The concept of walkability got a boost earlier this summer with a Brookings Institution report that pedestrian-friendly neighborhoodsperform better economically than those that require more driving. To a large extent, this is common sense. Walking is cheaper, healthier, and (in the right environment) more convenient than driving. But there is more to the walkability equation than time, distance, and cost. This excellent post gets at the “internals” of walkability: the qualities of a place that invite and support walking instead of driving. What’s missing in this discussion, though, is perhaps the most important factor in walkability: Pleasure.
Humans are pleasure-seeking organisms. If something hurts, we tend to avoid it; if it feels good, we tend to seek it out. We walk to the movies, the bookstore, a café, a friend’s house not simply because it’s close enough and cheaper than driving, but because it feels good. Features of the built environment that make it feel good—or, more often, bad—are no mystery, but they deserve more attention than they usually get. Once we remove the impediments to walking—distance, danger, disorientation--what draws us to do it often comes down to the pleasure of looking at things.
The best walkable places combine visual variety with an underlying sense of order, a principle that also applies in music: theme, variation, return to theme; iteration, repetition, surprise. No doubt there are evolutionary explanations for why we seek stimulus of this kind, but the important thing is that we do. Look at where we tend to go on vacation: to the beach, to the mountains, to picturesque old towns where we can stroll about with an ice cream cone and take in the scene. What baffles me is how we’ve accepted for so long being starved of this experience closer to home. People who demand the richest experience possible in their houses, clothing, cars, food, and entertainment have come to expect virtually nothing of the public sphere. But that situation may not last forever. The concept of walkability is on the rise. If we can trust human beings to seek pleasure, it will prevail in the long run. –B.D.S.