How urban planners design for walkability: Lessons from one Utah community

(Credit: Unsplash)

This article is brought to you thanks to the collaboration of The European Sting with the World Economic Forum./

Author: Peter J Kindel, Urban Design Principal, Skidmore, Owings & Merrill

  • Walkability and micromobility are gaining popularity in the United States.
  • The “walkable, mixed-use urbanism” concept is guiding retro-fits of existing cities, but it can be a powerful framework for designing ground-up sites.
  • As community in Utah demonstrates, the biggest challenge to creating less car-dependent neighbourhoods is overcoming 50 years of automobile-dominated planning.
  • Called the ‘The Point’, this community has found innovative ways to integrate multiple modes of mobility with a network of open spaces, connecting residents to homes and businesses as well as bike and walking trails.

For decades, cars have been at the centre of American life. They have heavily influenced the planning of US cities and communities, and consequently influenced Americans’ lifestyle and mobility choices. But as more people see the advantages of walkable, less car-dependent communities, an alternative model of urban development may have found its moment in the United States.

Outside of Salt Lake City, a new community called The Point is being implemented that will become a model for US developments seeking to provide varied mobility options. The Point is being built on the principles of walkable, transit-oriented urbanism; it will become a place where residents can meet all their daily needs within a 15-minute walk.

The site for this new mixed-use development is between Utah’s two largest cities, Salt Lake City and Provo, which was home to the state’s largest prison. When the prison was decommissioned in 2018, The Point’s 600 acres of state-owned land became available for redevelopment. The state created a land authority to guide the process and invited SOM to create a framework plan for development.

It became clear to our team that The Point presented an extraordinary opportunity to create a walkable community from the ground up. Spanning about a mile and a quarter across, the entire site can be reached from its centre within 15 minutes of walking time. And because the land is being fully cleared except for a historic chapel, our design team had a blank slate on which to work.

We took our design inspiration from a survey of Utah residents, who expressed a clear desire for a community that prioritized bike and pedestrian infrastructure providing direct access to parks and open space. We also participated in an expert-led public engagement process where common themes emerged that would define the design of The Point. Notably, the desire to celebrate the unique ecosystems of Utah and making this landscape easily accessible.

This human-scale approach is guiding planning initiatives in cities across the world, and planning The Point reveals what must be considered to design modern communities and cities for multi-modal transit.

Aligning community priorities with urban design

Multi-modal mobility was the central theme and starting point for our design, as we sought to prioritize and configure pedestrian, transit and bicycle infrastructure that was correlated with the size and scope of the project. The density and mix of land uses were also key to the design concept, as were the scale and shape of the parks and civic spaces. Finally, the planning team created design guidelines for an architectural and civic identity that responds to geographic context, climate and the community’s desires and aspirations.

The concept of walkable urbanism at The Point correlates with the block structure and land use patterns of older cities. This urban pattern, which was in use before automobiles became the dominant mode of travel, is characterized by street networks that give equal priority to both non-motorized and motorized forms of travel.

The Point is designed at a moderate density, with buildings averaging between four and six levels. In contrast to Salt Lake City – which has the largest urban blocks in the United States – we created a walkable version of the traditional city grid. The Point’s smaller-sized blocks are intertwined with greenways and linear open spaces for better mobility.

Legacy road standards

The greatest challenge of creating walkable urbanism in low-density contexts – even with public support – is overcoming legacy suburban road design standards. These standards, developed over the past half-century, prioritize the efficient movement of automobiles, which creates conflicts with bicycle and pedestrian circulation.

In close collaboration with transportation engineers, the design team was able to successfully negotiate reduced lane widths, which reduces pedestrian crossing time, and the creation of landscaped medians, which creates an area of refuge for pedestrians.

The team also adjusted the overall road network to reduce traffic loads at certain intersections, which would require additional turn lanes. Finally, it was agreed the design of the road network can approximate traffic conditions in urban environments, reducing overall travel speeds and creating safer conditions for bikes and pedestrians.

And when it comes to parking, we considered the balance between parking needs and the goals of creating a walkable community. We chose to accommodate anticipated market-driven parking requirements efficiently and compactly while preserving the overall design vision for the project.

Solutions may include above-grade parking structures that are architecturally screened from view, parking structures integrated with buildings, or below-grade parking. Future developments building on this model may eliminate parking requirements altogether, with each developer determining appropriate parking instead. The idea of eliminating mandatory parking minimums is gaining popularity in many US cities.

The walkable urbanism model

While the implementation of “walkable urbanism” presents some obstacles, particularly in low-density communities in the United States, these challenges can be resolved through collaboration between city and state agencies, urban designers and engineers. As The Point demonstrates, enthusiastic community input, a clear design vision, and the supportive efforts of like-minded professionals can overcome what may at first appear to be significant hurdles.


How is the World Economic Forum improving the future of cities?

The World Economic Forum Centre for Urban Transformation is at the forefront of advancing public-private collaboration in cities, with a focus on creating resilient and future-ready communities and local economies. Here are some examples of the impact delivered by the centre:

Net Zero Carbon Cities: The Forum is implementing a toolbox of innovative solutions and city sprints aimed at promoting sustainability and reducing emissions in urban settings. Through the Net Zero Carbon Cities program, cities are empowered to take bold actions towards achieving carbon neutrality.

G20 Global Smart Cities Alliance: This global alliance is dedicated to establishing norms and policy standards for the safe and ethical use of data in smart cities.

Empowering Brazilian SMEs with IoT Adoption: The Forum in collaboration with C4IR Brazil is removing barriers to IoT adoption for small and medium-sized manufacturing companies in Brazil.

Healthy Cities and Communities: This initiative is dedicated to improving the quality of life in urban centers. Through partnerships in Jersey City and Austin, USA, as well as Mumbai, India, this initiative focuses on enhancing citizens’ lives by promoting better nutritional choices, physical activity, and sanitation practices.

IoT security: The Council on the Connected World, led by the Forum, has achieved a significant milestone by establishing IoT security requirements for consumer-facing devices. This move aims to safeguard these devices from cyber threats.

Contact us for more information on how to get involved.

While ground-up neighbourhood-scale development in the US is rare, the lessons learned from designing the Point can be applied to any large-scale urban redevelopment initiative. And the case for more walkable urban neighbourhoods is clear: They are more economically productive and less costly for cities to run than car-dependent suburban areas – which means more tax revenue for parks, schools and affordable housing.

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