Walkability – how to make our cities more walkable


Walking. It is something we all do, hopefully every day, for shorter or longer distances. It is the most basic way of getting around and of sensing the city. So how do we build our cities in a way that can increase the ability for walking? On November the 3rd Karin visited a seminar in Oslo on the topic, hosted by the National Association of Norwegian Architects. The presentations were on issues about how to create the walkable city, methods & tools, public spaces and architecture. In what follows you will get a summary of the main arguments from the lectures.


Walkability and public health

Heidi Fadum from the Norwegian Directorate on Health gave a lecture on why we need healthy cities, addressing the links between walkability and public health. The World Health Organization says that a healthy city is one that is conscious of health and striving to improve it. It has a commitment to health and a process and structure to achieve it. Furthermore, a healthy city is one that continually creates and improves its physical and social environments and expands the community resources that enable people to mutually support each other in performing all the functions of life and developing to their maximum potential.

Read more about healthy cities on WHO’s website.

The Norwegian Directorate on Health has a checklist on healthy cities to be used by planners in Norwegian municipalities.

In today’s society, too little physical activity is the fourth biggest reason for early deaths, through so-called NCDs (Non-Communicable Diseases) like cancer and cardiovascular diseases. Planning the city around better opportunities for walking, cycling, and a more active everyday life, would be a win-win-situation, because it leads to better life quality and better physical health, improves the air quality, leads to noise reduction, and it is economically profitable since it gains the welfare.

4 km on your bicycle gives 100 kroner in welfare gains (more years and less diseases).

Read more about welfare gains here (in Norwegian):

Institute of Transport Economics, Norwegian Centre for Transport Research

Norwegian Environment Agency



Psychology and the built environment

Environmental psychologist Aga Skorupka from Levá Urban Design, addressed how the built environment affects our behavior. Norwegians have a lot of spare time but are still very bad at being active. In Bergen, 54 % travel by car, only 3 % by bicycle, 26 % by walking and 16 % by public transport. In comparison, in Copenhagen, 39,9 % travel by car, 18 % by walking, as much as 19 % by bicycle, and 22 % by public transport.


We make a lot of “guilt trips” and are good at making excuses for not walking, even though we know we should. This can be viewed as a kind of cognitive dissonance. Skorupka says that campaigns for being more active is not effectful enough. Instead we need a shift in paradigms and stop the “user shaming”. David A. Norman’s theories in his book “The psychology of everyday thing” (1988) is one way of understanding this:

When you have trouble with things – whether it’s figuring out whether to push or pull a door or the arbitrary vagaries of the modern computer and electronics industries – it’s not your fault. Don’t blame yourself: blame the designer.”

We need to ‘nudge’ urbanism. To do that, walking needs to be:

  • possible (Distance as the crow flies and real time line for walking may differ a lot, and space syntax can be an important tool here),
  • useful (we need to have a reason, our daily errands needs to be at walking distance, called “destination accessibility”)
  • safe (experienced safety is not always the same as actual safety. We need to work on the experienced safety. This can be done by using psychocartography, and making observations like William Whyte did back in the 60’s. Furthermore it’s important to have ‘eyes on the street’ like Jane Jacobs said in 1963. It’s also important to remember that different cultures have different patterns for using public space, and this also goes do gender and age),
  • comfortable (the design of the street needs to be pedestrian oriented, reduction of speed has a major impact here. Social capital – the opportunity to meet neighbors and friends when walking has impact on mental health)
  • interesting (there has to be other people, the resident density must be high, along with the workplace density, and the streetscape must contain active facades, fine-grained mix of functions, and a blue-green network walk.

What do humans do? Work, shop, eat, drink, learn, recreate, convene, worship, heal, visit, celebrate, sleep: these are all activities that people should not have to leave downtown to accomplish” – Jeff Speck, “Walkable city”,p 106

Research show that shopkeepers overestimate how many customers arrive by car. Most people walk, a report from the Norwegian Institute of Transport Economics says.

There is the tendency that property values rises in walkable neighborhoods. It is the creative class that value walkable neighborhoods, and walkability can thus be linked to gentrification and socio-spatial injustice.


The structure of the city

Alf Waage from the National Association of Norwegian Architects talked about the 10-minute-city, and how also smaller towns can contribute to less car dependency through gathering of services. It’s all about where and how people live their everyday lives. Most people don’t live in the city sentre but in suburbs and neighborhoods. We need to focus on proximity and what people need, and those needs should be able to reach within walking distance. Thus, we need to gather functions, goods and services.


Observation and user involvement as tools for a more walkable city

Margrethe Aas, architect at the municipality of Trondheim, talked about their public space strategy and their long-term plan on making their public places more attractive, livable, and accessible.

They noticed a lack of use of the city’s public places and squares, and they started by identifying and observing which activities are taking place in the streets and what is envisaged. They also created an exhibition at an art gallery down town where they simultaneously ran their city planning office for two weeks and people could give them feedback and bring up ideas. The municipality wanted to find out which public places works and which don’t with the help of artists and the public. Also, instead of always creating something new, they want to focus on what is already there and rather create unique environments. The photographies by the artists provides different ways of thinking about these places by the water. Observing people’s activities has furthermore been an important tool in gathering knowledge about which public spaces that stimulates for a broad range of activities.

Furthermore, they invited ReMida, a reuse-central at Svartlamon in Trondheim for a pilotproject together with  kindergardens at one of the city’s public places to show the potential of that place, and how it can also be used as a playground. Small initiatives, like a Sunday vintage market, can provide important input to larger processes.

Read more about their public space strategy here.

Siri Bø Timestad, also from Trondheim municipality, talked about their walking strategy. They started by looking at different shortcuts throughout the city and improving these. In Trondheim there are 32.000 daily trips made by car that are shorter than 1 km. This is within the mental barrier for walking distance, so the potential for making these people start walking instead of driving should be high. The vision is: walk more- drive less! It should be made easy to walk the whole year around. To accomplish this we need a broad walking web for all, short walking distances, easy orientation, safe, attractive surroundings, well maintained paths, walker friendly use of area, good communication and attitude changing campaigns. In their project on shortcuts, they have used a broad range of methods: workshops, counting and observing people, measuring time savings, and using “barnetråkk” (“kids’ trail”).

It’s more important to inspire than to shame blame. We need to remember that even small measures can make more people want to walk!



Inspiring and nudging walking. Source: Trondheim municipality


The method of using “barnetråkk” as a tool in planning, was further presented by Ingvild Belck-Olsen, planner in Ski municipality. It is a great tool to use for developing better oppotunities for pedestrians and increase walking. It is important to involve the kids when planning. Ski municipality have arranged workshops with kids at schools where the kids could register on maps where in the city they do different activities.

They used the website http://www.barnetrakk.no/  as a digital teaching tool where kids could tell planners, the municipality and local politicians how they use the place they live, and what they would want to be different. They then used these feedbacks in the area plan. It has led to better contact with the schools, has lowered the threshold for user involvement, and the plan got a deeper foundation.


We need a more versatile use of the city

Maria Molden from CUBUS architects in Bergen talked about how the city can be our personal trainer. She presented their project “Med lek og rullator” (“With play and walker”) which is a pilotproject for promoting more active use of public spaces in the city. It is a collaborative project led by CUBUS architects together with the Department of Physiotherapy at Bergen University College, Bergen School of Architecture, and Gategym Bergen, a community organization that promotes doing gymnastics in your nearby city surroundings. As cities get more densified, it’s important to focus on more active and versatile use of the spaces. There is a link between everyday health and architecture, and we need to extend the idea about what a city can be used for. Can the city become your personal trainer and inspire to more activity without the public spaces becoming too specialized? Students in physiotherapy are developing 10 different exercises for preventive health that people can do while they walk to and from work, and students in architecture got the task of developing multifunctional artifacts that can be used for such exercises in the streets.

It’s all about ‘nudging’ activity!


Use the streets for your daily work-out! Source: CUBUS architects


Democratic urban space

Bettina Werner, ethnographer working at CITITEK in Denmark, talked about democratic public spaces – promoting democracy through the city’s public spaces. Democratic urban design is about understanding human behavior and needs. Humans are tiny, sensitive and slow. The design of public spaces affects our behavior and our health. Co-creation and user involvement is therefore crucial, and it’s important to study people’s behavior and to ask what people think.

In Norway, about 80 % of the total population live in urban areas. Globally it is 54 %. Considering democratic urban spaces, we need to take into consideration both mental, physical and social issues. Culture, background, weather, climate, and seasons, may vary, but many of the qualities in urban areas that people value are much the same.

Source: Bettina Werner, Cititek

Source: Bettina Werner, Cititek

Both ‘hardware’ (physical design, infrastructure, built environment) and ‘software’ (culture, habits, behavior, life and activity) plays a role in our understanding of the urban environment, and they both need to be integrated.

Cities have the capability of providing something for everybody, only because,

and only when, they are created by everybody” – Jane Jacobs (1961)

So how do we get democratic cities through public spaces? We need citizen involvement and co-production, give marginalized groups a voice, and make the urban sphere into a democratic arena. The spacial design can shape our social preferences, but we MUST listen to the human needs!


Inspiring words, right? Let’s only hope that planners and politicians will take walkability serious when they are planning our cities for the future.

And if you are ever in doubt if you should go for that walk or not, just remember Kierkegaard’s famous words from 1847:

Above all, do not lose your desire to walk. Everyday, I walk myself into a state of well-being & walk away from every illness. I have walked myself into my best thoughts, and I know of no thought so burdensome that one cannot walk away from it. But by sitting still, & the more one sits still, the closer one comes to feeling ill. Thus if one just keeps on walking, everything will be all right.”