How cohesive, walkable cities can positively impact commercial and retail health

Sean Byrne, Group Director – Retail & Commercial, Associate at ThomsonAdsett  

Before zoning regulations came into existence in the 20th century, many cities around the world were complicated, integrated organisms.

The ability to stroll through cities became less of a focus for urban planners during the last century, when needs of the car typically came first.

In recent years this has fuelled the trend of people making their retail purchases online rather than at their local store.

While cities often still reflect that preference for machine over foot, there are movements around the world aiming to change it back.

Consider the project Plan Melbourne 2017-2050, which centres on the notion of “20-minute neighbourhoods” – suburbs where residents of the Australian city can meet most of their daily needs within a 20-minute walk, bike ride or public transport journey from home.

“Organising our cities around people, not just cars, is commercially and economically constructive,” Stephen Conry, Chief Executive Officer of JLL Australia and New Zealand, says.

Commercial benefits

As part of Plan Melbourne, research and advocacy group Victoria Walks collaborated with local councils to assess the walkability of several Melbourne suburbs.

Ben Rossiter, the organisation’s founding executive officer, says the neighbourhood communities were strongly in favour of improving walkability.

“There was a very positive response. People want to live in more walkable neighbourhoods where they are not dependent on cars,” he says.

“The real estate industry is increasingly advertising properties by walk score because they know a higher walk score sells.”

Health and wellbeing

The healthiest, most economically-advantaged and sustainable cities on the planet share one trait: their walkability.

It is hard to realise how car-dependent suburbs are — until you attempt to walk in one. Suddenly, inconsistent footpath access, wide lanes of traffic to cross on short walk lights, and sheer distance begins to make getting around more daunting.

For decades, the stereotypical Australian family lived in the suburbs, relying on at least two cars to get around.

In the last several years, young people have been bucking this trend, leading to the revitalisation of urban centres and retail precincts.

Walkable cities are becoming an increasingly popular trend in urban design, putting the focus on getting feet on footpaths, rather than cars on the roads.

Streets need cycle lanes and pedestrian crossings and lights. Neighbourhoods should be packed with amenities such as shops, schools and entertainment, and public parks must compensate for smaller residential blocks.

They’re the three big things: connectivity, density and destinations, underpinned by a really good walking environment which is safe and appealing.

Impact on retail

Urban neighbourhoods where residents primarily walk are both more economically vibrant and more expensive than their suburban counterparts.

Walkability is only a part of restoring urban centres. It largely goes hand in hand with a switch toward walkable communities, which offer everyday services like dry cleaning and groceries within a few block radius of housing options.

An activated local high street model is increasingly taking the place of retail centres with large destination stores.

Instead of thinking about mandatory parking requirements, city planners are increasingly finding that pedestrians are one of the best ways to encourage economic development and revitalise the retail sector.

By working to slow the pace of traffic, or to block cars from driving in certain areas, such thinking encourages the development of a neighbourhood feeling and leads to a better business environment.

Everyone loves a village

Many people base their real estate purchases on the proximity to local neighbourhood amenities such as a great café, bakery, fruit and vegetable grocer, butcher, local pub, weekend markets, and swim schools in addition to school catchment areas and parks.

And with more work flexibility nowadays these become priorities for buyers.

Walkability as a concept is a global phenomenon. Barcelona is turning automobile-oriented streets into walkable, mixed-use public spaces.

Hamburg plans to turn 40 per cent of its land area over to connected, car-free green spaces.

And in Paris, mayor Anne Hidalgo, made phasing out vehicles and creating a “15-minute city” a key pillar of her offering at the launch of her re-election campaign earlier this year.

This, she said, would reduce pollution and stress, creating socially and economically mixed districts to facilitate thriving local economies and improve overall quality of life for residents.

Recent pushes for healthier urban designs like these across Australia are changing the landscape of our cities.

People want to walk to the town centre. Even people not in cities want this.

Part of the job of planners now is to retrofit urban sprawl.

Planners are going block by block through towns and cities to deconstruct where things went wrong, and replace sprawl with cohesive communities.

The truth is, cities are rebuilt constantly according to different times and trends.

Today, we’re getting back to designing for walkability – build it and they will walk (or ride).


This article was originally published by Inside Retail here.