How Urban Designers Can Get Smaller Cities Walking

A new study identifies two important street features that draw pedestrians—outside of New York City.

Image Flickr/Phil Whitehouse
A pedestrian crosses an intersection in Salt Lake City, Utah. (Flickr/Phil Whitehouse)

Earlier this week, my colleague Eric Jaffe wrote about the three design traits shared by New York City’s most walkable streets, according to a recent study.

After counting pedestrians on hundreds of blocks (sampled for different densities, districts, and Walk Scores), a group of researchers found that active uses (i.e., well-trafficked buildings or busy parks, schools, and cafes), street furniture or items (from benches to fire hydrants to ATM machines), and first-floor windows (measured by window-to-facade ratio) all had statistically positive relationships to the number of pedestrians.

But are these findings applicable elsewhere? There’s so much that sets New York apart from other American cities: its density, its walkability, its spread of urban versus suburban development, among others. What about smaller towns? What are the design traits that most encourage pedestrian activity on these streets?

Reid Ewing, a planning scholar at the University of Utah and lead author on the New York City paper, helped a slew of graduate students apply this question to Salt Lake City, Utah. Salt Lake is “arguably a more typical of the auto-dependent United States as compared with NYC,” the researchers write in a paper published last month in the Journal of Urban Design. Indeed, out of 83 other metropolitan areas, the Salt Lake metro area has been ranked only slightly less sprawling than average. Hopefully, the researchers write, their findings in Salt Lake City would be more generalizable to other mid-sized American cities.

Using similar methodology as in the New York study, the researchers spent 30 minutes counting walkers on 179 blocks in downtown Salt Lake City. Out of five broad categories of design features, they found that two had statistically significant relationships to the number of people on foot.

Transparency

The first key factor was what the researchers call transparency, or “the degree to which people can see or perceive what lies beyond the edge of a street and what human activity is contained there.” Transparency includes two of the three traits found to be important in New York—the proportion of first-floor facades to windows, and the proportion of active uses at the street level. As in New York, transparency was significant even after controlling for retail frontage—meaning the allure “goes beyond window shopping,” as Jaffe wrote.

Below, a block with low-quality transparency, as determined by these indicators:

Journal of Urban Design

Here, a block with high-quality transparency:

Journal of Urban Design

Imageability

The second key factor highly related to pedestrian activity in Salt Lake City was imageability. Imageability is what makes a place distinctive and memorable—a visual identity that could be made of parks or plazas, unique views or vistas, old or unusual architecture, and al fresco dining. “It may be that when given the choice, pedestrians will choose a route that leads to and past features that are imageable,” the authors write, noting that downtown Salt Lake might have more “imageable” qualities than other parts of the city.

Here, a block with low-quality imageability:

Journal of Urban Design

And one with high-quality imageability:

Journal of Urban Design

Though there hasn’t been an overwhelming amount of quantitative research on urban design, imageability had not yet been recognized as an important feature of the pedestrian experience, according to the study authors. Ewing tells CityLab there’s still much to do to solidify their findings. His team plans to extend their pedestrian activity research to other cities, and will experiment with Google Street View as a mode of measurement to reduce in-the-field labor time.

For now, these findings should remind planners in smaller and midsized American cities that walkability is about more than density, street-level retail, or any one design quality in isolation.

“Rather,” the authors write, “[The research] suggests that fully developed, high-quality, meaningful place-making at intimate scales attract pedestrians and make walking more enjoyable.”

About the Author

  • Laura Bliss is a staff writer at CityLab. She writes about the environment, infrastructure, and cartography, among other topics.