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Walkable Communities: The Physical Environment

Written by David Kopec on Monday, 03 November 2003 6:00 pm

How one perceives the safety of a community is a strong indicator of whether or not they will expose themselves by walking. One's perception of safety, however, is not an exclusive factor when determining if a city is walkable. Other factors related to the physical environment and how one perceives that environment can be just as important.

Research conducted by well-established thought-leaders have shown that physical environments which contain unique attributes to stimulate the mind, landmarks that assist in a person's ability to find their way, and strategically placed nodes to focus behaviors all help to promote pedestrian use within a community. To illustrate what I am writing about in this article, I am going to use the city of Palm Springs California as an example.

The first idea to be discussed is the unique attributes that stimulate the mind, or a sense of mystery. As people move through environments most prefer some level of congruence, but too much congruence can lead to boredom. This is why it behooves community planners to incorporate unique features that lend themselves to conversation or intrigue.

The commercial boulevard in Palm Springs, for example, contains several of these features dispersed throughout the district. As one enters the commercial district from the North they are greeted with a large water fountain that is more reminiscent of a colorful piece of abstract art. As people watch this moving piece of art, which operates by filling and dumping large cylindrical tubes of water, many have asked the question, "is it art or a fountain?"

Moving down the boulevard and slightly down a side street is another fountain. To the average eye this fountain may not appear as a fountain because there is no base, and it's built as part of the pedestrian path. This fountain spits bursts of water into the air at random intervals and heights. While one might contend that a pedestrian might become annoyed by walking through this fountain only to be goosed by a spurt of water, most soon comprehend that it's a fountain because of its regularity and the obvious holes in the concrete. Instead, what I have witnessed is people standing around and watching this fountain in anticipation of where the next spurt of water will derive. Some younger people even seem to enjoy the challenge of dodging the spurts of water.

Continuing down the main boulevard one will ultimately arrive at a restaurant that uses large clear pillars filled with bubbling water as part of the built architecture. At first glance one wonders if these pillars are large fish tanks. Due to their physical size and the fact that they are filled with water, many passersby's often stop to simply marvel at their uniqueness.

Along the sidewalk people are also entertained by yet another unique feature. Because Palm Springs has built its reputation as being a playground for the rich and famous, it makes perfect sense that they would mimic Hollywood Boulevard by imbedding their own version of brass stars into the sidewalks. These stars pay tribute to the various achievements of local residents from writers of literature, entertainers, all the way to philanthropic deeds. If these features were not enough, as people pass one of the nodes they will be greeted by a statue, which pays homage to past community heroes. As you can see these unique features have the ability to serve as both landmarks for one to orient themselves, as well as providing a source of entertainment for those walking along the street.

As you might have already deduced, many of the elements of mystery and intrigue that I have discussed can also double as landmarks for pedestrians to orient themselves and find their way. Landmarks are those features which stand out in one's mind and allow them to orient him or herself; or wayfind. Interestingly, a couple of studies that have been conducted with regard to wayfinding and show that younger children rarely rely on methods such as written words or numbers to find their way. Instead, they rely more on landmarks such as the varying architecture of homes, individualized lawn ornamentation, or certain forms of landscaping.

However, this method or orienting one's self by using landmarks is not limited to children. When I was interviewing people in Palm Springs for a study that I was working on I came across this older gentleman who likes to ride his bike around the community. Being fairly new to the community, he told me how he suddenly found himself lost one day while out for a ride. After a moment of panic, he surveyed the area around him and spotted Bob Hope's house with its unique dome shaped architecture, and he then knew which direction he needed to go to find his way home. He told me that if this landmark had not been available he might not have ridden his bike as far the next time for fear of getting lost; and now, he routinely uses that house to help orient himself.

This use of a landmark is only one example. Landmarks can also help individuals to judge their distance, which can be very important when starting an exercise regime, or when one suddenly feels ill. This method of using landmarks works something like this: it's about five minutes from this fountain to the statue of Sonny Bono, my car is then only 2 minutes from the statue. By providing these small reference goals one is less likely to suffer from anxiety when in a foreign place, and encourage more people to use the streets. Landmarks can range from anything I have already discussed to the use of more mundane objects such as traffic lights (some people count the number of lights) and the establishment of certain kinds of businesses (i.e. turn right at the Starbucks).

The last concept to be discussed in this article is the strategic placement of nodes. A node is a place where people tend to gather and behaviors can be focused. In older, more rural areas nodes might take the form of a town square. In urban areas, this might look like a small urban park.

Urban nodes should have distinguishing characteristics to separate them from other environmental features. The use of grass, benches, fountains, and/or statures set back from the main sidewalk can all be used. The key and importance of a node in which I am speaking of is the designation of space designed for social interaction. Perhaps it is used for groups of people to rest for a moment while organizing the packages they carry, other times nodes are used as a source of recreation especially for the elderly who like to sit and watch people as they pass, and sometimes these nodes are used as a place for people to enjoy street food such as pretzels, ice cream, coffee, etc.

The node in Palm Springs is about half way through the main commercial district and it contains a small grassy area, and a fountain with the perimeter of its base doubling as a bench. Also included in this node is a source for information as well as a host of other amenities that might be needed by the average pedestrian.

To recap, places deemed as walkable should have items and aspects that promote a sense of uniqueness or mystery. As stated above, congruence is important to human perception, however, too much congruence will lead to perceptions of sterility and too little congruence will lead to perceptions of instability. Items such as landscaping, architecture, memorials/tributes all help to create that sense of mystery.

We also need landmarks. While landmarks can include mundane attributes such as areas with cobble stone crosswalks, traffic lights, and other basic planning tools, a good landmark will be one that stands out in one's mind such as statues, fountains, gardens etc. However, when opting for the more simple landmarks one must be careful that these components do not get lost or incorporated into the total community picture. What I mean here is that as the community increases in its congruence, (looking alike) a terra cotta cobble stone crosswalk may get lumped in with the terra cotta buildings, thus losing its ability to stand out in one's mind and be used as a landmark.

The final variable that I spoke of was in relation to nodes. People need places to meet up with others, a place to sit, and a place to organize one's self. These places need to be off of the sidewalk, need to have basic amenities, and also make people feel comfortable. Communities that encourage pedestrian activity do not have to be as grand as what I described in Palm Springs, however, they should contain some of the components that were illustrated.

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