Suburban areas hostile to pedestrians need ‘retrofit’ design to promote walking

The average person will not walk much more than 800 metres to the local shop for a pint of milk, about 900 metres to school and just over one kilometre to work. It’s not only the distance of the journey that affects a person’s choice of whether to go by shanks’ mare or to hop in the car – it’s also about the quality of the walk, how safe and secure it is and how pleasing the environment.

However, as urban planner William Hogan points out, the vast majority of the population of Ireland is living in suburban residential areas built over the past 20 years or so which do not encourage – in fact, discourage – walking as a mode of transport because of physical barriers to walking and the poor quality of the pedestrian facilities.

A key challenge for those working to increase the levels of physical activity in the community is to understand how to increase the walkability of our urban environment.

A seminar held in Cork recently – which was hosted jointly by the Institute of Public Health in Ireland (IPH), the Centre of Excellence for Public Health (Queen's University Belfast) and the HRB Centre for Health and Diet Research (UCC) – explored how recent research in the North and South of Ireland could support national policy and local government planning to increase the walkability of our towns and cities.

Health issue
Hogan, who is a lecturer in planning and sustainable development at UCC, explains: "Walkability is a health issue, it's also an environmental, social and economic issue. It's not just about walking as a recreational or leisure activity, it's about building walking into everyday life. It's easy to persuade people who are interested in walking for recreational purposes to walk to work or the shops.


“We need to target those people who don’t want to or can’t walk as part of their everyday life and to get them walking to the local shops, work, schools, public transport, and so on.”

Using the Cork Metropolitan Area suburban towns of Carrigaline and Ballincolig as an example, Brady points out that only 3 per cent of the population in some of these suburban areas walk or cycle to work or school.

One of the major reasons for this, he says, is because of the poor design of pedestrian routes and the distances people have to travel to get to basic amenities such as schools, parks, shops, bus stops and work.

Not surprisingly people rely overwhelmingly on passive forms of travel – principally cars.

While Brady welcomes recently published guidelines on the design of streets and new residential areas, he says they will influence only the design and development of new urban and suburban areas and, given the state of the economy, the amount of “new build” is going to be very limited over the next few years.

“This means we will have to think of ways to ‘retrofit’ these suburban areas in order to introduce walkability through creating attractive pedestrian-only and pedestrian-oriented walkways in suburbs as well as town and city centres.

“This may involve partially removing or breaching existing boundary walls within many housing estates, widening and enhancing existing links with lighting, landscaping measures and making improvements to green and open spaces throughout residential areas.”

Hogan explains that many laneways and cut-throughs in residential areas are blocked up by local authorities on the basis of complaints about potential anti-social behaviour, but he says more thought should be put into the impact on pedestrian access.

Dr Kevin Balanda, associate director of IPH, outlines why improving the walkability of urban and suburban communities is essential: "The low level of physical activity across the island has many implications for public health. Recent IPH studies suggest that by 2020 there will be large increases in the numbers of people with obesity-related chronic conditions.

“IPH forecasts that, by 2020, there will be 366,000 people with hypertension, 176,000 with diabetes and 29,000 with stroke. It is essential that we reverse this trend and part of the solution is to ensure that our towns and cities are more conducive to walking – in other words, are more walkable.”

Dr Mark Tully from Queen's University Belfast observes that in line with worldwide trends, only one-third of the population meet the minimum recommended level of 150 minutes of moderate intensity activity – such as walking or cycling – a week. He stresses the importance of making our neighbourhoods more walkable and attractive in order to tackle obesity.

"A recent study in the United States shows that 37 per cent of residents in high walkability neighbourhoods met the required levels of physical activity compared with 18 per cent of residents in low walkability areas."

Another speaker at the recent seminar, Dr Colin Sage from UCC's department of geography, highlights the health benefits of exercise in attractive or "green" environments. "Research seems to show that exercise in proximity to nature has a positive effect on our mental health as it enhances our mood and self-esteem – particularly in areas with open water. 'Green' exercise also helps to lower blood pressure and gives people access to vitamin D through exposure to sunlight.

“However, to facilitate such green exercise, we need to make urban and suburban areas more aesthetically pleasing as research shows that people are more likely to exercise in such environments.”