Walkability, like apple farming, is all about getting the basics right

How cities can implement good ideas faster.

Close up photo of an apple tree
Cities can learn a lot from apple farmers. (GoToVan / Flickr)

Feb. 9, 2023

By Tristan Cleveland

Cities struggle to scale up good ideas. Many local governments today understand that if they build communities where people can walk for daily tasks, it will lead to more tax revenue, less pollution, and healthier, happier residents. Walkability is one solution that solves many problems. 

But walkable communities remain rare. In Canada, 73 per cent of homes built between 2006 and 2016 are located in car-dependent areas. The developments that grab the headlines are the ones with great transit and local shops, but most new homes look like they could have been built in the 1970s, in places where the only option is to drive. For new and existing communities, the default planning mode remains car dependency.

Aerial photo of a sprawling, car-oriented community in the Halifax region. The area shows mainly single family homes on cul-de-sacs and winding roads connected to highways. there is no visible town centre.
Upper Sackville, Halifax, Nova Scotia, built in recent decades. (Paul Dec)

We propose a method for making walkable design the new default, drawing inspiration from an unlikely source: Apple farming. We call this the Cultivation Methodology. In December 2022, we published a chapter in a new book, Infrastructure, Wellbeing, and the Measurement of Happiness, that lays out this methodology. Here are some of the central ideas.

Why it’s so hard to build good ideas at scale

It takes a heroic effort to deliver walkable plans. Before planners can transform car-centric communities into walkable places, they need to convince a lot of people: public works departments, state or provincial transportation departments, transit officials, the city manager, politicians, business groups, community groups, residents, and many more. They then need to write new rules for each community, which is also a slow, laborious process.

My city, Halifax, Nova Scotia, recently approved a new plan that allows density and shops throughout the urban core. It took roughly 12 years to complete—longer than both World Wars combined—with dozens of community meetings, and untold thousands of hours of staff time. 

And after all that work, the plan only applied to one part of the city. Most suburban and rural areas of the municipality are still waiting. 

The zoning for one of these communities, Spryfield, dates back to 1978. The community’s main street is languishing under the old, restrictive, car-oriented rules, lined with parking lots and aging strip malls. There is widespread support for a new, walkable plan, including from the local Business Commission, the area’s Residents Association, the local Councillor, landowners, and the municipality’s planning team itself. But it will take another heroic effort, and many more years of planning, to bring Spryfield’s zoning into the twenty-first century. 

Photo of a main street in Spryfield, Halifax. There is a wide road with many cars driving on it. The street feels empty, with little to no street life, pedestrians, or shops
Spryfield, Halifax, Nova Scotia. (Tristan Cleveland)

The result of all this work is a set of dead, static rules that lay like a blanket over communities, unchanged for decades, and often poorly targeted at achieving their goals. Of course cities struggle to build walkable communities. Their tools are slow, expensive, and usually out-of-date. 

The Cultivation Methodology

Communities should not have to suffer for decades under old, restrictive rules while they wait for an ideal plan for their community. Planners should, instead, implement a few basic requirements for walkability. Later, once communities have the fundamentals of walkability, planners can switch to fostering growth through small changes, rather than relying on big, expensive, long-term plans. 

The Cultivation Methodology can be broken down into three steps. For brevity, we are leaving out a few steps we describe in the book chapter.

Step 1. Provide the requirements for a thriving community

We can learn something about how to build walkable communities faster from apple farmers. 

Farmers know they need to provide a few basic requirements for each tree: soil, water, nutrients, and sunshine. If they provide the same ingredients for all trees, this does not make all trees identical. Instead, a healthy tree can grow into a potentially infinite number of shapes. In contrast, if farmers fail to provide these requirements, all the trees end up the same: dead.

Illustration showing two apple trees in soil, side by side. The graphic shows how providing essential ingredients to trees allows them to grow in healthy and unique ways -- just like walkable communities. On the left is a small newly planted tree. Labels show the essential ingredients for this tree: sunlight, soil, nutrients, and water. On the right is a fully grown, healthy apple tree, with the label, healthy unique growth.
By providing the essential ingredients, apple farmers cultivate healthy, unique growth for each tree. (Emma Avery / Happy Cities)

Similarly, all walkable communities have a few basic requirements in common. They need safe, slow streets that prioritize pedestrian comfort. They need small blocks, big sidewalks, greenery, and transit. They need design rules to ensure new buildings do not impose blank walls on the street. And they need zoning that allows compact, mixed-use growth. 

It is hard for a walkable community to prosper without all of these requirements. A community might be highly dense, but if its streets are too wide and dangerous, few people will walk outside. If its blocks are too big, people will still not walk, because most destinations will be too far. But once a community has all these elements, people can start to walk to local businesses and transit, planting the seeds for vibrant street life and a thriving community.

Illustrated isometric diagram showing how the essential ingredients for walkability can create healthy, unique growth in communities. The bottom layer uses text to indicate essential ingredents on a street grid: public spaces, greenery, safe streets, transit, and dense mixed-use zoning. The upper layer uses icons to show a thriving community with housing, local businesses, street life, unique identity, social connection, cultural expression, festivals and more.
A conceptual diagram showing the essential ingredients that walkable communities need to grow in healthy and unique ways. (Emma Avery / Happy Cities)

We will only be able to build walkable communities at scale if the decision to implement their basic needs becomes mundane, widely understood, and routine. We do not question whether all apple trees need water and soil. We should not have to wait for a long, slow planning process to rediscover that each walkable community also has the same basic needs.

Step 2. Adapt requirements for local needs

None of this means that governments should ignore local preferences. On the contrary, once planners clarify what walkability requires, they can better focus on supporting each community’s unique needs.

For example, all walkable communities need greenery, but residents can choose any number of trees and plants for a street. All walkable communities need pedestrian-priority intersections, but some may prefer round-abouts while others prefer stop lights. A winter climate will need more sun, whereas a tropical climate will need more shade.

Similarly, architectural standards ensure that buildings are structurally sound and fire safe. These standards do not prevent the architect from customizing a building to meet a client’s unique needs. On the contrary, the standards are essential to that kind of customization. After all, if a building falls down, it cannot meet anyone’s preferences

Once a community has a solid, walkable foundation, it becomes possible for quirky local restaurants and shops to open, or grocery stores specializing in foods for a particular culture. If people already walk on a street, it becomes easier to attract people to local events. The more a walkable community grows, the more residents can make it unique.

In contrast, if the city fails to provide these requirements—if streets are too dangerous, or zoning is too restrictive—the community will end up identical to most others, with no one walking outside, and the same chain restaurants and big box stores aimed at heavily trafficked roads. 

Step 3. Cultivate the community’s unique growth 

Once a community has the basic requirements for walkability, it should no longer be necessary to spend years writing expensive comprehensive plans to make places more walkable. Planners can use their time and resources more efficiently to listen to local preferences to make small changes that consistently make the community better.

There are many things that planners can fix and support without needing to wait for a long, slow, arduous planning process. If a park is underused, government can make small investments until the problem is fixed. If a bus route is overflowing with riders, one can respond immediately by increasing its frequency. If multiple people have been hit and injured on a street, one can make small adjustments to make it safer with jersey barriers or garden boxes. If there is still a problem, one can try again. If the changes fix the problem, one can make them permanent. 

This third step roughly corresponds to what Strong Towns calls “incrementalism.” The organization summarizes it as follows:

  1. “Humbly observe where people in your community are struggling.
  2. Ask, ‘What’s the next smallest thing we can do to address that struggle *right now*?’
  3. Do that thing. Right now.
  4. Repeat.”

Where this approach is most important, and most difficult, is zoning. It should always be possible for people to build more homes and open businesses where there is demand, without requiring a complete rewrite of zoning rules. It should be easy for planners to reclassify communities like Spryfield for the next stage of growth in response to rising demand. 

Scaling up walkability

We will never create walkable communities at scale if we treat each one like a new invention, needing to convince all stakeholders, and all departments, in all levels of government, to accept the basics of walkable design, each time, and then to rewrite rules for it—like creating a new legal system for each neighbourhood. This blank-slate approach does not lead to well-crafted rules for every community. It leads to years of delay as communities stagnate under out-of-date, static zoning that cannot adapt to changing needs. It has created swaths of car-dominated places and a monstrous housing crisis, leaving Canada 3.5 million homes short of what would be needed to make housing affordable. 

We need to make walkability the new default. The Cultivation Method outlines a faster, more efficient process for implementing the basic, widely-recognized needs of walkability, while crafting them in a way that reflects local preferences. Once a community is walkable, planners can rely less on big, expensive, slow planning processes, and focus more on making consistent, small improvements—cultivating long-term prosperity. By providing the requirements for success, and then fostering change, we can create truly unique, special places. 

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