Urban Design Walkability Small Towns

Designing Neighborhoods for Safer Destinational Walking

We recently wrote on the merits of destinational walking and the ways in which communities can be supportive of it. When we put pen to paper to design walkable neighborhoods, we strive to make walking a safe, useful, and enjoyable activity for all residents, regardless of age or ability.

This kind of walking seems to be such a fundamental right that in many of the rural communities and small towns where we work, we are often surprised by the difficult and challenging conditions pedestrians must confront on a daily basis. Neighborhoods consistently lack sidewalks and safe pedestrian crossings, and residents must routinely navigate their way across high-speed arterials and highways to access daily services. With high rates of poverty and low rates of automobile ownership, destinational walking is not an amenity but rather a necessity that brings very real dangers with it. In 2012 for example, over 4,700 pedestrians were killed in traffic crashes and another 76,000 were injured – that’s 1 pedestrian death every 2 hours, and an injury every 7 minutes. These dangers adversely affect our most vulnerable populations, with pedestrians over 65 and under 15 accounting for over a quarter of all pedestrian fatalities. [i]

Over the past decade we’ve sought to confront these challenges in over two dozen community-driven plans for small towns and rural communities that seek to improve connectivity and provide safe routes for pedestrians and bicyclists. Most have been completed through our ongoing collaboration with the Sacramento nonprofit Local Government Commission and walkability guru Dan Burden. It’s through these projects that we’ve experienced firsthand the impact that poor walking infrastructure has on destinational walkers. It’s one thing to read a statistic, and yet another to see a mother and her 3 young children dart across a highway to reach the grocery store, or to witness an elderly man struggle to walk along the unpaved shoulder of a rural road.

We incorporate a multi-day charrette process into most of our pedestrian plans, engaging with local community members and stakeholders – our clients – to identify key issues and strategize on the best way to introduce better pedestrian infrastructure. This typically involves getting out in the field with community members to experience walking and biking conditions first hand through a “walking audit.” It’s a gentle reminder of the sometimes hostile conditions pedestrians face, one that can be far different from the same trip in the comfort of an automobile.

Key to our mission to make destinational walking easier, we think carefully about the most important daily destinations and how they can be incorporated into a wider network of safe routes. Can children in a neighborhood safely reach school from their home on foot, or travel to a park or community center afterwards? We weigh a variety of options through a series of feedback loops with participants before drafting our final recommendations into a cohesive plan.

Our work has taken us to places like Dos Palos, a community of about 5,000 residents in rural Merced County, California, and its sister communities of South Dos Palos and Midway. Straddling State Highway 33, the three communities have very little pedestrian infrastructure and almost no connectivity between them, with few alternatives for rural residents to reach essential services in town. We’ve also worked in the South Kern County communities of Arvin, Lamont, and Weedpatch along State Highway 184, which we’ve previously written about here. In an area heavily populated by rural farmworkers and their families, the highway is an important artery for traveling, doing business, and reaching schools and health care, albeit with little or no pedestrian infrastructure whatsoever.

There’s typically an urgency to this kind of work, with community stakeholders interested in improvements that can be implemented quickly and with little money. The results are often essential and utilitarian, with one common primary ingredient – paint. Improvements might include new bike lanes, striped shoulders, or mid-block, high-visibility crosswalks.

As urban designers, we think a lot about the little things that can make destinational walking easier and more interesting, too – things like street trees that create comfortable shade, a low wall or fence helping to define a path, or pedestrian-scaled lights that create a sense of safety after dark. In Dos Palos, we designed a canal-side greenway that would provide an alternate route for bikes and peds, connecting downtown with its outlying neighborhoods. In South Kern, we sought to transform 2 blocks of rural retail into a pedestrian-oriented walking district defined by wide sidewalks and a tree-lined median. Even with modest budgets, there are ways to maintain and communicate the culture and history of a place, injecting some beauty into the built environment and improving quality of life.

Interested in furthering this kind of work in your community? Many of these projects have been funded through local grant programs in support of environmental justice and community-based planning initiatives, as well as public health departments and programs that see a link between destinational walking and improved community health. And see what you can do to conduct a personal “walking audit” of your own, to experience an eye-opening, (and hopefully inspiring!) daily trip from the perspective of a pedestrian or bicyclist.


[i] Department of Transportation (US), National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA). Traffic Safety Facts 2012: Pedestrians. Washington (DC): NHTSA; 2014 [cited 2014 Sept 25]. Available from URL:  http://www-nrd.nhtsa.dot.gov/Pubs/811888.pdf