What makes a city ‘walkable’?

Written by: Victoria University of Wellington, Wellington Faculty of Architecture and Design Innovation

Te Herenga Waka—Victoria University of Wellington PhD student Swarnali Dihingia’s research is at the crux of New Zealand’s intensification debate.

The National Policy Statement on Urban Development 2020 (NPS-UD) requires a six-storey minimum building height within the walkable catchment of rapid transit stops or the edge of the city centre and metropolitan centre zones.

Now, cities and communities that are for and against intensification—that is, creating urban living spaces that are much closer together than the currently more common sprawl of cities—are debating what is ‘walkable’. Swarnali’s research aims to help answer this question, using tourists as an indicator of how walkable a city is.

“Tourists are more susceptible to the qualities of the urban environment, its safety, and the level of comfort and pleasantness a city has to offer,” Swarnali says. “These elements play a significant role in determining whether a route is suitably walkable or not.”

To learn more about the walkability of our cities, Swarnali has investigated tourists’ walking routes and behaviour in Wellington and Christchurch and how they interact with the city topography, public life and spaces, and weather conditions (including Wellington’s often challenging wind).

“New Zealand cities are a blend of high-quality urban spaces that cater for pedestrians, such as Wellington’s Cuba Street or Christchurch’s new downtown areas. However, the underinvestment in public spaces outside these locations has a clear impact on walkability”, she says.

Swarnali’s initial findings have shown that while many central environments in Wellington and Christchurch are accessible to pedestrians, the streetscape elements did have a significant impact on pedestrian comfort and satisfaction with the route. In particular, the tourists felt unsafe on the pedestrianised Wellington waterfront due to distress from running into cyclists and scooters or from overcrowding.

Swarnali encourages local authorities such as Wellington City Council and Christchurch Council to consider tourists as a metric for understanding walkability and walking behaviour as they are the most susceptible to what the city has provided.

“There is much more at stake here than a walkable commute. Walking routes are also economically profitable to businesses and have positive physical and mental health outcomes.”

To advance her research, Swarnali is seeking engagement with Wellington City Council and Christchurch City Council, Waka Kotahi, the tourism sector, walking advocates, and individuals. From engaging these organisations and people, she will provide insights into where and how to improve walkability in New Zealand’s cities. With discussions unfolding across New Zealand due to the National Policy Statement on Urban Development and the Resource Management Act reforms, these insights will be critical in defining walkable catchments for urban intensification.

Swarnali Dihingia is a PhD candidate in the Wellington Faculty of Architecture and Design Innovation under the supervision of Associate Professor Morten Gjerde and Professor Brenda Vale.

Contact Swarnali to hear more about this research on swarnali.dihingia@vuw.ac.nz.


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