In this post of the Tharaggee series, we’ll be exploring a broad idea which I believe should be a core principle or value of modern urban planning. That idea is walkability. We’ll look at what it is and how it can be applied in the Maldives. In future posts, I’ll talk about ways to improve specific factors which contribute to walkability.
What is walkability?
As I have done in the past, I’ll define this word by breaking it down:
- Walk means “walk”
- Ability means “the power, means, or skill to do something”
In an urban planning context, walkability is the measure of how easy it is walk within a given area. A Dhivehi word for this might be something like ހިނގޭމިން which literally means “can-walk-measure”.
Why should walkability be at the core of urban planning?
For one thing, walking was the primary mode of transportation for pretty much all of human history (that is, around 350,000 years for modern humans). We were walking when we started constructing the first cities around 9,500 yeas ago, and since then we have built up a wealth of experience planning cities for walking. It would be foolish to let go of all that experience because of a mere 100 or so years of motor vehicles.
Planning for walkability also has tremendous benefits for the inhabitants of a city, from health to social cohesion, to an overall improved quality of life. Let’s look at some of these in more detail:
When an area is walkable, people are more likely to walk to wherever they need to go simply because it’s the easiest and most convenient option. In fact, according to this study, a 5% increase in the walkability of an area correlates with a 32% increase in the time spent in physically active travel. We all know that physical activity is a good thing for health, which is why it’s no surprise that the same study found that walkability also correlates with a lower BMI for the population overall. Put simply, walkable cities are healthy cities. Walkability is good.
Another health-related benefit is cleaner air. If more people are walking, that means fewer people are driving. And since most of our motor vehicles still rely on ancient, outdated, air-polluting, fossil-fuel-burning, I-can’t-believe-this-is-still-a-thing-in-the-21st-century technology, more people walking means better air quality for everyone. Better air quality means fewer breathing problems, fewer skin problems, and fewer visits to the doctor to deal with these problems.
Beijing, a city known for its terrible air quality (in a country known for its terrible air quality), showed us in 2016 what happens when you reduce the number of cars on the streets:
Of course, this is an extreme example and it’s not directly linked to walkability, but it does give show us a potential outcome of increased walkablity. Basically, walkable cities are breathable cities. Walkability is good.
This benefit is sometimes overlooked but it makes a really strong case for why we need walkable cities. For one thing, the relationship between physical health and mental health is well established. Since people get more exercise in walkable areas, it is reasonable to assume that their mental health is better overall than people in unwalkable areas.
A more concrete example of improved mental health relates once more to vehicle usage. Basically, the more time you spend in a vehicle the more stressed you are. And as a general principle of traffic, the more vehicles there are, the more time you’re going to spend in one.
But it’s not only stress. From what I have observed, people tend to get really angry really quickly while they are driving. Maldivians seem to be especially good at this. It would be hilarious if it weren’t so sad. This level of anger just doesn’t happen if you’re walking, as portrayed by this comic by The Oatmeal:
Basically, walkable cities are mentally stable cities. Walkability is good.
The social impacts of walkability are harder to measure, but they are definitely noticeable.
Firstly, consider the general benefit of being more familiar with the people your locality, and the increased likelihood of serendipitous encounters with friends that occurs as a result of walking more. We are a social species, and we need this kind of interaction on some level to be able to function properly. This can also result in a greater sense of safety and security (God knows we need this in Malé). This would also have a positive impact on our mental health.
Next, think about the two most vulnerable groups in any given population: young children and the elderly. Cities which are not walkable have failed to meet the needs of these two groups whose primary mode of transportation is walking. To treat these two groups as though their needs are not important, no matter how unintentional, is insulting.
I’ll use some personal anecdotes to make my point here. I have several young cousins below the age of ten. Their experiences of life outside their homes is severely restricted because of how unwalkable Malé is in its current state. I also have a grandmother who would ideally be spending a lot more time outside than she does currently. But she can’t because Malé is not built for people like her.
Compare this to the lives of children and the elderly in Raajjethere. On multiple occasions, I have seen children using their entire island as one big playground, and older people can go about their business without having to worry about being run over by a car. No doubt, many readers would have seen this for themselves in their travels. Unfortunately, due to warped perceptions of what development means, the poison that is Malé style tharaggee is cancerously oozing its way into other islands.
The main point of all this is that walkable cities are inclusive cities. Walkability is good.
This benefit is more for the government than it is for individuals. Basically, it costs the government less if more people are walking. For one thing, pedestrians do not need the road infrastructure that motor vehicles require. Then there’s the burden on the healthcare system, which you know from the previous points is not as great when more people walk. Then there’s the fact that valuable land can be put to good use instead of becoming a car park. Finally, if a city is walkable, it’s easier for tourists to get around, and in a country that is heavily dependent on tourism, that can only be a good thing. Basically, walkable cities are rich cities. Walkability is good.
Walkability in the Maldives
Now that I have hopefully convinced you that walkability is the way to go, we can look at ways to implement it in the Maldives. The factors that affect walkability can be divided into “direct” and “indirect” factors. We’ll now look at how these factors come into play in the Maldives, and Malé in particular.
Direct factors are those which actually have a physical effect on a person’s ability to walk from one place to another. These include things like the presence of roads, the physical properties of the roads (length, width, construction materials etc.), the layout of the roads, concentration of intersections, and the separation of foot and motor traffic.
Maldives actually does quite well with most of these factors. Most islands have a grid layout with plenty of connections between streets. Grid layouts are not inherently walkable (there are so many other factors at play), but I would say they are perfect for small flat areas like the islands of the Maldives. Grids are also widely used around the world; Manhattan and Barcelona being two famous examples.
The width of roads in the Maldives are also conducive to walkability. Most Malé people would probably disagree with that, but their complaint is actually about the width of pavements; not the roads themselves. And since walkability is about reducing vehicle usage, it is very easy to fix the problem of narrow pavements. I don’t care if that means taking space away from cars and motorbikes.
Two things that could be improved with Maldivian roads are construction materials (most roads in the country are not paved), and separation of foot traffic and vehicles. This relates back to the issue of pavements again. From what I have seen, the islands which are starting to pave their streets are doing it in the Malé style, with pedestrians being pushes to the side. They also use tar which just ends up making the place really hot, whereas I think it would be better to use the concrete bricks used in Malé.
Indirect factors which affect walkability are those that have more of a psychological effect on people, even though they don’t physically stop people from walking. Put simply, these factors make the walking experience more (or less) enjoyable. They include things like the presence of street trees, the height of the surrounding buildings, the attractiveness of the surrounding architecture, and the openness of buildings/spaces adjacent to the street. Unfortunately, Maldives fails with so many of these things.
Let’s start with trees. It seems to me that “street tree” is not even a concept in the country. Yes, there are some isolated spots which have street trees, but it’s definitely not a common thing. In most parts of the country, the streets are devoid of greenery, making the walking experience hot, sticky, and generally unpleasant. Some islands have put in some effort towards making trees a part of the streetscape, but to be brutally honest the effort is typically piss-poor, leaving so much to be desired.
Fortunately, Maldives is heading in the right direction when it comes to planning for trees. But progress is painfully slow, as evidenced by this tweet from the minister of housing and infrastructure:
It seems that our good old friend Muizzu is under the impression that having a large number of trees can make up for the fact that you’re putting them IN THE MIDDLE OF THE SIDEWALK. Also note that once again, sidewalks are planned to be really narrow. I understand that this will be near an industrial area and all, but still, the people deserve better.
Now let’s talk about buildings. The buildings which line a street go a long way to making that street more pleasant to walk along. They can also have the opposite effect – making the street dull, unpleasant, and even scary. I mentioned three aspects buildings that contribute to walkability (though there are probably more): height, appearance, and openness.
Height would be more accurately described as the ratio of the height of buildings to the width of the street. If the buildings are too tall, the street becomes claustrophobic, if the buildings aren’t tall enough, you start to lose your sense of place. Contrary to what most people in Malé might say, I actually think that the city does quite well in this regard. Some parts of the city might have buildings which are too tall, but the claustrophobia caused by these pales in comparison to that caused by all the vehicles.
It goes without saying that the building height to street width ratio in regional Maldives is also good. It kind of has to be since it’s difficult finding buildings taller than two storeys outside of Malé.
When it comes to architecture and openness, Maldives fails once again. Looking at Malé for example, you can tell immediately that the place was not designed with aesthetics in mind. And it becomes glaringly obvious when you compare Malé architecture to some European capitals.
I’m not saying that Maldives should start copying European architecture, but it wouldn’t hurt to go with a style that isn’t so “poverty-pastel”. In fact, Malé reminds me of this scene from the Simpsons episode where they go to Brazil (from 1:38-1:55):
The final building aspect which impacts walkability is openness. By this, I’m referring to how easily you can see into the buildings adjacent to streets. If the buildings are essentially walls (meaning they are closed off to the outside), it can be dehumanising and it makes the street unpleasant to walk in. If the buildings are open (like the Paris and Oslo streets above) the street becomes inviting and exciting. Openness doesn’t only apply to commercial areas either. Openness in residential areas can make neighbourhood streets much nicer too. I’m not saying that you have to be able to see into people’s houses, but just having visual access to people’s yards, or even just seeing windows can make a huge difference. But in Maldives…let’s just say that Donald Trump might like the way they build walls.
By now you should know what walkability is, why we should aim to achieve it, and the factors which contribute to it. Maldives does well with some of the factors – direct factors in particular – but not so well with others.
Armed with this knowledge about walkability, I challenge you to conduct a walkability audit of your own island/city/wherever (and I mean Maldivians and non-Maldivians). Walk through the streets (don’t drive – that just defeats the purpose) and pay close attention to the experience. Think about how easy it is to physically get from one place to another, but also think about whether or not you are enjoying the experience. Is it easy to walk? Why or why not? Are the roads too wide? Are there too many cars? Are the buildings ugly? Do you feel unsafe? Is it too hot? Finally, think about what can be done to make the place more walkable, because there’s no point in looking for problems if we’re not going to fix them (I’ll be suggesting some ideas in future posts).
I’ll leave you with this video about attractive cities – it pretty much summarises everything I’ve talked about:
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