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How to create a walkable urban environment

Lafayette Square, adjacent Massachusetts Avenue in Cambridge, MA (A street calming and plaza design project; photo by CRJA)

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From the Archives

While working on visual aids for a project interview recently, I came across a set of guidelines that CRJA developed while working with community groups planning urban public spaces. The document originated with the Pedestrian Issues Forum that was part of the immense Boston Central Artery/Tunnel Project in the 1990s. It was later refined for Walk Boston, a non-profit organization dedicated to improving walking conditions in cities and towns across Massachusetts, and further amended as part of our work for the design of Harvard University/Allston Development Group’s Streetscapes Plan in 2008. See below to read these guidelines.

Concord’s Main Street

We learned soon after the interview that the team we were on won the job! We will be working with Hoyle, Tanner & Associates on concept design for the revitalization of historic Main Street in Concord, New Hampshire. Main Street itself will be narrowed from four to three lanes, and our work will entail streetscape design to develop a “complete street” befitting the state capital for a 10-block stretch centered on the capitol building. Along with the road diet, the sidewalks will be widened to make way for a more distinguished and comfortable pedestrian corridor. Concord 20/20 envisions an elegant and pedestrian-focused street that will serve as New Hampshire’s iconic Main Street. Our hope is that a great concept design resulting from a number of public meetings will lead to design and construction in the very near future.

During the public process, residents and merchants may well want to discuss with us what makes a street pleasantly “walkable.”

The Guidelines

We believe that eight essential factors contribute to a quality pedestrian experience. The “walkability” of a sidewalk, a pedestrian pathway, or a community can be evaluated by the degree to which these factors in the aggregate are achieved.

1.       Continuity of pathways occurs when adequate walkways and other pedestrian features are provided in an uninterrupted sequence from one destination to another. Continuous linkages are essential in developing a pedestrian network.

2.       Coherence in a pedestrian environment is achieved when adequate orientation, direction, and logical route choices are clearly offered to the pedestrian. The perception of system coherence is also achieved when pedestrian facilities are well integrated with surrounding urban spaces and other transportation modes.

3.       Convenience is achieved when pedestrian travel is easy and uncomplicated, with minimal delay. Convenience results primarily from unobstructed pathways of ample width, ramps and signal timing ,which accommodate the mobility needs of all pedestrians, and generous opportunities for pedestrians to link with other modes of transit.

4.       Security is a positive perception enhanced by adequate night lighting, open lines of sight for pedestrians and police, and lively street activity. Building uses which generate active use of the sidewalk contribute a large measure to the pedestrian’s feeling of security.

5.       Safety can be provided by separating pedestrians from vehicular traffic as much as possible, including cars, bicycles, trucks and buses. Safety can also be promoted by controlling the street environment through “traffic calming” measures such as narrowing or decreasing lanes to slow vehicles, creating shorter intervals of moving traffic, timing traffic signals for pedestrian preference, and using paving materials to accentuate pedestrian zones.

6.       Comfort and attractiveness are created in pedestrian ways by features such as weather protection, shade tree planting, smooth-surface paving materials, opportunities to rest, public toilet facilities, and other pedestrian amenities which add a sense of visual excitement and interest to the walking experience.

7.       Cleanliness and good physical maintenance are essential trademarks of an inviting pedestrian experience. Walking is always more enjoyable when one senses that someone clearly cares about the condition of the physical environment.

8.       Visual excitement is a quality that great city streets exhibit. This is created by such things as the color of awnings or banners, the movement of tree leaves, changing light and shade, eye-catching store windows or even flower pots and window boxes. All contribute to a rich visual sensation and therefore a vibrant street.

posted by Karen Euler


Carol R. Johnson Associates (CRJA) is an award-winning landscape architectural design and environmental planning firm with offices in Boston, Knoxville, and Beijing. Founded in 1959, our practice has expanded over the years into a 50-person firm serving clients throughout the U.S., the Middle East, China and other international locales.