What do truly walkable, wheelable neighbourhoods look like?
Walkable, wheelable neighbourhoods are something so many of us are deeply passionate about, and that includes me.
I was fortunate to grow up with the freedom of riding and walking around our neighbourhood. I also understand the immense physical and social value of it for people and communities from my professional practice days, and from my research over the past decade from diverse personal experiences.
Being free to move about one’s streets also helps us build and strengthen connections to place.
I was reminded of this recently in our move to a beachside community in southern lutruwita/Tasmania where I have accessible access to the beach for walks with my partner David and our dog Sage every day. Through our daily interactions we have formed strong friendships and a tribe very quickly. Before our move from Queensland, I was bound to the house unless I drove or was driven – as the landscape and environment didn’t support my way of being mobile – which is using walking sticks and my powered wheelchair.
The freedom of being spatially mobile around one’s local area is one of the most basic acts we took for granted – until the pandemic. Whether that’s walking or riding to run errands, to get public transport, for fun, to take the dog for a walk, or to get out for a breather from the daily grind.
We also know that mobility and participation are deeply entwined and our sense of connection, wellbeing, and belonging, is intrinsically linked to our opportunity to enact our spatial agency. That is having choice, control and ease in movement whether that is walking, wheeling, pushing or riding unthinkingly.
Yet, in reality, movement – this core essence of life – is not straightforward or easy when neighbourhoods are hostile as they have been built to exclude or restrict people’s movement.
There are many elements that impact on us getting out and about, and beyond just slips and trips, contribute to a sense of unease and risk to personal safety. Zero, or poorly maintained walking or wheeling infrastructure and surfacing, lack of safe crossings, unsafe road speeds, having to use the road with cars, road as the verge-footpath, poorly lit streets, no places to pause along the way under the canopy of trees.
In one study, a 12-year girl with cerebral palsy said: “I would like for awareness to spread around that there are kids… I would like to bike ride up the street without worrying about cars going really fast. You know what I mean. And then I would like to go over the road to say, ‘hi’ without having to worry about people speeding.”
This is the legacy of designing for the car, not the diversity of people.
And when we think about people, the streets are generally designed for the normate – the fit, young adult, male – that most of us are not. They are certainly not designed for the reality of body-mind diversity, or that over 50 per cent of us are girls, women or non-binary people. These deep assumptions have played out in built environment professions for over a century.
The consequences of poorly walkable and disconnected neighbourhoods are restricted personal mobility and forced car dependency.
Another quote from the aforementioned study: “There is nowhere from here to push her with footpaths just to get her out and about you know what I mean…?it’s just the principle of just being able to go for a walk.”
Our study on the experiences of children with disabilities ages nine to twelve, independent mobility and their neighbourhood interactions, found that children experienced something called “coerced immobility” – this is experienced by children not because of their impairment, but because of entrenched ableist and car-oriented design of the streets where tenuous encounters led to imposed restrictions or coerced immobility by parents or self.
Walking and wheeling infrastructure allocation and disconnected neighbourhood planning and development from active transport planning continues to be an ongoing sticking point to realising active transport and inclusive healthy communities. But we need to contest this. Why are the provision of footpaths not deemed an essential requirement, like services such as stormwater are in neighbourhood developments?
What we have heard from a diversity of people is that the social infrastructure and universal design approach to our street and neighbourhoods matters.
- reflective of all people: our diversity in body-mind, gender, age, and culture
- responsive to our different ways of moving about: walkable, wheelable, pushable, rideable – inclusive of all people from the start, particularly people with disabilities and children – often excluded voices
- provide equity in mobility opportunities in all aspects: whether for purpose, joy, or wellbeing
- facilitate connections when moving about our neighbourhoods: with people, nature and place
- include spaces to pause: it doesn’t have to be go go go!
We have the technical resources, good examples like curbing traffic or small cities like Pontevedra City, and the skill capability to create inclusive walkable and wheelable neighbourhoods. It is attitude that is holding us back.
The question is, what do we as a society value?
We can make walkable wheelable neighbourhoods mainstream, but to do so we need to:
- reposition the value of assets: footpaths must be valued as an essential infrastructure as stormwater in neighbourhood development
- confront ableism and dominant normative ideas (like ageism, or health privilege) that fail people: Instead plan and design for our diversity
- embed inclusive design thinking in the system and day-to-day practice with renewed attention towards equity
- integrate planning well, not just talk or tinker: we know universal design and sustainable smart growth approaches work seamlessly together to create environments that benefit all
- utilise more strongly inclusive urban design codes to promote mobility equity, wellbeing, connectivity, and accessibility
- active and public transport infrastructure advocacy must include the perspective of all users: working together strengthens the call – Queensland Walks and Victoria Walks are good examples of this.
What we have heard from people is that inclusive communities are walkable, wheelable, rideable, pushable neighborhoods and make you feel happy, connected, included, and active.
Let’s keep advocating together and change outdated policies and mindsets to make this a common reality!