Beyond Safety: Regulating the Dimensions of Walkability

The multi-sectoral benefits of walking on health, carbon footprint reduction, growth of local economies, community engagement and smart city development have received widespread recognition in recent years. Scholarly health publications, world renowned walking organizations like Walk21 and America Walks, real estate tools like Walkscore and Sense of Walk speak of the importance of walking and the quality of the walking environment. What has not quite kept up with this shift toward recognizing the value of  pedestrian over automobile corridors are the current local and national governance of our sidewalks. Few come in the way of policies, rules and regulations to manage the quality of our walking environment beyond the call of safety.

Walkability is a multi-dimensional phenomenon. Besides the notion of safety where we ensure that sidewalks are devoid of cracks, bumps, holes, heaves, obstructions and misalignments to protect pedestrians from falls and injuries, there are other dimensions of walkability important to the experience of walking. The transformation of our sidewalks to recognize other walkability dimensions will require significant regulatory shifts which may vary by city size, but at a minimum, reflect those rigorously studied constructs important to walking. Jeff Speck and other experts on the subject of walkability have raised a number of these important dimensions. They include comfort, utility and interest. Other experts speak of the natural and architectural aesthetics of sidewalk furnishing zones and building edges. Vibrance, access, legibility and social equity have likewise been elevated to key dimensions of walkability. In the event that a strong political will can advance the formulation of new laws and zoning codes to regulate and transform our walking environment, the integration of all of the eleven dimensions of walkability becomes essential. The eleven dimensions are derived from the growing literature and microscale research on walking by experts in urban design and planning for health and transportation. In other words, sidewalk codes are not complete if only safety is addressed. With multiple synonyms found in literature, this call to action to regulate walkability dimensions are briefly described below. These imperatives carry synergistic relations among each other.


NATURAL BEAUTY Introduce as many diverse natural elements as possible – at least 50% of the block face can have vegetation (e.g., trees, bushes, planters, flower beds) water, even wildlife.

MANMADE BEAUTY Building edge design must embrace the sidewalk – play with design elements (e.g., color, form, line, texture, scale and space) to create visual character, quality and compatibility with building edge and sidewalk furnishings.

FRONTAGE UTILITY As many compatible mixed-use as possible.  At least 50% of building edge within a quarter mile radius to serve pedestrian and resident needs (e.g., drugstore, bakery, grocery, cafe, restaurant, laundry, and hardware)

SIDEWALK UTILITY Sidewalks must have a quality of being useful (e.g., benches, shading, water fountains, art display, solar panels, and activity cores)

SAFETY Sidewalks must be injury and violence free (e.g., bollards, cameras, signals, signage, crosswalks, and speed limits) Remove public incivilities that affect people’s sense of safety.

COMFORT Sidewalks must not place undue stress on individuals – sidewalks must promote naturalness of motion and a balance of stimulus and relaxation (e.g., sidewalk width, seating, shading, canopies, lighting, water fountains, restrooms, and buffer from street)

ACCESS Multi-modal access within a quarter mile of any block (e.g., bike share, bus, subway, taxi stops, and parking). Eliminate car traffic if possible.

VIBRANCE Means energy of the sidewalk. Create features and activities that make pedestrians want to linger (e.g., music, theater, vendor stalls, dance, and farmer’s market) Create opportunities for community engagement and activity nodes. Moderate to high pedestrian presence.  Create aprons, bump-outs, streateries and parklettes.

INTEREST Sidewalks must have something worth looking at. Require permeable and transparent building edges with few redundant features (e.g., blank walls for art and landscaping)

LEGIBILITY Design sidewalks that evoke a strong image or a sense of place through, art, historic and placemaking elements contributed by the community.

SOCIAL EQUITY Absence of systematic disparity in sidewalk use among the elderly, children, poor, health challenged and minorities.

Given the above preliminary imperatives, we hope to open a conversation on how to advance walkability studies and explore regulatory changes in order to successfully rely on the quality of sidewalks and the experience of walking to keep a healthy population, reduce climate change, engage citizens, improve local economy and address the public realm of future smart cities.

Walk21 America Walks Walk Score Sense of Walk Jeff Speck New York City Administrative Code Sidewalk Rules Office of Disease Prevention and Health Promotion

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