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Should We Design Walkable Communities?

Written by David Kopec on Tuesday, 24 June 2003 7:00 pm

During the past we have tried many methods to enhance walking as a means of transportation, or a way to exercise. While many of these attempts have been relatively recent, the task of developing walkable communities is intricately tied to the psyche of the potential pedestrian. In short, pedestrians want visual cues from the environment that will make them feel safe, take into consideration their preferred movement patterns, and areas that appeal to their sense of aesthetic preferences.

As such, many communities have called upon the services of Environmental Psychologists to assist in the planning of redevelopment and development areas. The review of related studies with regard to walkable communities draws upon such theories as Defensible Space, human vision and perception, and Stimulation theories, which are clearly the domain of behavioral scientists. While these concepts are not exhaustive with regard to the development of walkable communities, they are three of the bigger factors that ought to be considered.

While the proper definition of Defensible Space Theory deals specifically with the deterrence of residential crime, the crux of the theory is based on symbolic barriers and surveillance. These same concepts can be extended to the behavioral patterns of whether a pedestrian will walk through a community or not. If we look to the idea of surveillance for example, we can see that communities with outside seating and more pedestrians on the street will enhance the numbers of eyes that can witness misgivings by others. Likewise, when there is more outside seating, pedestrians feel safer because there is someone within easy access in the event that an emergency such as a mugging or heart attack. Also, supporting the notion of defensible space is one’s conscience or unconscious perception of safety.

As already mentioned, added eyes increase one’s perception of safety, but also the use of green spaces between automobile and pedestrian domains will reduce fears associated with auto-pedestrian accidents. Ergo, there should be a strip of mature trees along the edge of a sidewalk and the road. These trees not only create the perception of greater safety, but will also have real beneficial effects as well. Trees, because of their extensive root systems, are formidable objects to an automobile and rarely become uprooted in an accident. Additionally, dense foliage from a tree will offer shade from intense sunlight, limited protection from misty weather, and even help to moderately reduce the perception of traffic noise and intense heat. When combined, these factors assist in making one’s stroll around a community more pleasurable. Another area where greenery should be used to increase one’s notion of safety and security is along the edges between front-facing parking lots and the sidewalk. This area is often considered even more vulnerable than a road because the abutment is free of a curbing that could help to stop a rogue auto. When looking at height differentials, these parking lots are usually at the same height as the sidewalk.

The next topic of concern is the vision and perception patterns of most humans. Many signs located in commercial districts are placed on top of roofs, which are too high for a pedestrian to read. However, a passing auto will be able to see the sign because it is typically included in their peripheral vision. The intriguing notion here is that studies show that drivers who do not see residents walking around the community may interpret the community as being unsafe. Ergo, they probably will not stop their car to get out and use the shops. Conversely, if the signs are located at street level and people are walking around the streets, the driver might say to himself or herself, “humm, there’s a lot of activity here, I should come back and check it out sometime.”

Coinciding with these visual notions are the advertising messages and commercial constituency displayed around communities. Studies have correlated the fear of personal safety and well being to alcohol distribution centers, most notably liquor stores. Therefore, if there is a significant presence of alcohol stores and/or alcohol advertising in a community, many will perceive that community as being more risky than it probably is in actuality. So, to recap, signs should be placed where they will benefit the pedestrian, and monitor the type of advertising as to not let perceptually deviant businesses dominate the community’s advertising space.

The last concept to be discussed here is the one of Stimulation Theory. Most individuals have certain thresholds of how much stimulation they can handle. Sight, sound, smell, and touch are all examples of stimulation sources. So, if the sidewalks are too narrow then people will be more apt to bump into one another, hear others conversations, smell those who tend to be more aromatic, and constantly watch where they are going. The combination of these factors may push an individual’s stimulation threshold over their desired level and hence leave a negative impression.

Likewise, commercial areas along bus routes and through-traffic corridors are often viewed negatively. Busses, with diesel engines especially, tend to be quite noisy when slowing down and again when accelerating. The screeching noise of the breaks followed by the roar of their engines is a strong deterrent to pedestrian activity. But, perhaps even worse than busses is when the community’s predominant commercial area is part of through-traffic corridor. These communities tend to not only fall victim to busses but also larger delivery trucks which increase vehicle traffic. Because these vehicles, unlike many city busses that operate on natural gas or electricity, emit air polluting gases and the pedestrian is faced with both air and noise pollution. Along with noise and air stimuli are the visual stimuli. Commercial corridors with buildings that have incongruent color patterns and architectural styles will increase one’s visual stimuli. Please note that I am not talking about uniformity, but rather incongruence. Meaning, do the buildings flow from one to another, or are the setbacks varied, are the colors contrasting, or do the architectural styles clash?

While I could write an entire textbook on how to develop walkable communities, I have provided a few of the psychological variables that impact whether or not an individual will choose to walk within a community. Clearly there is a great deal that goes into the development of communities, and if we are to have successful walkable communities than we need to take a collaborative approach.

City planners are clearly needed to monitor environmental congruence, traffic flows, and business constituency. Likewise, architects are needed to assist with the visual appeal and the development of scenes that are visually stimulating. However, environmental psychologists are just as important because they will be able to predict human behaviors, perceptions and responses to various initiatives. When people are over stimulated, fear for personal safety, and/or hold negative perceptions they will not expose themselves. Ergo, communities wishing to become more pedestrian oriented may want to consider bringing in behavioral specialist such as an environmental psychologist when their goal is to develop an active commercial center and all-around walkable community.

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