“A Different Perspective on Walkability,” topos Magazine #110 Mobility, Spring 2020
For some time now, it has been incumbent upon municipal administrations to take note of how “pedestrian-friendly” or “walkable” their cities are. Fuelled by a steady stream of online articles, numerous rating systems, including Walk Score and Walkanomics, as well as books like Jeff Speck’s The Walkable City, the concept of walkability is now firmly rooted in the urban mobility discourse. The benefits of the walkable city are pretty self-evident. As famed Canadian urbanist Richard Florida outlined in his 2014 CityLab article “Walkability is Good for You,” walking brings with it significant physical and mental health benefits, reduces crime, encourages civic engagement and – Florida’s favourite preoccupation – spurs creativity. Speck makes similar conclusions in his book, adding that policies that aim to boost walkability outperform conventional road-building policies in terms of job creation and also help reduce carbon emissions. Without a doubt, this trend represents a positive turn away from the car-oriented planning orthodoxy of the previous century, an orthodoxy that has wrought untold damage to the urban environment, particularly in the form of a vicious cycle of congestion, ever-widening roads and pollution. And yet, it is difficult to avoid the sense that walkability has attained the air of a silver bullet: a simple, cure-all solution to the future of urban mobility. Indeed, in his book, Speck himself writes of walkability that it is: “a simple, practical-minded solution to a host of complex problems that we face as a society”. While he has made a compelling case in support of this argument throughout his work on the topic, such a carelessly apolitical statement directs us to a major issue with the walkability trend: its potential to be appropriated by all manner of different interests, regardless of their concern for improving the urban realm.
A short walk to gentrification
Evidence of this risk can be found in Speck and Florida’s own arguments. Along with all the social and cultural benefits they associate with walkability, both emphasise with little critical reflexivity the positive effect it has on boosting property values. Clearly, their intention is to underline the fact that a walkable neighbourhood is more desirable, but it’s hard to see how developers won’t read this and eye an opportunity to boost sales and rents, thereby forcing out long-standing residents. Related to this, walkable cities have tended to be among the most popular “city-break” tourist destinations: think Amsterdam, Rome, Barcelona, Venice or New York. In this case, the walkable city may again be making property owners more money, but its results are mixed for existing residents, who have to put up with increased tourist footfall. Worse than this, however, is the misappropriation of walkability in various largescale urban development projects emerging globally. Take for instance Chengdu “Great City” in Western China, perhaps one of the most widely discussed urban expansion schemes to incorporate walkability concepts. Designed by Adrian Smith + Gordon Gill Architects, Great City was described in a 2012 CityLab article as “China’s (and the world’s?) first pedestrian-only city” and apparently set to. The article talks a good talk about the prospects of Great City providing a model for other car-free suburban developments across the country, but it’s worth scratching a little bit beneath the surface to see how this has played out in the wider urban context.
Would-be walkability: Case no. 1 – Chengdu “Great City”, China
Chengdu is the capital of Sichuan province in Western China, an area which has seen huge development in recent years thanks to the country’s launch in 2000 of the “Go West” policy, which sought to develop the economies of China’s inland cities. Since then, Chengdu’s population has almost quadrupled, from 4.2 million in 1998, to around 16 million in 2019. Meanwhile, the city last year overtook Shenzen as the country’s best performing city. In spite of this growth, however, Chengdu has also maintained a position as one of China’s most liveable cities. This is thanks in part to a local culture that emphasises relaxation and enjoying nature, which itself derives at least in part from its proximity to the birthplace of Taoism, Mount Qingcheng, which lies 80 kilometres east of the city. Building off of this, the municipal development strategy has emphasised turning Chengdu into a “Park City”, where citizens will apparently be able to see a piece of green space every 300 metres.
Within this wider plan, the Great City development is intended as a hyper-dense satellite town. Drawing its inspiration from the Garden City Movement popularised in the UK in the late 19th Century, the plan for Great City concentrates skyscrapers in a 1.3 kilometres plot on the outskirts of Chengdu, so that the projected 80,000 residents will never be more than a 15-minute walk away from the city centre. All this sounds pretty good, and yet considering the recent and projected population growth, you’d be forgiven for thinking a satellite town with a population of 80,000 is hardly worth all the coverage, especially when it seems the local culture already contains many of the necessary qualities to foster a liveable (and indeed walkable) urban realm. This element of hype also highlights another problem with Great City, specifically related to Adrian Smith + Gordon Gill Architects. The architects are best known for their design of Saudi Arabia’s Jeddah Tower, which is set to overtake the Burj Khalifa as the world’s tallest building. In other words, they’re perhaps not the perfect fit for an urban development plan which purports to be placing sustainability at its core. In their description of Great City, Smith + Gill, extol its “symbiotic relationship with the natural environment” in which the distance between any two points in the city “will be walkable within about 15 minutes, all but eliminating the need for most automobiles.” But it doesn’t take a genius to surmise that walkability is also being deployed in this context as a form of greenwashing for the company: where their expertise in the construction of skyscrapers –suddenly becomes an essential component in an ultra-walkable urban development. This, despite the fact that skyscrapers tend to have a far greater embodied energy – defined as the energy required to make something – than proportionately lighter mid-rise and low-rise buildings, and also require much more maintenance throughout their lifespan. Interestingly, while Great City was announced in 2012 with much fanfare, there has been virtually no coverage of the development since then, in either Chinese or English language media. The impression one gets from the radio silence is that the whole project never left the drawing board.
Petro-walkability: Case no. 2 – Masdar City, Abu Dhabi
A similar fate probably should have befallen another urban development often cited in walkable city discussions: Masdar City in Abu Dhabi, which has proven a near total failure since its partial completion in 2015. Masdar’s urban plan was devised by Foster + Partners, whose description for the project celebrates a city which is “designed to encourage walking”, with a maximum distance of 200 metres to the nearest rapid transport links. In a press release announcing the project back in 2007, they also tout a “car-free” plan with a “compact network of streets [that] encourages walking and is complemented by a personalised rapid transport system.” Notwithstanding the incongruity of a walkable city located in a state whose primary source of wealth is oil, nor the fact that it was no doubt built by migrant labourers whose working conditions have been persistently condemned by Human Rights Watch, Masdar City is a failure on its own terms. As Suzanne Goldberg explained in a 2016 report for The Guardian, the city has completely failed to live up to its billing as the world’s first planned zero-carbon city. “Masdar City is nowhere close to zeroing out its greenhouse gas emissions now,” she writes, “even at a fraction of its planned footprint.” Besides failing to meet its lofty ecological ambitions, the city has also become what a 2018 South China Morning Post report by Coco Liu called “the world’s first green ghost town”. As the report explains, the development was meant to be home to 45,000 residents and receive an additional 60,500 daily commuters, yet only 3,500 people work in the city and only 1,300 people live there (other reports put it as lower as several hundred). Later in the article, Liu speaks to the person overseeing the development, Chris Wan, who suggests the ultimate goal is for 50,000 people to be living in Masdar City by 2030. Once again, the hype surrounding a walkable city development is completely out of proportion to the number of people who will actually be using it, and meanwhile, the average Emirati citizen continues to maintain one of the largest carbon footprints in the world.
The very essence of walkability
A city isn’t walkable if it is located in a desert, largely empty, and surrounded by other urban areas which are entirely car-dependent. And besides, even if it is walkable, it’s important to understand that this categorisation counts for much less if the context within which the development emerges easily links back to extractive economic processes. If, for instance, project financing comes from oil investments, or if construction had a high embodied energy or happened in conditions that violate basic human rights, or if development involved the displacement of existing residents, then walkability is bound to be a useful tool to greenwash these uncomfortable realities.
There’s an important lesson to be gleaned from Chengdu and Masdar, which is that sustainable urban mobility should not be reduced to a few simple ideas like “walkable” or “car-free” since these terms are too easily applied to a whole variety of complex urban development projects, not all of which deserve the air of sustainability that these phrases convey. Walkability clearly isn’t a “simple, practical-minded solution to a host of complex problems”, as Speck would have it. While it offers genuine potential to galvanise opposition to car-centric urban development, the term’s reduction to a silver bullet ignores the many different underlying contextual factors – such as those outlined above – which can affect whether an urban mobility solution is sustainable or not. Any discussion of walkability has to accept the possibility that it is irrelevant or unworkable in many places. It also has to accept that there will be negative consequences in the places where it is relevant and workable. Avoiding this reality will ensure that walkability continues to provide a useful cover for the widespread failure to deliver genuinely sustainable development.