In recent years, walkability has emerged as an important factor in how desirable a neighborhood is. Realtors use it as a selling feature, and across the country — and even around the globe — walkability is being built into the designs of cities, creating a new approach to how people live, work, and play.
Although it seems like a new trend, walkability really is just returning to the logic of times past. Long before the proliferation of automobiles, walkability was naturally part of a city or community. The lack of readily available transportation made it a necessity to live near schools, shops, and grocery stores. As cars became more available, and a life in the suburbs became part of the American dream, people began spending more time on four wheels and less time on two feet.
That started to change in the early 2000s, according to Heidi Simon, partnerships and communications director for America Walks. She notes that as people began returning to more active lifestyles as a way to improve their physical health, they realized there were many benefits to living in dense, accessible communities.
“Walkable communities provide greater opportunities to engage with others, improve access to school, work, and other basic services, and [they] benefit local economies by developing vibrant downtowns,” she explains.
Communities that invest in creating safe, accessible, and enjoyable walking spaces encourage people to be physically active and increase the livability of their area. Today, Simon says, city leaders, developers, and planners see walkability as an essential part of how they design neighborhoods for the future.
For the Health of It
Walkability is often touted for its physical fitness benefits because it provides residents with a more active lifestyle, but researchers say it comes with hefty social and emotional health benefits as well.
The Gallup-Sharecare Well-being Index looks at cities where happiness and well-being are considered high, and one of the factors used to help calculate overall well-being is the walkability of each area. Dan Buettner, author and researcher of longevity and happiness, reports that a high level of walkability directly influences the happiness of the people in a community.
“Not only do people get more exercise that way, but also they socialize more when not in their cars,” he writes in his book, “The Blue Zones of Happiness.” “And active living street designs increase physical activity by at least 30 percent citywide.”
Not Just for Cities
Walkability is essential in urban centers, including New York City and Seattle, but today many small towns and rural communities are making big changes to implement changes that will increase physical activity while at the same time improving access to work, school, parks, and more. Although the most walkable cities still tend to be older, heavily populated cities, Simon says younger cities also are realizing the importance of accessibility by foot — even when a good public transportation system exists.
Today’s interest in these improvements comes from a variety of factors, according to Simon, including concerns about the harm caused by a sedentary lifestyle and the desire of an aging Baby Boomer population to maintain independence even if they aren’t able to drive.
Because of their many benefits, walkable communities are expected to continue to grow in appeal. Simon predicts that the future will see more infrastructures designed around the concept of walkability. That will also deliver advantages for the environment as fewer people rely upon cars and are more likely to share transportation.
“Walkable neighborhoods create healthy individuals, communities, economies and environments,” Simon adds. “They also improve access and opportunities for community members of all ages and abilities.”
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