Walking towards sustainability

By Laura Oakley

Walking is one of the urban antidotes to respond to unsustainable development, and we are not taking it nearly as seriously enough. Walking saves on fossil fuel usage, traffic congestion and carbon emissions. Walking not only negates these but also has many social benefits. While I’m not claiming this is new information, the release of the Heart Foundation’s revitalised Community Walkability Checklist seems a timely prompt to revisit it with gusto.

We are failing walking in many ways. Walking is still not a widely acknowledged transport mode. Somewhere in the many layers between community consultation, strategic planning processes, development applications and built outcomes, the desire to create a walkable environment is often not realised. This is despite walking featuring in many plans and strategies servicing Australia.

Firstly, we love a short-distance car trip. In Melbourne every week, there are a staggering 4.8 million car trips that are 900m or less. If a portion of these were converted to walking, the benefits would be multifaceted. It is estimated that emissions from cars will be responsible for 45 million tonnes of carbon dioxide in Australia each year by 2020 – a significant contribution to our total greenhouse gas production.

But it does not need to be this way. A recent multi-level, longitudinal study found that when a place has residential density, land use mix and street connectivity, the ingredients for walkability, the result is more people walking rather than contributing to our emissions. As built environment professionals, we have the skills to ensure neighbourhoods have the necessary characteristics to support walking. These characteristics can be found in our Community Walkability Checklist that will help residents to establish if their neighbourhood is walkable. We believe that the residents of a community know their neighbourhood the best and their knowledge is vital to the community consultation processes for built environment professionals.

Increases in walking are good for the economy and can save an incredible $2.38 per individual kilometre walked in the domains of congestion, infrastructure savings and the environment. There are local benefits too – an increase in foot traffic can generate business and revitalise a traditionally ‘drive-through district’ into a place that people linger. Not only is walking a valuable transport option for short distance by being environmentally friendly, it is also the most equitable. Infrastructure to facilitate walking supports the elderly, those with mobility impairments and people on any income.

A recent visit to Oslo was quite inspiring. In a challenging climate, the entire city is dedicated to reducing car trips by investing heavily in public transport and supportive walking environments. The people of Oslo are thinking about how they can replace the short trips in the car with a more sustainable option. It is high time that we do the same.

To get more people walking more often will require strategic investment in infrastructure, programs, education, and policy as well as a cultural shift in the way walking is considered. Walking can no longer be just a Sunday stroll around a park with the promise of coffee at the end. Walking should be an integral part of our transportation trips and should be valued and substantially invested in. The benefits are simply too significant to continue to ignore… and I have not mentioned health once!

You can find out more information, and download our revitalised Community Walkability Checklist here.

Laura Oakley is a Senior Coordinator of Heart Health (Active Living) at the Heart Foundation. With a background in clinical nursing and urban planning, she is interested in the way that everyday choices can be shaped by the built environment, and the lasting impact that this can have on health and wellbeing. Laura was named PIA NSW Young Planner of the year for 2019.

The original version of this article appeared in New Planner – the journal of the New South Wales planning profession – published by the Planning Institute of Australia. For more information, please visit: www.planning.org.au/news/new-planner-nsw