Walkability and health.

It is recommended that for good health we walk 10,000 steps per day (Tudor-Locke and Bassett, 2004). However, since the 1970s the number of people walking has steadily declined both in frequency and duration. It is now estimated that the average time people spend walking per day is just ten minutes; at an average pace this is closer to 1000 steps and not enough to demonstrate measurable health benefits (unless of course we connect with nature in that time). A fifth of adults only walk for 20 minutes once per year (or less) and a sixth of children never walk for this long (DoT, 2013). A stark contrast to what would have been the walking habits of their parents and grandparents as children.

Many factors have perhaps contributed to this reduction in walking. Movement out of cities could be one, with statistics showing that residents of London walk 292 miles per year but rural people just 122 miles (Pretty et al, 2017). Within cities themselves, there are other factors though, not least the increase in use of technology both as a leisure activity and a form of social interaction.

We all know walking is good for us. Just some of the known benefits are increased mental health, decreased blood pressure and reduced obesity levels (thus a reduction of the associated medical conditions). The benefits of walking are not linked to health alone though. When we look at information regarding walkability of cities, we learn that in areas where walkability is better, house prices are higher, GDP is higher, the streets are safer, and people are happier. So why do we not walk more and could it be that design has a part to play?

In a world where there is increasing pressure on design practices to be “innovative” and remain “ahead of the trend”, there has, historically been a tendency to design only for modern life and convenience. But with the movement of health and well-being up the government agenda, there is increasingly more and more consideration for how we can not only facilitate people to walk but also connect with nature and green space in cities.

Daniele Quercia, founder of Happy Maps, supports the theory that convenience doesn’t necessarily go hand in hand with health stating “being more efficient doesn’t necessarily make us happier”. He was responsible for designing an app with an algorithm to change the way that people navigate cities; Instead of simply looking for the fastest route from A to B his app found “the shortest route with the most emotional gain”. Discovering, through his work that architectural and natural features were significant factors in the benefit of the route. This emotional benefit of nature fits with the increasing theory linked to green exercise and the abundance of emerging theory relating to urban trees.

Science cites the benefit of trees to our cities as many and varied at both an economic and environmental level. And these benefits translate down to walkability scales too; urban trees provide shade, shelter and aesthetic benefits. They make navigating our cities on foot more practical, more appealing, healthier and a happier experience.

In terms of design considerations, there are practical implications of walkability too. Where design is focussed on easing the pressure of vehicular travel, pavements can often be narrow and poorly maintained meaning navigating by foot is difficult. To combat this, there is an increasing trend to specifying “shared-space” which advocates the design of streets so that vehicles and pedestrians move together across it with mutual consideration. This is, in theory, a good idea and has been successfully implemented in many cities across Europe but as with all new solutions can present its own design challenges. One concern for example, is with regard to accessibility; especially amongst people who are blind or partially sighted and who, without the use of pavements may feel at greater risk of isolation.

It is of course important that designers of today design for the modern world but with such a responsibility on our shoulders, should we also be designing for the modern and increasing health demands of people living in cities? If we, as designers can make a city more walkable, then we remove (at least some of) the barriers between a city-dweller and walking, thus make walking more desirable and more likely. There then comes with that the host of environmental, economic and health benefits that are scientifically linked to walking. National scale initiatives such as the national park city campaign are providing opportunity to push ideas like walkability in cities higher on the design agenda. The spaces between buildings could be designed not just to help move people between buildings but between green spaces and as part of a wider network of routes designed for walking, connecting and health.




DoT (2013) National Travel Survey. London: Department of Transport.

Pretty, J., Rogerson, M. and Barton, Jo. (2017) Green Mind Theory: How Brain-Body-Behaviour Links into Natural and Social Environments for Healthy Habits. International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health. 14: 706

Tudor-Locke C, Bassett DR (2004) How many steps per day are enough? Sports Med 34:1-8



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