The Impact of Pedestrian-Friendly Urban Planning on Communities

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Sydney, Venice, Boston, Madrid — each of these cities are uniquely beautiful with their own rich cultural histories. At first glance, this may seem to be the only common thread; however, these cities share one major characteristic which can in part explain their success in the spheres of economic development, health, and sustainability relative to other urban areas in their respective nations. This major trait is walkability, and it has become an increasingly important consideration for urban planners in recent decades.

Criteria for Walkability

Walk Score defines several criteria for a city to be considered “walkable”. Streets must accommodate cyclists, pedestrians, and transit. There must be affordable housing situated nearby businesses. Schools and workplaces must be within walking distance from homes. There must be ample space dedicated to parks or other common spaces for gatherings (“What Makes a Neighborhood Walkable”). In these communities, pedestrians are the main consideration of urban design.

History of Walkable Cities in the U.S.

Prior to the industrial revolution, people moved through cities by foot, or in wagons and carriages. Consequently, cities of that era were built with the pedestrian in mind. Without automobiles, ensuring that a city was walkable was vital to its development. Early American cities such as Boston exemplify this era of urban planning, with its dense housing and extensive sidewalk networks.

By the 1950s, Americans enjoyed a post-war economic boom which brought with it a period of extensive urbanization. Cars began to dominate the roads. As more Americans purchased cars, driving in favor of walking, it was no longer necessary for individuals to live in close proximity to markets or their workplaces. Thus began the process of urban sprawl, during which urban residents began moving to the suburbs of their cities. These suburbs made residents car-dependent due to necessities such as grocery stores and clothing boutiques being situated far from areas designated for housing. With this economic boom came a promulgation of car-centric urban planning (Baobeid et al.).

Modern-Day Interest in Walkable Cities

When the oil crisis of the 1970s made car-ownership increasingly expensive, walkability once again rose to prominence as a vital concept in the design of communities. Since that time, the economic, environmental, social, and health benefits provided by walkable communities have given rise to their popularity among urban planners. It is estimated that by 2050, 68% of the world’s population will reside in cities (Zumelzu and Herrmann-Lunecke). As the population grows, there will be a heightened need for cities to adapt in a way which is conducive to providing residents with healthy, sustainable lifestyles. In recent decades, the U.S. government has taken steps to encourage the improvement of cities’ pedestrian environments, with the 1998 Transportation Equity Act for the 21st Century (improved transportation infrastructure) and the 2015 U.S. Surgeon General’s Call to Action to promote walkable communities (Southworth).

Economic Impact

According to a 1999 study conducted by the Urban Land Institute, homebuyers are willing to pay a premium for homes located in walkable communities. The study concluded that when choosing between homes in areas of high walkability versus those with low walkability, buyers were prepared to pay up to $20,000 more for the walkable location (Ryan). These findings were further supported in a survey done by the National Association of Realtors, which found that 62% of millennials prefer walkable communities (News Release MEDIA COMMUNICATIONS Millennials and Silent Generation Drive Desire for Walkable Communities, Say Realtors). Though residents pay more in housing costs, they save on transportation costs. Walking is the most affordable form of transportation, and cities with high walkability often have inexpensive bus or train systems. These communities are highly desirable for businesses as well. Due to the nature of walkable cities, sidewalk networks connect areas of dense housing to shopping centers. Pedestrians are more likely to enter and spend money on goods and services than drivers who pass by these businesses. This business-friendly environment can serve to attract small businesses to these communities  (Charron).

Environmental Impact

The American Lung Association’s 2023 “State of the Air” report found that 119.6 million Americans live in locations with unhealthy, highly polluted, air (American Lung Association). Walkability significantly reduces the need for car use, therefore reducing the pollution. Further, with less cars on roads, communities are able to install green spaces which utilize areas of roadways. These green spaces provide aesthetic value to cityscapes as well habitat protection for wildlife (Charron).

Social Impact

A 2003 study done in Galway, Ireland found that residents of walkable cities receive a multitude of social benefits. These individuals experience high levels of social capital, or the “value derived from positive connections between people”, compared to individuals in other communities (Mask). There is a higher probability that these individuals are trusting of others, socially engaged, participate in the political system, and active in building relationships with neighbors (Leyden). Walkable neighborhoods create higher levels of social interaction, leading to a stronger sense of community. This conclusion is also supported by a 2013 study done by Texas A&M University, which notes that walkability plays a significant role in improving social health (Zhu et al.).

Health Impact

Lack of physical activity is among the causes of the high obesity rates in the U.S.. 69% of American adults are overweight or obese) (Harvard School of Public Health). Walking is an accessible form of exercise which is easily integrated into people’s daily routines. Walkable communities make it easy for residents to walk to work, grocery stores, parks, theaters, and back home, giving them ample opportunity to engage in physical activity (Charron). Forty percent of Americans live sedentary lives, whereas in Europe, where walkable communities are more common, obesity rates are lower due in part to more walking and biking. The benefits of walking are numerous, including improving bone strength, stress levels, and cardio-vascular health (Southworth). There are even some mental benefits. In 2004, a study was done of 19,000 elderly women with various levels of physical activity, such as walking. Per the study, the women who engaged in more exercise had a “20% lower risk of cognitive impairment” (Weuve et al.).

Potential Downsides of Walkable Cities

Despite the many benefits, walkability does not necessarily always have a positive impact. A 2019 study done of neighborhoods in Ontario, Canada found that the benefit on the environment caused by walkability is offset by the air pollution generated by cars which drive into these communities. Essentially, the study found that due to the attractive businesses which are often located in walkable cities, residents from other cities will drive in, causing car pollution to remain high. Further, the study looked into how health is impacted.“Walkable, downtown areas do have a lot of people walking and cycling. But they can also be congested with traffic, with a lot of pollution, ” according to researcher Nicholas Howell (Cimons) Walkable communities are often praised for reducing pollution, therefore improving lung health, however this benefit only holds in communities which manage to achieve low pollution levels (Howell et al.). As the research was done on Canadian towns, researchers do not claim that their results would be replicated in American cities, but it paints a more complex picture of walkability.


Walkability has been a feature of American cities since the pre-industrial era, but has fallen out of favor due to car-centric design. Today, as an increasing proportion of homebuyers express interest in walkable communities, and as research into pedestrian-friendly design grows, walkability is experiencing a resurgence in popularity. In order to create more communities designed to reduce car-dependence, governments must invest in improving transportation, and encourage urban design centered on walkability.

Works Cited

American Lung Association. “Key Findings | State of the Air.”, 2022,

Baobeid, Abdulla, et al. Walkability and Its Relationships with Health, Sustainability, and Livability: Elements of Physical Environment and Evaluation Frameworks. 21 Sept. 2021,

Charron, David. “Analysis | Walkable Neighborhoods Provide Health, Environmental and Financial Benefits.” The Washington Post, 9 Oct. 2017,

Cimons, Marlene. “Living in a Walkable Neighborhood Has a Downside.” Popular Science, 10 July 2019,

Harvard School of Public Health. “Adult Obesity.” Obesity Prevention Source, 21 Oct. 2012,

Howell, Nicholas A., et al. “Interaction between Neighborhood Walkability and Traffic-Related Air Pollution on Hypertension and Diabetes: The CANHEART Cohort.” Environment International, vol. 132, Nov. 2019, p. 104799, Accessed 1 Apr. 2020.

Leyden, Kevin M. “Social Capital and the Built Environment: The Importance of Walkable Neighborhoods.” American Journal of Public Health, vol. 93, no. 9, Sept. 2003, pp. 1546–1551,

Mask, Dr Rick L. “What Is Social Capital and Why Is It so Important?”, 19 Nov. 2019,

News Release MEDIA COMMUNICATIONS Millennials and Silent Generation Drive Desire for Walkable Communities, Say Realtors. 19 Dec. 2017.

Ryan, Bill. Economic Benefits of a Walkable Community. 2003.

Southworth, Michael. “Designing the Walkable City.” Journal of Urban Planning and Development, vol. 131, no. 4, Dec. 2005, pp. 246–257,

Weuve, Jennifer, et al. “Physical Activity, Including Walking, and Cognitive Function in Older Women.”, 22 Sept. 2004,

“What Makes a Neighborhood Walkable.”,

Zhu, Xuemei, et al. “Walkable Communities: Impacts on Residents’ Physical and Social Health: Researchers from Texas A&M University Studied Residents in a Newly Developed “Walkable Community” in Austin, Texas to See How It Changed Their Habits for Physical Activity and Whether It Increased Social Interaction and Cohesion in the Community.” World Health Design, vol. 6, no. 3, 2013, pp. 68–75, Accessed 29 Apr. 2023.Zumelzu, Antonio, and Marie Geraldine Herrmann-Lunecke. “Mental Well-Being and the Influence of Place: Conceptual Approaches for the Built Environment for Planning Healthy and Walkable Cities.” Sustainability, vol. 13, no. 11, 4 June 2021, p. 6395,

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The Impact of Pedestrian-Friendly Urban Planning on Communities
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