I’ve recently written about two very different street environments: Brasilia, which has streets that are extremely hostile to pedestrians, and Denver, where the 16th Street Mall is a pleasure to stroll.
The underlying assumption behind both of those posts is that walking — while traveling or otherwise — matters. After all, we spend a lot of time simply getting from place to place, so one of the most important measures of a good place is how pleasurable it is to move about it.
With that in mind here are a few things that make a place enjoyable for walking around:
Where I live in Los Angeles, the weather is generally good and there are plenty of stores and restaurants within walking distance. But many people nevertheless choose not to walk.
A big part of that is because LA’s big, wide streets filled with multiple lanes of speeding traffic are really loud. In some cases, the traffic is so loud it’s hard to have a conversation, let alone imagine someone wanting to sit at a sidewalk cafe.
The opposite might be Venice, much of which is so quiet (there are no cars, of course) that you can have a whispered conversation. In other older cities, narrower streets and lanes keep cars moving more slowly, which cuts down significantly on the noise.
2. Good “street engagement”
City planners use the term “street engagement” to mean the way buildings interact with the rest of the street. The idea is that a good street should be visually interesting to people walking by. Traditional, older cities are usually a good example of this: often there are shops every 15-20 feet or so; often there are visually diverse building facades; and the buildings come right up to the sidewalk and tend to be between three and 8 stories tall — but not, say, 50.
Paris is sometimes used as the ideal example of this kind of design. It is great for strolling, but I find the more chaotic design of Rome more interesting than Paris’s long, straight streets and relatively uniform architecture. Either way though, they’re both good examples.
By contrast, if you’ve walked around many newer cities, you’ve probably experienced endless parking lots, tall retaining walls, imposing fences, or buildings that are either two tall or two small. There’s a reason people don’t walk as much in these environments, and it’s because they’re harsh unpleasant places.
One of the best indicators of how well a place is designed is if it’s filled with people. Denver’s 16th Street Mall is bustling because people like it and want to be there. The center of Brasilia is the opposite. But generally, people tend to intuitively know if a place feels right, and gravitate accordingly.
One useful way to gauge if a place is working is to return at different times of the day. Occasionally, a place will fill with people during rush hour, but will be all but abandoned during off-hours. I’ve also seen parks that fill with people when there are sponsored events, but are fairly derelict the rest of the time. Places like that are probably lacking something, and in my experience aren’t that pleasant to explore or stroll in.
— Jim Dalrymple II