailers and it an increase in street activity is expected.

While Claremont Town centre forms part of a prominent retail area, it comes primarily in the form of indoor malls which attract the pedestrians inside rather than being on the road. The main transit adjacent road, Grugeri Street, has a blank wall façade with limited or no pedestrian activity. The street is also very limited in term of comfort since the awnings size is too small to provide shade or shelter. Bus tops and street amenities also lack variety and enhancement to attract people to linger.

Recommendations

Apparent from the observational audit and findings is that Claremont Town centre has many physical weaknesses in terms of walkability in a subtropical TOD. Because similar weaknesses may exist other western Australian TOD’s, some recommendations may apply for multiple sites and can be used as a guide for enhanced walking experiences.

It was revealed from the site observations and findings of these 2 TOD’s in Perth that there is some way to go before Western Australia can claim to have a truly sustainable approach. Having established that urban walkability is vital to achieve a sustainable subtropical TOD, it is important for TOD planners to be able to adopt a revised framework of principles regarding the physical environment attributes that would work best for subtropical Perth regions and merge them with new innovative design strategies which would further enhance walking in Perth. It is also important for town/city planners to review rules and regulations in order to increase vibrancy in TOD’s rather than being over restrictive.

Conclusion

Having established that a successful TOD walkability is directly associated with a safe, comfortable and attractive pedestrian environment, this paper demonstrates that careful physical planning and good urban design solutions can very much enhance the pedestrian’s experience. It questions the needs of a subtropical city in term of its climate, topography and identity and then explores a framework of revised walkability principles that can be applied to the subtropical city.

The case studies reveal responses and challenges to urban design for walkability in Perth and certain successful elements are recommended as strategies to improve Claremont’s TOD in terms of walking experience. It also questions whether over restrictive planning policies may need to be reconsidered to keep a TOD street alive and vibrant. It also recommends innovative strategies of urban design that other projects may copy or adapt in part for design and place-making approaches to give a unique sense of place to the subtropical TOD.

Although each future TOD will deal with the numerous complex design challenges depending on particular circumstances around each project, it is the intention of this paper to stimulate discussion and hopefully more substantial research into the planning of walkable subtropical cities since so many of the world’s most rapidly growing urban areas are now situated in the tropical and subtropical zones.