What We Can Learn About Walkability From Looking at Pictures

Images of Seattle and Barcelona offer fresh insight into the way pedestrians interact with the built environment.

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Chuck Wolfe

The actor and director Orson Welles once said:

I don't believe in learning from other people’s pictures. I think you should learn from your own interior vision of things and discover, as I say, Innocently, as though there had never been anybody.

I agree, and apply Welles’ point of view to portrayal and comprehension of the urban environment. I learn about cities by shuffling my own photographs—not others’—and comparing similar human activities in different places.

I gave this a try with the images above. Four contrasting photos of the American crosswalk (the two images on the left) and Barcelona’s Las Ramblas (the photos on the right) show direct differences between people and public rights of way. Determined, mechanistic crossings on the left contrast with the ambiance of street life on the right. Photos like these freeze the activity in view, allowing novel dissection of everyday transactions which we otherwise take for granted.

In the American crosswalks, I see the pedestrians in separate spaces, on their way to a distant elsewhere, and not part of the street they traverse. Their perpendicular disconnect with the right of way is particularly clear from my camera’s vantage point.

In Barcelona, the vantage point on a walking street merges with the activity around it. There is a unity of people with their surroundings, and stares are not empty, but engaged with the adjacent place.

From thoughtful composition of one’s own, simple urban photographs, stories unfold, which both define problems and suggest solutions. But in their own experience, regardless of the imagery, some readers may prefer a crosswalk’s anonymity to the proximity (and pickpockets) of walking streets and tourist lore.

Those individual preferences make my very point. Here, rather than dictate walkability to others with my pictures, I show and tell.

However, like Orson Welles, I urge readers to think for themselves about what they see, and draw conclusions from their own vision, photos not required. Allowing for multiple perspectives about what is best in the city is a practice that I highly recommend.

Images composed by the author in Seattle and Barcelona.

About the Author

  • Charles R. Wolfe is an attorney in Seattle, where he focuses on land use and environmental law and permitting, including the use of innovative land use regulatory tools and sustainable development techniques.