Walking is not only one of the most natural activities the human being is able and willing to do, but also an activity whose effects have a profound impact on the public sphere, specifically on urban development. Since urban population growth made cities spread out until they reached a non-human scale, people living in urban areas switched from walking to using automobiles in order to travel long distances in less time. Therefore, urban design became more car-oriented than people-oriented, resulting in a poor integration of public space and the functional ways in which people use it. There is a concern that large urban areas where people travel more in cars than they do in public transport or alternative means of transportation are unsustainable. The planning agenda is therefore focusing on how to retrofit urban areas in order to facilitate and promote walking.
However, walking is not only a functional matter of urban mobility and transport; it is important to the improvement of peoples’ health and even the promotion of leisure. Planning approaches address walking both as a personal experience and choice, and as a public issue. When people decide to walk they are choosing a specific way to use the public space and to interact with the city, therefore their choice affects the city but also what happens in the city determines their experience at walking. As a result, there is an indivisible and double feedback loop between people walking and the city, and caring about walking is not just a matter of helping people individually but also contributing to improve public issues.
Walking is a spatial phenomenon. Thus the concept of walkability refers to the relation between spaces and the people who walk through them or, in other words, how does these socially-created spaces facilitate walking or not? Consequently, the chief issue of walkability is to determine what features of the public space, and specifically the streets, make a city more walkable. There is a wide research on the topic that suggests that walkability depends on the “friendliness” of the space, which includes connectivity, accessibility, functionality, safety, security, comfort, convenience and availability of pedestrian infrastructure.
As there are so many definitions of walkability and friendliness of space, there have been several attempts to condense the related concepts in one single approach, such as the Five C Approach that includes connectivity, comfort, convenience, conviviality and conspicuousness as the main characteristics to make a space walkable. There are many others approaches and definitions, but most of the aspects that can make a space walkable can be determined only by the people that actually use the space to walk. That is why the measuring or rating of walkability depends largely on the contributions of people and relies precious little on the estimations that can be done with the macro-scale variables of the city, such as the continuity of the grid or the level of mixture of land use.
The project that we are developing addresses walkability as a public and spatial issue, and engages people as the main source of data. We are trying to involve pedestrians in developing of a walkability rating tool that allows comparisons of the conditions for walking within and between different cities. This will help cities to realize what walkability related problems they have, and especially where these problems are located, so that infrastructure and walking spaces can be improved in favour of pedestrians. This project contributes to the common good on the sidewalks by collecting people’s opinions, and helping them create a local and global database about the pedestrian experience of cities — day and night, winter and summer — so that they can improve the quality of everyone’s daily walks.